The rise and rise of ghost-written dissertations

Academic corruption is not limited to undergraduate level education in colleges and universities. Corruption exists in doctoral education as well. While the former receives the lion’s share of all the attention of scholars specialising in educational corruption, the latter remains under-researched. This is surprising, since doctoral education should be regarded as the gold standard of quality and reflect the highest standards of academic integrity.

Ukraine, along with other former Communist regimes, faces the gargantuan task of reforming doctoral education as part of reforms conducted for decades in the higher education sector. At present, the country produces several thousand doctoral degrees a year.

The quality of these doctorates and the dissertations on which these doctoral degrees are awarded is frequently questioned. Doctoral degrees have become especially popular among politicians, state bureaucrats, civil servants and people seeking employment in academia. Some people with unlimited monetary or administrative means have sought easy ways to acquire a doctorate.

Business has reacted swiftly in response to the upsurge in clients seeking doctorates. As a result, an entire market has formed in Ukraine that offers ghost-written dissertations to order. This market consists not only of individuals, but also officially registered firms. If in 2009, there were 16 such firms, by 2016 the number tripled, reaching 46.

Clients lack time and knowledge, but what they certainly do not lack is money. Demand for doctoral degrees creates a supply of doctoral dissertations.

Ukraine is a country with high levels of human capital and low average household income. This mismatch makes dissertations reasonably priced and affordable for corrupt state bureaucrats and businesspeople. Highly educated academics produce ghost-written dissertations for sale.

Education reforms

This situation of widespread corruption in doctoral education has become simply unacceptable for a country that aspires to join the European Union. So Ukraine faces the need to drastically reform its outdated system of awarding doctoral degrees.

Thus far, the pace of education reform has been very slow. The Law on Higher Education that anticipates only two doctoral degrees – the PhD and the advanced doctorate, known as the DSc degree – was enacted in August 2014. PhD programmes only appeared in national universities in 2017.

The law eliminates the Soviet-style CSc degree. Nevertheless, even four years later, in 2018, CSc degrees were still being awarded in Ukraine. This practice indicates the slow implementation of educational reforms.

Furthermore, the Bologna Declaration does not anticipate any advanced doctorate at all so preserving the DSc degree is a clear indication of the unwillingness on the part of the Ukrainian government to break with the Soviet past.

In 2016, the Ukrainian government issued a special order that set out the major changes that needed to be implemented in doctoral education. The length of study associated with a doctoral programme has changed. A PhD programme will now take four years, replacing the three years of study associated with a CSc degree.

At the same time, the length of the DSc programme was reduced from three to only two years. The number of journal articles required for the defence of a doctoral degree was changed too. Other cosmetic, formal and insufficient changes have yet to produce any real improvements in the system of doctoral education.

Given the slow pace and inconsistency of educational reforms, Ukraine is unlikely to contribute greatly to the global creation and transfer of knowledge in the near future. On the positive side, Ukraine’s unsuccessful reform of doctoral education presents a good lesson for many other countries.

This lesson may be extended far beyond the current and former Communist regimes. A highly bureaucratised and overly centralised system of state control does not prevent private firms from selling dissertations and doing so on the open market.

Nor does such a centralised and highly regulated system prevent customers from acquiring doctoral degrees in corrupt ways. High levels of corruption in the country facilitate trade in ghost-written dissertations as long as the personal benefits to clients exceed the costs of acquiring a doctorate.

Damaged reputation

Ukraine’s international reputation is at stake as well. At present, all doctoral degrees in Ukraine are confirmed by the state. Accordingly, holders of these degrees, including fake or fraudulent ones, have the right to occupy public office, receive salary increases and obtain numerous additional benefits, subsidised housing and career promotions – all sanctioned by the state.

The formation of autonomous universities could potentially result in shaping new forms of doctoral education. Only truly autonomous universities can develop and host doctoral programmes that put an emphasis on excellence in research and scholarship.

Ararat Osipian is the Alexander Mirtchev visiting professor and scholar at the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, and fellow of the Institute of International Education, USA. He is the author of, most recently, “Let me write a dissertation for you: The micro-level cost-benefit approach to doctoral degree fraud”, published in Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 2019.