Diploma fraud in Ukraine

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If you want to get a college degree in Ukraine, you better grease the right palms. Brigid McCarthy reports that bribes are an effective way to get a Ukrainian diploma.

MARCO WERMAN: Things aren't always what they appear in another former Soviet Republic, Ukraine. A college degree there would seem to be a reward for academic accomplishment. Actually, it's often a reward for paying your bribes. Colleges and universities in Ukraine are notorious for selling diplomas. There are not firm statistics on corruption and higher education, but it's one of the shadiest areas of life in the Ukraine as Brigid McCarthy reports from Kiev.

BRIGID MCCARTHY: Olga Zelinska graduated from Ukraine's Chernivtski University in 2008. She still gets angry when she remembers a few of her professors there. She says one professor charged a set fee per exam. If you paid, you passed.

OLGA ZELINSKA: And all my class group mates who entered before me, they all would pay.

MCCARTHY: After all, it was easier than sitting through the lectures and studying. And, besides, he only charged a few dollars. Zelinska recalls showing up for the first exam.

ZELINSKA: He knew that I studied good, that I attended his classes and he's like, will you try to pass or will you pay? And then one of my teachers came in and I was so ashamed just to hand him money and I was like okay, I'll try to pass.

MCCARTHY: The professor tested her on material he hadn't covered in the class and then flunked her. Zelinska says she actually felt sorry for this professor. He had diabetes, his wife was very sick and his academic salary wasn't enough to cover his medical bills. Teachers in Ukraine get paid just a few hundred dollars a month. Some say they could earn more cleaning houses or sweeping the streets. Most professors have to find second or third jobs just to make ends meet, or get money from students.

ZELINSKA: Demanding money from a student is not the only way of corruption.

MCCARTHY: Zelinska says she had an even more disturbing experience trying to get into college. College applicants in Ukraine have to pass an entrance exam. They typically prepare for it by hiring a private tutor, usually a faculty member from the University they're hoping to attend. The same tutors actually give the exam. Zelinska planned to pursue a foreign languages degree. She had just spent a year as an exchange student in Kansas and her English was excellent so she didn't bother to hire a tutor.

ZELINSKA: So they are like, this is girl we don't know. She didn't pay. And I was trying to go to foreign languages faculty in my university and I didn't manage. They said no, your English is not good enough to enter our faculty.

GEORGIY KASIANOV: That's the perfect example of corruption, of course.

MCCARTHY: Georgiy Kasianov is a History professor and Director of Education Policy at the International Renaissance Foundation. He helped develop a standardized written entrance exam to replace the notoriously corrupt system of oral exams. The tests were introduced in 2006.

KASIANOV: Unfortunately universities and top officials very quickly found different ways of bypassing this.

MCCARTHY: By bringing back the oral exams or admitting students with low test scores in exchange for bribes. Yanis Korchynskyy is a freshman at Kyiv Mohyla Academy, one of Ukraine's most elite universities. He and a group of friends were talking one night about how excited they were when they found out they'd gotten in to Mohyla. Then one of the guys confessed that he was there only because his parents knew someone at the admissions department.

YANIS KORCHYNSKYY: They know him, but they also paid him. But I was shocked. I thought it is the honest and the brightest university. But I was mistaken.

MCCARTHY: Georgiy Kasianov of the International Renaissance Foundation says this form of corruption is driven as much by cultural traditions as economics. He explains it as a pre-industrial mind set where individuals succeed through personal relationship, doing favors and demanding favors, rather through effort and achievement.

KASIANOV: And in this case when we speak about corruption, it's not just the bribery but is a very extensive system of informal relationships.

MCCARTHY: Kasianov says another aspect of this is a respect for formal symbols, like diplomas, but not necessarily for education. This has produced a thriving black market where not just grades and college admissions can be bought, but dissertations and degrees as well.

KASIANOV: Now we have so-called "diploma scandals" in the government and we know that some top officials do not have even higher education.

MCCARTHY: And some may have fake diplomas. Many suspect that includes President Victor Yanukovich. The former mechanic says he earned both a law degree and a Ph.D. in economics while he was a governor. He hasn't said where he went to school, and reporters haven't been able to verify where or how he got these degrees. Maybe Yanukovich doesn't need a Ph.D. to be a good President, but Georgiy Kasianov of the International Renaissance Foundation says that an educational system where people can get ahead through bribes and connections isn't just unfair, it can be harmful.

KASIANOV: So I would not come to Ukrainian lawyer. And I would not come to Ukrainian doctor. Until now you can address this problem to teachers also.

MCCARTHY: Kasianov says there's no simple way to eliminate bribery and corruption because too many Ukrainians at all levels of society believe this is just the way things get done. But, he says, an important first step is to talk about it openly and bring it out of the shadows for everyone to see. For The World, I'm Brigid McCarthy in Kiev, Ukraine.