When Azra Omerovic embarked on an assignment to get a degree at a medical technical school, she knew about Bosnia-Herzegovina's open secret on buying fake degrees. What she didn't expect was how quick and easy it would actually be to get her own diploma.
Seventeen days and 2,500 marks ($1,450) later, she was a graduate of the Medical Technical School from Sanski Most's two-year requalification program, certified to practice as a medical technician locally and in the European Union. No classes. No tests. No problem.
Well, actually that's not true. Fake educational achievements are becoming a problem for one of Europe's youngest and poorest countries.
And for the region.
Across the Balkans, scandals involving fake degrees, politicians with dubious diplomas, and questions about plagiarized doctoral theses have put the spotlight on a lack of reforms in the education system and institutional corruption as countries struggle to rebuild following years of conflict that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia.
"Everyone is talking about corruption, everyone is running away because of corruption, but everyone is ready to give money, to get a diploma, on the basis of which they could get a job somewhere in the European Union," Avdo Avdic, who worked with Omerovic on a report about the experience for the information portal Zurnal.info, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
Stories of so-called degree mills have long circulated among academic circles in Bosnia.
While the country has an estimated student population of only around 110,000, it also has the greatest number of post-secondary learning institutions at 46. A case in point is the town of Bijeljina.
Located in the northeast of Bosnia's predominantly ethnic Serb entity, Republika Srpska, Bijelina has a population of about 107,000. It is also home to 14 different faculties and universities offering economics degrees.
Part of the problem is a lack of institutional control stemming from Bosnia's governing structure, according to Saudin Sivro, president of the Union of Basic Education of the Sarajevo Canton.
The 1995 Dayton peace accords established a state comprising two entities, each with a high degree of autonomy: Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat federation.
Added to that decentralized federal system are 10 autonomous cantons, each with its own government and constitution.
This has left the federal Education Ministry with only a coordinative role and little oversight power to rein in dubious educational institutions.
Inmates Policing The Asylum
Given that many officials themselves have benefited from fake diplomas, there is little incentive to fix the problem, Sivro says.
"We have a number of people who simply show ignorance, or their diplomas are at least suspicious. They are mostly diplomas that colleagues have acquired at universities where you can pass an exam over the weekend. We thought that it is necessary to do a review of these diplomas, but the former minister transferred responsibility to school directors who simply did not do anything about it," Sivro says.
"Reforms cannot be carried out by those who have invalid diplomas, or diplomas that were not earned through gaining knowledge," he adds.
State officials, however, seem loathe to address the issue.
Last year the State Investigation and Protection Agency submitted information to the State Prosecutor's Office detailing the illegal issuance of diplomas through several educational institutions.
But, Advic says, prosecutors shrugged off the issue, saying there was "reasonable doubt" that diplomas were sold in these schools. "The prosecutor's office didn't take any action to collect the evidence needed for reasonable suspicion in order to obtain special investigative actions. They basically have decided that they will not carry out an investigation in any way," he adds.
Exacerbating Brain Drain
The scandal compounds the effects of an exodus of young people from Bosnia and the Balkans as a whole.
Stubbornly high unemployment, low wages, corruption, and a lack of opportunity for career advancement is prompting thousands of educated young professionals to leave each year for the European Union, the Middle East, or North America, where they often have better prospects.
The combination of this brain drain and a wave of "uneducated graduates" with fake diplomas threatens to deepen the economic crisis Bosnia faces.
The country ranked 135th out of 137 countries for "capacity to retain talent" in the World Economic Forum's 2017-18 Global Competitiveness Report, an indicator of the worsening situation for educated job seekers.
"All of these problems we have with the lack of employment for young people, and with the departure of young people, stem in part from this. By purchasing these diplomas, they are getting a false sense of security," says Damir Marjanovic, a professor at International Burch University.
"Even worse, those who actually do study, they will pay a price as well. They will study hard for four years or earn a master's degree or a doctorate and they won't be able to find jobs because it will be known that they come from a place where it is normal to buy and sell diplomas. Very soon such schools and such countries as Bosnia will be blacklisted," he adds.
Bosnia's reputation as a degree mill is already starting to show.
The Croatian Agency for Science and Higher Education recently warned it may stop recognizing diplomas from Bosnia, as well as Serbia, over the "credibility" of agencies in charge of quality assurance in higher education in the two countries.
Students themselves are quick to point out the "public secret" of Bosnia's broken educational system.
Indira attends Sarajevo University and says she studies constantly. Yet she knows she will be competing for the few job opportunities that come her way against those who have taken a shortcut to get their education.
"This method has in some way become the goal of most young people. They stop trying to invest in knowledge. People have learned to try to get things the easy way," she says.