Where corruption among university leaders is rife

On 26 August 2016, Volodymyr Kharchenko, the acting rector of one of Ukraine’s flagship technical universities, the National Aviation University, was arrested in his office for taking a bribe of €170,000, which is roughly equivalent to US$200,000. In a country where the average salary is the equivalent of a meagre US$100 a month, this sum sounds astronomical.

Rector Kharchenko and his lawyer were both arrested by a joint team of the State Security Service, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau and the Prosecutor’s Office as they were allegedly receiving the first instalment of the bribe: €100,000.

During the search of Kharchenko’s apartment, detectives seized US$50,000, €70,000, £3,000, the equivalent of around US$60,000 in local currency, 10 banking cards and nine gold bars of unreported weight. The rector was taken to hospital with high blood pressure, while his lawyer, Oleh Drozdovych, denies any allegations.

The case was reported to Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, who appears to have failed to deliver on his promise to curb endemic corruption.

The struggle for the right to lead the university has been going on for years, with numerous dismissals and reinstatements, along with allegations of corruption, misappropriation of funds, misuse of university property, inflated salaries and land speculation. In this particular incident, the bribe was allegedly extorted from a professor who was seeking to be rehired at the institution.

The Ministry of Education and Science was prompt in firing Kharchenko, claiming that they actually dismissed him on 23 August, a few days prior to the arrest. So says the Director of the Department of Higher Education, Oleh Sharov.

The arrest took place not long before the rector’s elections were expected to be held at the university.

Ukraine does not have true university autonomy and rectors’ elections are normally staged spectacles.

Final charges have not been brought yet, but if convicted, Kharchenko faces from eight to 12 years in prison, confiscation of all his property and a ban on occupying any managerial or leadership positions for three years after the prison term is served. At this point, the status of the case remains unclear.

No surprise

Was the country’s academic community shaken by this news? Not in the least. The question that everyone was struggling with was why US$200,000?

In Kiev, a professor would make no more than US$10,000 a year in salary and benefits. It would take them almost 20 years to recover the cost of the bribe. Any way you look at it, this bribe would not be a good investment. Pure cost-benefit analysis, with no moral or ethical considerations, was occupying the minds of academics. Maybe there were other, illicit benefits?

But this is not the only question we should ask. What is even more important is that this is not the first incident where a university rector has been arrested in connection with a bribe and it will most certainly not be the last one.

More corruption cases

Not long ago, on 1 March 2016, Lidiya Antoshkina, rector of Berdyansk University of Management and Business, was arrested by detectives of the State Security Service, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau and the Prosecutor’s Office.

Rector Antoshkina reportedly offered a bribe of US$10,000 to one of the deputies of the Minister of Education and Science, Andriy Gevko, in exchange for a positive decision on the university’s state accreditation. Deputy-Minister Gevko refused to accept the bribe.

Later, Rector Antoshkina offered the bribe again with the promise of adding some more money in the future.

To much surprise, as of today, Professor Antoshkina continues to serve as the rector of Berdyansk University of Management and Business; surprise for those who are not familiar with Ukraine, that is. Images of the rector being arrested and US dollars being counted on her desk by the State Security Service are still available in the media.

About a year prior to the arrest in Berdyansk, on 17 March 2015, the acting rector of Lviv State Financial Academy, Petro Buryak, was arrested for accepting a bribe of US$2,000 from a prospective hire.

Bail was set at around US$4,000. During a search of the rector’s office, police discovered US$14,000. The search warrant of his apartment brought in a much more impressive catch: US$22,000, €57,000, £1,500, around US$2,000 in local currency and five kilograms of gold jewellery hidden under the bathtub.

Nevertheless, the very next day after the arrest, while Buryak remained in custody, his colleagues officially elected him rector. The court handed out the 'guilty' verdict and set a fine of only around US$1,000 as a punishment. This is about half of what the rector took as his bribe.

On 1 December 2014, Vitaliy Moskalenko, the rector of Ukraine’s top medical school, Bogomolets National Medical University, was placed under house arrest.

Moskalenko allegedly issued unjustified salary bonuses to himself, totalling a whopping half a million dollars. In February 2014, Moskalenko was removed from office during the Euromaidan student protests for his part in the alleged rampant corruption that riddled the institution.

Since October 2015, the court has been unable to hold hearings of the case due to illness and hospitalisation of the ex-rector.

There is yet another champion, whose corruption odyssey has lasted even longer. On 27 July 2013, police detectives arrested the rector of the National State Tax Service University, Petro Melnyk.

Rector Melnyk, who previously served as a Member of Parliament, was arrested in his office for receiving two bribes, of US$5,000 and US$10,000, in exchange for admitting two applicants to the university. Additional charges of embezzlement, fraud, gross waste and abuse of authority followed.

No media piece can describe all the nuances of Melnyk’s adventures, for this would require a book. There were escapes from house arrest, slipping off the electronic monitoring bracelet, crossing the Ukrainian border under a false identity, and travelling all the way to California.

Ukraine’s law enforcement declared Melnyk an international fugitive through Interpol, but the rector eventually returned to his home country. Despite the seriousness of the crime and his escape, Melnyk was cleared on all counts, is now a free man and, according to some sources, demands reinstatement as rector and all back pay.

The ex-rector has become the icon of corruption in the top echelons of Ukraine’s academic institutions. As Ukrainians say sarcastically: “The country should know its heroes.”

Top down corruption

This is just a selection of cases over the past few years, which does not include cases of bribery committed by deans, chairs of departments and faculty, for otherwise the list would be endless.

The surreal landscape of Ukraine’s higher education features hundreds of national universities, while not having a single university listed in any reputable world university ranking. This is because universities are not ranked by their corruptness.

If there were a ranking that rated world higher education institutions based on how corrupt they are, Ukraine’s universities would doubtless take some of the top spots. When it comes to corruption, Ukrainians say: “A fish rots from the head down.” Given the corruption scandals with university rectors, it is of no surprise that the country’s universities are notoriously corrupt from the top down.

Ararat L Osipian holds a PhD in higher education policy from Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University, USA. Presently, he conducts fieldwork on corruption, hybrid war and the failed state in Ukraine. His research interests include corruption, corporate raiding and comparative education.