Romania: Diploma Factory

diploma factoryBUCHAREST | When Spiru Haret University, Romania’s largest private higher education institute, requested the certification of an unprecedented number of diplomas, it set off alarm bells in the ministry of education.

“This year, they asked for 56,000 diplomas,” explained the Romanian minister of education, Ecaterina Andronescu, in a statement to the national media on 11 July. “This figure scared me.”

In response, the minister announced a series of measures to force the university to limit its activities and accept more governmental oversight.

One third of Romania’s student body – more than 100,000 students – is pursuing an undergraduate or Master’s degree at Spiru Haret, more than half of them working on part-time and distance learning programs. Created in 1991, Spiru Haret got its official accreditation in 2002. Since then, the university has opened centers in every county of Romania.

The university has become extremely popular in recent years: the number of students enrolled this year is three times higher than the total number of graduates produced by the institution since its inception. In 2007, Spiru Haret registered a profit of 30 million euros, making it one of the most lucrative businesses nationwide. Students pay on average 500 euros per year, and there is usually no limit on the number of admitted students.

The ministry of education sees a very different picture. It has been entangled in a legal battle with Spiru Haret for over a year. The authorities claim that many of the new departments opened by the university since 2002 – most of them offering part-time and distance learning courses – have not been checked out or approved by the ministry and are therefore operating illegally. On the other hand, Spiru Haret argues that the university’s accreditation in 2002 should transfer to all types of courses created since, in light of the autonomy granted to universities under the law to design their own study programs.

Spiru Haret’s president Aurelian Bondrea declared on 21 July that, “all the diplomas issued by our university are legal because the students have completed courses in specializations which are authorized and accredited.” Bondrea added vehemently that, “the ministry of education does not have any legal capacity to judge the legality of Spiru Haret diplomas.”

Confusion among Students

In the meantime, degrees for the unaccredited part-time and distance learning courses will not be recognized until students with such qualifications pass new examinations organized by the state. Many graduates of Spiru Haret were recently turned away from an exam required to apply for teaching positions in state schools. And the ministry has called on the university to immediately stop enrolling students in its unaccredited courses.

“I am not sure what to believe any more,” said Steluta Damian, a second-year sociology student at a Spiru Haret center in Deva. “I will transfer to a full-time course in the fall, just in case. Many of my colleagues are planning to do the same.”

The Deva center has been included in a list drawn up by the government of Spiru Haret departments that are supposedly operating illegally. Damian hopes to transfer to one of the full-time courses in another city that are recognized by the government because they existed at the time of the university’s accreditation in 2002.

Damian showed an e-mail sent out to Spiru Haret students on 28 July by the director of the university: “Justice is on your side and on the side of Spiru Haret,” Aurelian Bondrea wrote. “Your degrees are perfectly valid and they cannot be annulled.”

“I don’t really trust this,” Damian said. “Even if I transfer to full-time, I am still afraid that my degree won’t be any good, but that’s my best bet. I can’t afford to lose all the money and time I invested in this degree already.” Damian has spent over 1,000 euros on fees and study materials, to date.

Beyond the Legal Dispute

“I chose to enroll in a degree because of the pressure around me,” said Maria Ganea, a 52 year-old primary school teacher who is enrolled in the faculty of psychology at Spiru Haret’s satellite campus in Brasov. “All my younger colleagues had such degrees from private universities and I was afraid a time would come when I could lose my job for not having this degree.”

“I was afraid to go through the exams at state universities,” she added, “…because it has been 30 years since I completed high-school. I know my job, but I didn’t know whether I could compete for admission with people with a fresher education.”

One of the main selling points for the 28 state-authorized private universities in Romania is admission without exams, on the basis of baccalaureate grades alone. In state universities, the odds of obtaining a spot in one of the most popular faculties are at least ten to one.

Additionally, private universities are a viable alternative for many middle-aged students, because of their numerous part-time and distance learning programs. With the economy undergoing massive restructuring over the past two decades, many engineers, teachers, and other professionals suddenly found their diplomas useless on the new job market, and felt compelled to seek more marketable qualifications.

But many think that private universities merely hand out diplomas, instead of giving an education, in exchange for the fees.

“They give the same exams year after year, and the answers to all the questions are circulated on the student forum before the exams,” said Emilia Ciocoiu, a 49-year old social worker also studying psychology at Spiru Haret in Brasov. “I was surprised to discover that I was scoring much better when I just learned those answers by heart than when I was genuinely trying to understand the course material.”

“I was hoping to get something out of the courses,” Ciocoiu said. “But we go there once a week for 2-3 hours of class, and most of the time, the professors spend all the time giving us the answers to the multiple choice questions that will appear in the exam.” All of Spiru Haret’s end-of-term exams are made up only of multiple choice questions, in both full-time and part-time programs.

“The courses and exams are a joke,” said Ganea. “I have seen cases of secretaries filling in the multiple choice questions for students who are absent.”

Some employers are reluctant to hire Spiru Haret graduates, as made clear by a recent newspaper advertisement posted by the private firm SC 94 CSA in Turda county: “We are hiring an assistant salesperson with a university degree, not from Spiru Haret.”

Others, however, do not discriminate between Spiru Haret and other degrees. According to Stefan Jumara, the manager of the construction company Ilic-Ica SRL in Brasov county, “To tell you the truth, if I hire an engineer, I would like him to have a degree from the state, but given before 1989. If I hire younger people for other types of positions, it doesn’t make a difference whether it is state or private. The quality of education has gone down lately everywhere.”




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