Germany's Ph.D. Scandal: Were Degrees Bought?

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Ingo Wagner / DPA / Corbis

German university graduates celebrate passing their exams by throwing their caps in the air.

Getting a Ph.D. is the pinnacle of academic achievement, but appears that some aspiring students in Germany may have bribed their way to the top. On Aug. 22, German prosecutors revealed that they are investigating around 100 academics at some of the country's top universities on the suspicion that they granted doctorates to dozens of unqualified students after taking bribes from a consultancy firm. The scandal has shaken Germany's higher education system, revered abroad as one of the best in Europe.

The investigation follows a raid on an academic consultancy called the Institute for Scientific Counselling in the western town of Bergisch Gladbach in March 2008. At the time, the authorities uncovered a mine of information pointing to illegal activity and confiscated thousands of files, including contracts between the firm and lecturers, and evidence of bank transfers. Prosecutors in the city of Cologne say the institute helped doctoral candidates find a supervisor and paid lecturers to take on Ph.D. students. "Some Ph.D. students paid up to $30,000 to get their doctor titles," Günther Feld, a senior prosecutor in Cologne tells TIME. "Many people had received mediocre results in exams and they weren't eligible to do a Ph.D. in the first place."

Under German criminal law, it is illegal for public servants — a group that includes university lecturers — to take money for granting advantages to one person over another. Prosecutors wouldn't comment on the details of the case, but did say they are focusing their investigation on the teachers who took the bribes, rather than the students.

Some people involved in the Ph.D. scam have already been given jail time. One former director of the Bergisch Gladbach consultancy was convicted on bribery charges in July 2008 and sentenced to three and a half years in prison. He was found guilty of illegally helping more than 60 students get their doctor titles. A law professor at the University of Hanover who received money from the consultancy for accepting doctoral candidates was given a three-year jail sentence. The university authorities in Hanover have since tightened the rules on accepting Ph.D. students and have cracked down hard on those who illegally obtained their doctorates.

"We recently stripped nine Ph.D. holders of their titles," Henning Radtke, Dean of the Law Faculty at the University of Hanover tells TIME. Those students are now appealing the decision. "This scandal is a disaster for Germany's education system," he says. "It's completely unacceptable that some teachers have accepted bribes to take on often unqualified students to do a Ph.D."

According to some experts, there is a rampant illegal trade in doctor titles in Germany, preying on people's desire to gain the social kudos that comes with getting a Ph.D. "The investigation in Cologne is just the tip of the iceberg," says Manuel René Theisen, professor of business administration at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich. "Around a dozen academic consultancies have been on the market for years offering Ph.D.s for money." Theisen says he estimates that of the 25,000 doctorates awarded each year in Germany, up to 1,000 are obtained through illicit means. "The consultancies advertise in trade magazines and they pretend to offer coaching for would-be Ph.D. students, but it's a fairy tale," he says. "People know when they read the adverts they can get their Ph.D. for money and not for their [academic] work." Theisen says these Ph.D. scams are big business, with the rewards more than just an impressive diploma to hang on the wall: "People who buy their Ph.D. titles then go on to demand more money from their employers in their future careers."

Prosecutors in Cologne are still investigating three of the former directors of the Bergisch Gladbach academic consultancy, which has now shut down. The consultancy had links with teachers across Germany and the authorities are currently probing lecturers working in several university faculties, ranging from law and medicine to economics and engineering. According to reports in the German media, universities in Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Leipzig have been drawn into the bribery scandal, but prosecutors refused to confirm the names.

If convicted of accepting bribes, lecturers could face a sentence of up to five years in prison or a hefty fine. Anyone found guilty of receiving a fake Ph.D. title could also be imprisoned on bribery charges. But prosecutors say some of the students weren't aware that the fees they paid to the consultancy were being used to bribe teachers. It's up to the individual universities to decide whether to strip the Ph.D. holders of their titles.

The bribery scandal is highly damaging to the reputation of Germany's academic institutions. It's a blow too for those people who are proud of the titles that they have achieved through hard work and determination. Doctorates are important status symbols in Germany, where dinner party guests talk about their Ph.D.s as readily as they do their jobs. But with the news that some people have been buying their prized titles, that source of pride has lost some of its shine.