CZECH REPUBLIC: Degree audit follows corruption claims

Czech Minister of Education Miroslava Kopicova has ordered a national
audit of all university degrees awarded since 2000 after allegations of widespread corruption at a provincial university.

The audit will cover 315,000 students who graduated in the past nine years. It follows revelations that a number of students had been awarded law degrees by the University of West Bohemia in Pilsen after only a few months study. Copies of law degree dissertations had also disappeared from the university's library.

Described by the Czech media as "the biggest scandal ever to have shaken the Czech education system", the audit's terms of reference are to find if the system of 'fast-track' degrees apparently used in Pilsen is widespread throughout the higher education sector.

There are also fears the missing dissertations could indicate plagiarism was a factor in the scandal. Tomas Bouska, a spokesman for the Czech Education Ministry, told Radio Prague the ministry planned to check the length of each student's study against the degrees awarded, starting with law faculties.

"When we check the duration of the study period of all the alumni in the country, we might then find other students whose studies were too short and yet they gained their degrees," Bouska said.

Although the suspected corruption is unlikely to be widespread, observers have welcomed the audit. Petr Mateju, a former Deputy Education Minister, said a widespread review of Czech higher education was long overdue.

"This is a case of a few people who really tried to misuse the system. On the other hand, if the system can be misused so easily, if the senate of the Pilsen university despite having been informed didn't do anything against these people and simply watched what was going on there for some two or three years, I think it shows something is wrong about our system of university administration and its control mechanisms, and we have to think of how to improve it."

The scandal could also spark a wave of litigation: the Czech Bar Association believes that if any graduates who fraudulently obtained degrees subsequently went on to work in the legal system, the results of any cases in which they were involved could be called into question.

In his comment, Petr Mateju accuses academic senate of Pilsen University. This is just Mr. Mateju's own crusade against academic autonomy and an attempt to justify the White Paper by calling for external agents to take over university management.

Two points are worth mentioning:

First, Mr. Mateju admitted the he personally knew about wrongdoings at Pilsen two years ago. This admission is included in a TV interview whose transcript appears at the official pages of the Ministry of Education His words in Czech are translated as: "I recall about students of Law from Prague telling me already a year, two ago, that what had been happening in Pilsen is unbelievable. We all knew it."

Mr. Mateju was a Deputy of Minister of Education during the first term of Minister Kopicova two years ago, then head of the White Paper team at the ministry, yet he did not initiate any action over the wrongdoings. The scandal had to be revealed by a Pilsen student only a few weeks ago - a clear sign that autonomous processes from within the academic comunity, students included, are beneficial for the university environment.

The University Law does not assume any supervisory role of academic Senates, so the accusation of Mr. Mateju towards the Senate is clearly without any grounds. Fake Pilsen diplomas were signed by the Pilsen University Rector, who had to check that all the administrative and study requirements were fulfilled. The irony is that one of Pilsen Vice-Rectors, Prof. Frantisek Jezek, has been the author of the "management" chapter in Petr Mateju's White Paper, calling for radical erosion of academic freedom at universities in the Czech Republic.

In summary, Mr. Mateju has no right to criticise what happened in Pilsen. He failed to take steps to end the dubious practices. Also the fact that in the matters of management changes he trusts member of Pilsen university management co-responsible for gross neglect of university management towards what had been happening at one of its faculties, speaks for itself.

Jiri Zlatuska Vice-Chairman of the Council of Higher Education of the Czech Republic,
former Rector of Masaryk University.

Jiri Zlatuska