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BELGRADE, Jun 14 2012 (IPS) - Former university graduates, current students and professors are embroiled in an unusual scandal this exam season, as news reports filtering in from around the Balkans reveal a major online trade in stolen final papers.
“I was shocked when I recognised my final paper, with only its title changed, posted on the website of my (Alma Mater) and credited to another person,” said Jelena Stojanovic (31), who graduated from the Belgrade Technology Faculty six years ago.
“I contacted the girl listed as the author and she admitted to buying the paper for 3,000 dinars (33 dollars) on a site that offers a database of final papers in all areas (of study),” Stojanovic told IPS. “I protested to my faculty, but they said it’s currently impossible to establish if the graduation paper is forged or not.”
Under the current education system, high schools and most university faculties require students to complete extensive final papers in order to be eligible for graduation. But the requirement appears to be too much effort for many, who are turning to the digital world for a quick fix to their end-of- semester blues.
Stojanovic is just one of thousands of graduates whose final papers have appeared on the seemingly enormous number of sites that offer term papers for a sum of 33-110 dollars, depending on the area of expertise. Short midterm papers or high school essays are sold for about five dollars.
‘Customers’ are offered the option of paying online using Serbian dinars, Croatian kunas, Bosnian marks and euros for Montenegro, as the database is easily able to serve Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks and Montenegrins due to the similar language spoken throughout the region.
The market is huge and covers an area of more than 15 million people. Serbia alone has a population of a million students at all levels of education.
“I believe that the universities’ practice of posting graduation papers online is being abused,” Stojanovic said. “But there’s no way to prove it or take legal action.”
So far, there is no clear law governing this kind of scheme in Serbia or anywhere else in the region. Experts say the laws are slow to follow the developments of modern technology.
“For the time being, the only way (to avoid the scandal) would be to register one’s graduation paper as intellectual property and sue those who use it illegally,” according to Vladimir Maric, from the Institute for Intellectual Property.
In the meantime, the business of obtaining online final papers appears to be flourishing.
Creators of the databases seem to have access to some of Serbia’s biggest Internet providers – thousands of netizens recently received an e-mail offering a shopping spree at a site with readymade graduation papers for high schools and various university faculties.
The papers on offer covered 44 areas, ranging from short essays on Serbian writers to highly sophisticated works on the history of Serbian international relations to analyses of technological processes in the textile industry.
It was only recently that Serbia was “able to ban mobile phones and ensure that sophisticated equipment such as bugs were excluded from final exams,” said economics professor Rade Mitrovic.
“But we seem to be one step behind the imagination of students and their helpers,” he added.
Though there are no formal laws on cheating in Serbia, students caught doing so can be prevented by teachers at any education level – be it high school or university – from sitting the exam. They are usually allowed to take the exam the following semester.
So far, only one site with contents described as “illegal” has been shut down in Serbia and that too only because the Association of Serbian Publishers decided to push for closure of the site, which contained e-books by both domestic and international authors; universities and high schools have yet to take action.
Meanwhile, the public was recently stunned by the discovery that various degrees were forged as well.
“We recently checked some 2,000 diplomas (belonging to workers at) the electricity company of Montenegro,” said Velimir Tmusic, head of the inspection in Belgrade. “About 10 percent were forged, mostly from the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Economics in Pristina.”
In the past decades, many Montenegrins studied in Serbia or in Kosovo, so the check had to be carried out in Belgrade. Pristina, now Kosovo’s capital, was under the Serbian education system until 1999.
“Most of the forgeries were from the 90s,” Tmusic added, referencing the decade when lawlessness was common in the war-torn region.
Now, a simmering scandal about the newly elected president Tomislav Nikolic (60) is adding to the confusion.
Nikolic’s official biography says he graduated in 2007, and obtained a Master’s degree in 2011 at the Faculty for Management in the northern town of Novi Sad.
However Nikolic himself claimed that in 2007 he was studying at the Faculty of Law in his native Kragujevac. He was also unable, during a recent TV interview, to name a single professor at his alleged alma mater in Novi Sad. The public is still waiting for the president to clear these lingering doubts.
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