German prosecutors investigate at least 100 cases of professors taking cash bribes to help students obtain PhDs

Ned Stafford/Hamburg, Germany

A criminal investigation into approximately 100 professors in Germany suspected of taking cash bribes for illegally helping unworthy students obtain doctoral degrees has rattled the foundations of German science and higher education.

News of the investigation broke in Germany over the weekend, causing Federal education and research minister Annette Schavan to fret publicly that Germany’s strong international science reputation would suffer if the allegations turn out to be true.

G?nther Feld, senior prosecutor in Cologne, told Chemistry World that the professors under investigation come from several disciplines, including the natural sciences. Most work on a contract basis, with only a few full professors with tenured positions. He declined to name affected universities, but German press reports have listed universities in Frankfurt, Leipzig, Rostock, Hamburg, Hannover, Cologne and Berlin among others.

The academics came under suspicion following an investigation into the Institute for Academic Consultancy in Cologne last year. During that investigation Feld and his team collected evidence on around 100 professors now facing possible indictment for bribery. The firm allegedly charged up to €20,000 (?17,465) to help doctoral candidates find a dissertation topic and supervisor, with participating professors reportedly receiving between €2,000 and €5,000 per doctoral candidate. Under German law, supervision of a PhD dissertation is a public service and professors are not allowed to accept money beyond their normal salary for the service.

It is not clear how many doctoral candidates were involved, but Feld does not foresee criminal charges being filed against them as most were unaware of the situation.

Universities affected by the scandal will all eventually be contacted by prosecutors. Some have already publicly announced that they have been in contact, such as the University of Hamburg, which confirmed involvement to the local daily paper Hamburger Abendblatt.


Matthias Jaroch, spokesman for the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers, says the association condemns any professor taking bribes in return for easing the path for a PhD and believes those caught should be criminally prosecuted.

While he says the high number of professors being investigated ’a shock,’ he notes that 25,000 PhDs are awarded each year in Germany and most of those are legitimate. Germany has 38,000 professors, he says, 24,000 of who can supervise doctoral candidates.

Manuel Ren? Theisen, professor of business management at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University, has a very different view, however. He told Chemistry World that he was not surprised by news of the investigation, saying that he had been warning for 20 years of possible crimes by academic consulting services. He says that the scandal has potential to go beyond the 100 professors now being investigated. ’It might be the tip of an iceberg. The company was working for more than 25 years with hundreds of PhDs.’

He believes universities have been aware of the potential problems of such consulting services, but have chosen to look the other way. ’They ignore it because they are colleagues,’ he says.

Eva-Maria Streier of the German Research Foundation (DFG), Germany’s main funding body for university research, concedes that the high number of professors being investigated is ’striking,’   but says: ’We assume that scientists promoted by the [DFG] will not be affected by this, since all DFG scientists have to sign [a contract] for good scientific practice. If they don’t follow this they can be pursued - and they do know that.’ 

Kurt Begitt, deputy executive director of German Chemical Society, knows the founder of the Institute for Academic Consultancy and says he had thought it was a legitimate operation giving legal assistance to doctoral candidates. ’I never thought it was criminal or scandalous,’ he says.

Begitt disagrees with those who feel the scandal will harm Germany’s scientific reputation. Although prosecutors have not revealed details of professors being investigated, Begitt says he is confident that few, if any, chemistry faculties are involved. Chemistry is a highly specialised field, usually requiring a minimum of two doctoral supervisors, he says.