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Academic corruption exists from undergraduate to the doctoral level education in colleges and universities. While the former receives the lion’s share of attention, the latter is inadequately monitored. This is somewhat surprising, since doctoral education is regarded as the gold standard of academic achievement and should 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 decade-long reforms in the higher education sector. At present, the country awards several thousand doctoral degrees a year. The quality of these doctorates and dissertations is frequently questioned. Doctoral degrees have become especially popular among politicians, state bureaucrats, civil servants and individuals seeking employment in academia. Some people with unlimited monetary or administrative influence seek easier ways to acquire their doctorate. Private businesses reacted swiftly. An entire market emerged in Ukraine that offers ghost-written dissertations for a price. This market consists not only of individuals, but somewhat remarkably, also officially-registered firms. In 2009, there were 16 such firms; in 2016, the number nearly tripled with 46 registered enterprises that sell completed dissertations. Their clients lack time and knowledge, but certainly not money. Ukraine is a country with high levels of human capital but low average household incomes. This keeps dissertations reasonably priced and affordable to corrupt state bureaucrats and businesspersons. Highly educated academics earn additional income by producing dissertations for sale.

The situation of widespread corruption in doctoral education is simply unacceptable in a country that aspires to join the European Union. Thus far, the pace of reforms in education has been very slow. The Law on Higher Education enacted in August 2014 anticipated only two doctoral degrees—a PhD and advanced doctorate, known as DSc degree. PhD programs only appeared in national universities in 2017. Although the law eliminated Soviet-style CSc degree, in 2018, CSc degrees were still awarded in Ukraine. This is a reflection of the slow implementation of educational reforms. Furthermore, the Bologna Declaration does not anticipate any advanced doctorate so preserving the DSc degree is a clear indication of unwillingness by the Ukrainian government to break completely with its Soviet past.

In 2016 the Ukrainian government issued a special order that outlines major points to be implemented in doctoral education. The length of study has changed—a PhD program should now require four years, replacing the three-year program leading to the CSc degree. At the same time, the length of DSc program was reduced from three to two years. The number of journal articles required for the defense was changed too. Cosmetic, formal and insufficient changes have yet to produce any real improvements in the quality of doctoral education.

Given the slow pace, lack of persistence and inconsistency of educational reforms, Ukraine is unlikely to contribute much to the creation or transfer of knowledge in the near future. On the positive side, Ukraine’s reform of doctoral education presents a good lesson to many other countries. This lesson may extend far beyond current and former communist regimes. A highly bureaucratized and overly centralized system of state control is not sufficient to prevent private firms from selling dissertations and doing so on the open market. Nor does a centralized and highly regulated system prevent individuals from acquiring doctoral degrees without completing a doctoral program. High levels of corruption in the country permit the continued trade in ghost-written dissertations and the government seems unable or disinclined to intervene.

Ukraine’s international reputation is at stake. At present, all doctoral degrees in Ukraine are confirmed by the state. Holders of these degrees, including fake or fraudulent ones, have the right to occupy public offices, receive salary benefits and obtain additional perks—subsidized housing and career promotions—all with the blessing of the state. 

Only truly autonomous universities can develop and host doctoral programs that emphasize excellence in research and scholarship. Autonomous universities are better positioned to control the quality of dissertations and the knowledge and qualifications of those who defend them. In this way, universities will maintain high academic standards. At the same time, less honest universities will suffer damage to their reputation by allowing defenses of ghostwritten dissertations by unqualified candidates. The reputation of Ukraine’s advanced degrees should be protected by moving more authority from the state to the university. Since state-controlled mechanisms for quality don’t work—and the existence of well-developed market for ghostwritten dissertation is the best evidence of that—autonomous universities that strive for a reputation for excellence are more likely to safeguard the academy and doctoral degrees from fraud.


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 most recently of, Let Me Write a Dissertation for You: The micro-level cost-benefit approach to doctoral degree fraud. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 2019. 

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