Vanity Fair: doctoral dissertations on sale in Ukraine
Buying a doctorate may sound surprising. Unfortunately Ukraine has a well-developed market with dissertations.
Ukraine is frequently labeled as an emerging democracy that still struggles with high levels of political corruption. Politics aside, corruption in the country plagues many other sectors of social and economic life. State bureaucracy, courts, police, healthcare, and education are all effected by corruption. Ukrainian society and the media pay significant attention to academic corruption, focusing mostly on bribery in admissions and irregularities in standardised testing; they look less at fraud, embezzlement, cheating, plagiarism, and ethics misconduct. However, corruption in education is not limited to corruption in admissions and undergraduate studies. The conferral of doctoral degrees may also be affected by corruption. Unfortunately, the discussion of corruption in doctoral education in Ukraine thus far has been weak and limited to just a few public scandals that involved top politicians. Many believe that having a doctorate is considered almost essential for politicians and top-level state bureaucrats.
It is a strong tradition that all presidents in Ukraine have a doctorate. Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma, Victor Yushchenko, Victor Yanukovych, and Petro Poroshenko all have doctorates in a variety of academic fields and disciplines. This fact demonstrates the desire of political leaders of an independent Ukraine to assert intellectual superiority over their past Soviet counterparts that never held a doctoral degree. However, this tradition is now over. The newly elected President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, does not have a doctorate. There are two ways to rectify this problem and restore the tradition. First, President Zelenskyy can write and defend a doctoral dissertation. This path would require a lot of time and effort and be unaffordable for the president of any country, even less so for a country like Ukraine that is witnessing political turmoil, economic difficulty, and military confrontation. Or, one can simply buy a doctorate.
Buying a doctorate may sound surprising, but Ukraine has a well-developed market of dissertations available to acquire a doctoral degree. Dissertations are traded openly with attractive offerings for those aspiring for a doctorate. Ukraine has dozens of private firms that offer ghostwritten dissertations for sale: 46, to be precise. Such dissertation services are accompanied by offerings of all other services needed to qualify for a doctorate. These services include: ghostwriting essays for entering a doctoral program, choosing a topic for the future dissertation, writing and publishing articles in journals approved by the Ministry of Education and Science, writing monographs and books and preparing them for publication with academic publishers, writing and obtaining signed positive “independent” external reviews of the dissertation, doing all necessary paperwork, preparing the presentation for dissertation defense, conducting discussions with academic advisors, and shadowing the client in all communications with the dissertation committee and educational bureaucrats. All these services are offered for additional fees. The client can also buy a package where the ghostwritten dissertation is bundled with all other necessary services. As a result, even an illiterate individual can, in theory, obtain a doctoral degree.
Bundling and unbundling of dissertation services exist along with other marketing tricks. Some advertisements sound similar to sales of cell-phone plans: “Bring your friend and get a 15 per cent discount on your dissertation!” There are also seasonal discounts, which are usually offered in the spring and possibly associated with summer vacations of university faculty. Since ghostwriters are likely university faculty, they generally have more free time during summer vacation to write an ordered dissertation. Dissertation-writing firms post advertisements along with price tags or price ranges on all services. The all-inclusive package may be cheaper than buying each service separately. These firms do not limit their offerings to any particular discipline or a group of disciplines, offering clients scholarly works in any area, from the most popular fields of economics and law to the most expensive medical sciences.
Firms that offer dissertations for sale may be included in the category of providers of intellectual and educational services. These firms work legally by offering intellectual services, including custom-made dissertations on order. In their attempt to reach out to potential customers, they use the internet and other modes of advertisement extensively. This business is very safe because law enforcement agencies simply ignore the dissertations-for-sale problem. The dissertation-on-order firms produce research and thus have no reason to hide from law enforcement agencies. They have legal addresses and pay taxes.
