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EDITORIAL

Twilight of the titles

YEARS of diligent study and research resulting in a dissertation work that meets academic standards may not be the only way to acquire an academic title. At least, this is the conclusion one could draw from some of the recently publicised cases of politicians acquiring academic titles in dubious circumstances.

YEARS of diligent study and research resulting in a dissertation work that meets academic standards may not be the only way to acquire an academic title. At least, this is the conclusion one could draw from some of the recently publicised cases of politicians acquiring academic titles in dubious circumstances.

There have also been stories about how some people were admitted to academic institutions through the side-entrance instead of running fairly against other applicants, seasoned with allegations of bribes slipped into the right pockets. While those involved typically say that the stories are exaggerations by overly eager reporters bent on tabloid headlines, some of these revelations do have a very firm basis – and an impact much wider than just the school in question having to defend indefensible practices.

These are also stories of decay, which simply cannot be rooted out by simplifying the curriculum or making students study two years longer. Eventually, any school which fails to ensure the transparency of its entry requirements and its title-granting processes contributes to its own decay, which of course will not necessarily reduce the number of students applying for the school but will certainly devalue the diploma and titles that these people receive, regardless of their actual academic performance.

Of course, dubious diplomas, instances of plagiarism and inferior dissertations are not unique to Slovakia. For example, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Germany’s former defence minister was forced to quit his public functions in 2011 after it turned out that he had plagiarised parts of his doctoral thesis. A similar fate befell former Hungarian president Pál Schmitt, who resigned from his post earlier this year and had his doctoral title withdrawn based on suspicions of academic misconduct.

Yet 2012 has so far seen quite a rich harvest of academic scandal in Slovakia. The rector of the Police Academy, a state-run university-level institution, was even arrested on June 29 during a police operation prompted by suspicions of irregularities in the defence of diploma theses, problems with use of European funds, and the alleged forgery of academy professors’ signatures. The police also alleged that the rector was complicit in tampering with entrance examination results.
The media have quizzed Labour Minister Ján Richter over the legitimacy of his law degree, after the Sme daily reported that he had studied for his bachelor’s qualification via an unaccredited course. Richter’s former school, Matej Bel University, of course claimed that everything was in line with the law.

Dušan Čaplovič, the education minister and Richter’s party colleague, swiftly assured the public that it was. But Čaplovič’s department has now moved with unprecedented speed to check a doctorate granted in 2007 to opposition Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) leader Ján Figeľ. Doubts about that qualification emerged following a separate report in Sme suggesting that Figeľ’s position as a European commissioner at the time had contributed to the decision to grant him a PhD.

Vladimír Krčméry, the rector of St Elizabeth’s College of Health Care and Social Work, where Figeľ received his title, said that he believes political games are behind the media reports over the issue. But Alžbeta Mrázová, head of the college’s exam committee, confirmed to Sme that Figeľ’s senior EC position had indeed been a factor: “It was simply taken into account”, she said, as quoted by Sme, adding that Figeľ “created a good name for Slovakia”.

The point here is not to cast doubt on the service Figeľ provided to Slovakia, and of course it is within each school’s authority to grant honorary degrees to distinguished recipients who have rendered valuable service to a community, in a specific field or to society as a whole. But the degree conferred on Figeľ was not an honorary one. And according to Sme Figeľ was supposed to be defending his thesis in the field of social work, an area which his written work did not specifically address.

The truth may emerge in the end, as perhaps Figeľ himself would say. But in the meantime each case of suspicion such as this deals another blow to the credibility of academia as a whole.

Now, as the education system faces yet another reform, perhaps some light should be let into those gloomy rooms where degree-granting decisions are made. Without more transparency, all academic titles risk being tarnished.

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