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Dodgy doctorates

The German politicians forced to resign over problems with their PhDs highlights the pitfalls of the country’s fixation with academic titles. Improving quality control in universities would be a good place to start clearing things up, says Inga Vesper.

When Martin Schulz became president of the European Parliament in January 2012, EU countries welcomed him as a good leader, a skilled politician and a determined and experienced negotiator.

All, that is, except his native Germany. Schulz, who started his political career aged 18, has no PhD, no degree, not even A-levels. “A shopkeeper as president—we’ll have a baker as chancellor next,” quipped one politician, referring to Schulz’s training as a bookseller.

The comment illustrates a truth about German politics—you won’t get to the top without a PhD. This forces German politicians into postgraduate study regardless of whether they have the time or the aptitude for it. The results of this pressure are now coming to light, with top politicians brought down by issues with their theses ranging from plagiarism via ghostwriting to basic ineptitude.

First to fall was Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the defence minister, in March 2011. A company owned by his family donated nearly €750,000 to the University of Bayreuth at the time of his viva. Under questioning by an investigative committee, Guttenberg struggled to recall what his PhD was about. The thesis, on constitutional law, was mostly the work of a team of graduate students, and heavily plagiarised, according to the university investigation.

Last month, research minister Annette Schavan also quit, over plagiarism in her PhD on how religion and politics shape public morality. Her plagiarism seems to have been a result of stress and a general lack of understanding of her subject, rather than deliberate deception. Schavan has also been strongly supportive of research spending, and stood up for her field politically. Research organisations and universities are sad to see her go.

Still, Schavan’s clearly substandard PhD was passed by the University of Düsseldorf—by the professor who wrote the university’s guidelines on proper scientific practice. So what is wrong with the German system?

One reason for the glut of inferior doctorates that are emerging is that Germany has no official system of quality control for PhD theses. No one even knows how many PhD students there are. “Could be 50,000, could be 200,000,” said Stefan Hornbostel, a member of the Institute of Research Information and Quality Control (IFQ) in Berlin.

Instead, whether a student passes is largely down to his or her supervisor, many of whom, for reasons of hubris or empire-building, pass PhDs quite easily. The case of one Würzburg professor made the headlines last month. By the time he retired, he had awarded PhDs to 250 students he had “closely” supervised—that’s around 20 supervisees at any one time.

Without national control, and with little comparison between universities, many professors are tempted to think that their students must be up to scratch—after all, they supervised them. This attitude seems prevalent at smaller institutions with fewer links to other universities. It is common knowledge that, for example, it is much harder to get a PhD from the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich than from the University of Kiel. An IFQ study in 2012 showed that 45 per cent of PhD students surveyed thought marking was “too generous” at their institution.

The second issue is the prestige of the PhD in German society. Titles are actually used, and PhD holders often prefer to be called Herr or Frau Doktor, rather than by their surname. The pressure to get a doctorate is particularly high among the middle class, where a title is seen as the path to success. Mixed with professors’ eagerness to show a track record of passed PhDs, these aspirations lead to pressurised students delivering substandard theses that are passed by professors who see the work as proof of their own merit.

The range of political scandals around postgraduate degrees should be a wake-up call for Germany to overhaul its PhD supervision system, but also to think hard about the cachet attached to the title.

Surely, PhDs should be done for reasons of academic achievement and for the love of a subject. They should not be tickets to a political career, or titles to decorate one’s name.

Martin Schulz went into EU politics because his lack of formal qualifications left him no chance at the national level. His career should be an example to his country that it is not your title that counts in politics, it’s what you do—with or without a PhD.

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