Bogus academic claims tarnish Serbia's ivory tower

Katarina SUBASIC
Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic pictured on February 21, 2014
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Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic pictured on February 21, 2014 (AFP Photo/MArko Djokovic)

Belgrade (AFP) - A Serbian minister stands accused of plagiarism and his mentor appears to have lied about having a doctorate in twin scandals that have cast a long shadow over the Balkan nation's ivory tower.

But some say the scandals dogging Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic and the head of Belgrade's Megatrend University, Mica Jovanovic, are just the tip of the iceberg, and are calling for a cleanup of Serbia's higher education system.

"These are institutions with a lot of corruption," said Danica Popovic of Belgrade University's School of Economy. "Sometimes a faculty member will uncover something and clean it up, but mostly not."

Stefanovic, 37, accused by a British professor of plagiarising passages in his doctoral thesis last year, has strenuously denied the allegation.

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic stood by the minister, dismissing the plagiarism claims as "the most ridiculous thing" he had ever heard.

- Systemic failings -

Stefanovic's academic supervisor Mica Jovanovic, 61, head of Megatrend -- a private university that has turned out many members of the nation's elite including President Tomislav Nikolic -- also vouched for him.

But then Education Minister Srdjan Verbic pointed the finger at Jovanovic, revealing that he falsely claimed to have earned a doctorate from the prestigious London School of Economics.

Verbic called on Jovanovic to "either respond to the claims or resign".

Jovanovic eventually resigned.

Almost 3,000 professors, lecturers and doctoral students in Serbia and abroad have signed an online petition demanding an independent probe into the allegations surrounding Stefanovic.

Asked whether the minister should resign if the allegations are proven, Prime Minister Vucic said Stefanovic "will know what to do".

Eric Gordy, a professor at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London, also said resignation would be "the usual practice of an official caught in the act of fraud".

But he said the Stefanovic affair underscored systemic failings in Serbia's higher education.

"These are the failure of the state to regulate the increasing number of private universities and by doing so to maintain the credibility of university degrees, and the failure of the academic community, in both private and public institutions, to regulate itself," Gordy told AFP.

- Political connections -

He added that politics had too great an influence in Serbian universities.

The main impediment in any investigation into Megatrend -- considered close to Serbia's ruling party -- and other schools is the strength of their political connections, according to Popovic.

"If Vucic decided to expose all this, half of his party would suffer," she said.

After the fall of communism and the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, at least a dozen private universities -- in addition to three state-run institutions -- were established in Serbia without any serious quality control.

Between 2007 and 2012, the number of doctoral candidates increased sixfold, while the number of doctoral degree holders tripled from 206 to 770, according to Serbia's Statistics Bureau.

Megatrend itself is rarely far from controversy. Its cosmology institute has been known since 2005 as the home of infamous French mathematical physicists, twin brothers Igor and Grichka Bogdanov, whose speculative theory about what happened before the Big Bang has been ridiculed by the scientific community.

Both Popovic and Gordy said the scandals exposed the need for far greater scrutiny of university accreditation.

Popovic said that while the academic community will demand a review of the licenses of Megatrend and similar institutions, the problem went far beyond private universities.

Gordy agreed, saying: "It will not be enough to punish Megatrend and similar private institutions. The problem is systemic and the solution can only be systemic. Serbia needs to show that it is serious about rebuilding its educational system."