Serbia: What’s it Worth to You?

what's it worth to youBELGRADE, Serbia | In late February, the central Serbian town of Kragujevac became the butt of a popular joke: A bus traveling around the country stops at the Kragujevac station. The driver yells to the passengers, “Be quick! We’ll only be stopping here for 10 minutes, if anyone needs to use the toilet, have a cup of coffee, or get a degree!”

The joke caught on a week after police arrested 17 people, including 11 professors of the University of Kragujevac law school and Assistant Education Minister Emilija Stankovic, on corruption charges.

But the joke soon turned into a whopping 10 kilograms of paperwork on the desk of the presiding judge. In what has become the biggest-ever scandal in Serbian education, the number of suspects has also grown. So far 29 people have been arrested, including 15 professors.

The case is huge not only in its arrest count. Among those charged are one-third of the law school faculty, and its new dean wonders about the school’s future. Further, some of those implicated had a hand in certifying judges, so the case casts a cloud over some of the people sitting on the bench in Serbia.

Sources close to the investigation say the case was uncovered by accident. When police moved to arrest one of the suspects on charges of participating in a car-theft ring, he offered the arresting officer a degree from the Kragujevac law school in exchange for letting him go.

After the officer reported the offer to his superiors, the police launched an investigation that culminated on 20 February, when police officers and representatives from the prosecutor’s office entered the law school and began confiscating certain professors’ papers. Among the first to be arrested was Stankovic.

All suspects were taken into custody on suspicion of taking bribes or helping to arrange the bribing of law school professors who had allowed some students to pass exams without taking tests. According to the investigation, some students obtained their degrees without having taken a single exam.

The case was assigned to the prosecutor in Smederevo, the residence of the first arrested person, but the jail there was not large enough to hold all of the suspects, some of whom were transferred to a Belgrade jail. The police say that as their investigation continues, the number of arrests may increase.

Grave Implications

According to the investigation, Stankovic and some professors had been accepting up to 6,000 euros from students in exchange for a degree; a passing grade in certain subject areas cost up to 600 euros.

Stankovic was the education minister’s assistant for higher education, but her work for the Serbian government was unpaid because she had been receiving a salary from the university. She was dismissed from her government post on 26 February, days after her arrest.

One-third of the school’s professors and its dean were arrested, and former Vice Dean Snezana Sokovic took over as dean at the end of February. “The current media image is such that the survival of the law school is in question,” she told the local press upon taking her new post.

Neither the Serbian government nor the university’s governing bodies, however, have taken steps to shut down the law school, and the arrested professors have been replaced by others from universities throughout Serbia. After the police action in Kragujevac was launched, Education Minister Slobodan Vuksanovic said the police must arrest all those involved in the affair, adding that “there must be no untouchables.”

Justice Minister Zoran Stojkovic told TOL that the case could have serious implications.

Some of those arrested, he said, sat on a commission before which future judges took the bar exam. Stojkovic said three of the suspects were members of the exam commission from 2002 to 2004. “If that is how degrees are given, and then you have the suspects on a bar commission, you can imagine what kind of people you get as judges,” the minister said, adding that cases of ignorance and corruption in courts are then “no wonder.”

Stojkovic said the professors’ arrest shows that values in Serbian society have turned upside down, because professors are supposed to shape their students into “good and moral people.”

“I am especially concerned by the fact that the law school is in question, because it has a special place – it trains the people for all the structures meant to manage the state,” he added.

Transparency International’s Serbia representative, Nemanja Nenadic, said the Kragujevac case should prompt education officials to put in place internal controls and measures to collect complaints from those who may have information on corruption. Nenadic called the police operation “absolutely commendable” but added that corruption in Serbian education will not be rooted out merely by arresting the suspects in Kragujevac.

Everyone’s Doing It

According to sources close to the investigation, the police were surprised at how extensive and well-oiled the school’s corruption machinery was. The owner of a copy and print shop, a former driver for the university economics department, a police inspector, and the owner of an exchange office were arrested for mediating between students and the professors suspected of taking bribes.

One law school student, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that even some students acted as mediators. He said go-betweens would approach a student who had failed an exam and try to convince him that he would never pass unless he paid the professors. This was especially common when a student faced a particularly difficult exam. “A low passage rate is a good guarantee for a high price,” the student said.

During the investigation, the police questioned some 250 law school students, but so far none has been named as a suspect.

The student said other forms of corruption at the school went unchecked. Some professors, for example, required their students to buy the originals of textbooks they had written, edited, or translated. Usually students use much cheaper partial copies, a practice that yields no profit for the professors.

The affair has created a rift among the students. At the initiative of the university’s senate, its highest decision-making body, a “book of impressions” was set up at the school, where professors and students could record their knowledge or suspicion of corrupt practices and colleagues. The book disappeared the day after it was introduced, and students told local reporters that it was removed by the representatives of the law school students’ organizations.

Some law school students in early April protested “the indiscriminate rounding up of students for police interrogation in Smederevo.” At a protest rally organized by the law school students’ parliament, the students also protested the application of what they called unlawful and repressive measures at such interrogations. Student representatives called on the “authorized bodies to stop pressuring the students,” and invited the gathered students to defend their school.

Not all law school students supported the action. Student Relja Pantic told the Beta news agency that all legal measures should be taken to determine the validity of grades given to students at exams. Pantic said he has 13 grades on his record given by the arrested professors and that he told the authorities that they can call him to check the validity of those exams. “A lot of hard work and knowledge are behind every exam I ever passed,” Pantic said, adding that “only those who got their grades illegally have anything to fear.”

Sokovic, the new dean, told Beta that most of the 2,000 students are studying and passing their exams legitimately, adding that the authorities are in the process of reviewing exams and diplomas suspected to be illegal. “I have no doubts about the expertise of the majority of law school graduates, who had studied hard at the school, where exams are not at all easy to pass,” she said. “The law school has faced corruption in a very drastic manner,” Sokovic said, but added, “We have already faced the condition we are in, and we can now begin to heal.”

The senate has suggested that all faculties within the university form commissions to review the working relationships of university employees with students; step up exam monitoring; and set out impression books. After the scandal broke, the Education Ministry opened a special phone line that students and teachers can call to report corruption cases.

The ministry has not unveiled the results of the action, so for now, at least, Kragujevac remains the only town where a bus driver can crack wise about a 10-minute degree.




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