Punishment is non-existent for firms and producers of dissertations for sale and their customers as well. In Ukraine, top politicians can afford the luxury of simply ignoring the allegations of plagiarised dissertations and fake doctorates. Even lower level state bureaucrats and civil servants are unlikely to be deprived of their doctorates. In large-scale scandals that gain a lot of publicity, top-level politicians remain immune from any negative consequences. For them, even proven allegations of plagiarised dissertations bring no harm.
Doctoral degrees are highly valued in non-academic bureaucracies, including customs, police, procuracy, tax inspection, state security service, border patrol, military, and civil service. Holders of doctoral degrees qualify for higher and advanced pay scales, reassessments and bonuses. Higher ranks, faster promotions, and broader career opportunities are available for those with doctorates. Doctoral degrees may also bring public respect. For state bureaucrats, buying a doctoral degree may be a good investment. The same is true for academics. They also receive promotions, appointments to administrative offices, and higher pay rates. These are legal benefits. In addition to numerous legal benefits, there are illicit benefits too. Senior faculty, and especially those who occupy administrative offices, can also be involved in such illegal practices as selling positive marks and diplomas, awarding state-funded scholarships to relatives and their own children, employing unqualified relatives to teaching and administrative positions, and selling references and positive reviews.
Given the usual practice of top politicians holding doctoral degrees, one may ask a rhetorical question: What would the academic department of Ukrainian politics hypothetically look like? In order to answer this question, it is essential to look at the titles and subject fields of defended dissertations, defended by top Ukrainian politicians. First—and quite surprisingly—these are not in the Department of Political Science or School of Public Policy. Instead, the nature of this department would be Economics and Law. In this department, taxation and state regulation are given priority.
Olexander Turchynov, who served as Chair of the Parliament (Verkhovna Rada), Acting President, and the Chair of the National Security Council of Ukraine, will no doubt chair the department, given his advanced doctorate in economics. The leader of Bat’kivshchina (Fatherland) and long-standing top national politician, Yulia Tymoshenko, and Ukraine’s former president and leader of Evropeys’ka Solidarnist’ (European Solidarity), Petro Poroshenko, would serve as associate professors or docents. Both hold doctoral degrees in economics. Docents are the working horses of a typical post-Soviet university.
In addition, there are some problematic cases as well, including both fields or disciplines and reputation. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, former Prime Minister and Chair of Verkhovna Rada, with a doctorate in Economics, would nevertheless have to prove his loyalty to the Human Resources office due to the widely publicised dissertation controversy. Leader of Golos (Voice) and one of Ukraine’s most famous singers, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, would be a part-timer, at best, since his degree is in unrelated discipline, Physics. The Mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, would be an outsider with his dissertation in boxing.
The other way
Finally, there are those who do not hold doctorates. These include Ukraine’s former Prime Minister and Chair of the Parliament, Volodymyr Groysman; leader of Opposition Platform – For Life (Opozytsiyna Platforma – Za Zhittya), Yuriy Boyko; and leader of Servant of the People (Sluga Naroda), Dmytro Rozumkov. All three hold undergraduate degrees in economics. All three would serve as assistants or adjuncts. But this is in an academic department, not in politics. In politics, Dmytro Rozumkov leads the largest political party in Verkhovna Rada—holding the absolute majority of seats—while Yuriy Boyko leads the second largest party. Such are the results of the July parliamentary elections in Ukraine.
One politician, former Minister of Defense and the leader of Civic Position (Gromadyans’ka Pozytsiya), Anatoly Grytsenko, already teaches at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, a mostly pro-Western university in Ukraine. The departmental web page lists his doctorate in economics, while his CV on that same page states that he has a doctorate in technical sciences, specialising in dynamics, ballistics and control of aircrafts; this fact is echoed on his personal web page. With a dissertation entitled “Automation of the management of heavy military transport aircraft in landing mode,” Gritsenko manages to teach at the Department of Political Science. Perhaps this is because Ukraine is also in a “landing mode”. Taxation, state regulation, and boxing do not fit well with the philosophical concepts of liberty, democracy and a market economy. Thus, one should not expect much economic prosperity and true democracy in this country as long as Ukraine’s “Department of Economics and Law” does not change its “faculty members.”
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. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 2019.