BUCHAREST -- Mihai Costache remembers entering his high-school classroom in the Romanian capital of Bucharest years ago, books and notes in hand, and spreading them out on his desk.
He was ready to take his final exams. And just in case the cheat sheets and books weren't enough, he also knew all of the questions that would be on the test.
"All of us knew all the topics that would be on the test. Our teachers had told us them," Costache told RFE/RL's Romanian Service, requesting that his real name not be used.
Now a successful businessman, Costache suggested that not much had changed, complaining that his daughter, now a high-school student in Bucharest, was doing much the same, including blatantly copying from the Internet when writing papers and facing no consequences from her teachers.
Cheating, plagiarism, and bogus degrees have plagued Romanian schools and universities for years. The issue was recently brought to the fore with Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca accused of plagiarizing parts of his doctoral thesis, charges which he has consistently denied. Several former senior officials, including prime ministers, have also been accused of plagiarism, with many linked to questionable degrees.
No Questions Asked
The ills in academia can be traced back to the communist era of Nicolae Ceausescu, who led Romania between 1965 and 1989, when cheating was widespread in schools and universities. Questions were rarely, if ever, asked about the degrees handed out or academic work completed, including that attributed to the Romanian dictator's wife, Elena Ceausescu.
Elena Ceausescu was hailed by state propaganda under her husband's regime as a world-famous chemistry researcher, despite having no credible qualifications.
Today, academics and researchers in Romania are demanding Ceausescu's name be removed from almost two dozen scientific papers and books fraudulently published as her work, more than 30 years after she and her husband were executed during Romania's revolution in 1989, the final and bloodiest chapter in the series of uprisings that toppled communism in Eastern Europe.
Ciuca, in office since only December 2021, has been accused of plagiarizing about a third of his doctoral thesis, which he received from the Bucharest-based Carol I National Defense University in 2003.
At least 42 of 138 pages of the academic work include plagiarized content, according to an investigation by Romanian journalist Emilia Sercan that was published by the Press One website on January 18.
Ciuca, a former military officer, denied any wrongdoing, saying that his doctorate was "drawn up in accordance with the legal requirements" of the time. "These public accusations cannot be scientifically substantiated in any way," he added.
Despite his denials, influential opposition politician Dacian Ciolos, from the Union to Save Romania (USR-PLUS) party, called for "urgent clarification" from the prime minister and an investigation, adding that if the allegations prove to be true, "an honorary resignation is necessary." Romanian President Klaus Iohannis has said he had "zero tolerance" for any deviations from academic integrity.
Ciuca has called on the ethics commission of the National Defense University to verify the claims, and Iohannis said he would await those findings. Experts, however, are saying that university ethics commissions have a consultative role only and the body in charge is the National Council for Attesting University Titles, Diplomas, and Certificates, which has the power to withdraw a PhD title.
The Deep Roots Of Cheating
The seeds of today's crisis in Romanian academia were sown during the communist era, when rote learning ruled, explained professor Daniel David, head of the Babes Bolyai University in Cluj.
"Starting with communism and many years later, the more faithfully you read from the textbook, the better you scored. You had no idea you were actually plagiarizing. So there was no idea to think, to rewrite the text, to give it a note of originality," David told RFE/RL's Romanian Service.
"At the pedagogical high school where I studied in the '90s, copying was so widespread that when I decided with a few colleagues never to copy another line, we were seen as weird," one woman, who is now a teacher and wished to remain anonymous, explained to RFE/RL's Romanian Service. "Some teachers would leave the classroom so that the students could cheat quietly. Ahead of the final exam, some of the students even raised money [to give to] the supervisors, so that there would be...an understanding [to look the other way]."
As with the case of Ciuca, much of the plagiarism in Romania appears linked to doctoral thesis work.
In 2012, then-Prime Minister Victor Ponta was accused of having plagiarized much of his 2003 thesis on the International Criminal Court. In 2014, he handed it back.
Mihai Tudose, who served as prime minister from June 2017 to January 2018, also was accused of copying without attribution parts of his doctoral degree. In 2016, Tudose also returned his degree.
The awarding of doctorates boomed in Romania after the fall of communism in 1989. In 1990, 331 people obtained a doctorate. In 2012, that number soared to 6,259. Holding a doctoral degree has not only meant added prestige, but a higher salary as well. Up to 2017, a doctoral degree triggered a 15 percent pay rise for many professions, making Romania unique in that respect, says Mirclea Miclea, a former education minister.
"Getting money for a doctorate is, in my opinion, wrong. It's the employer who should decide if the doctoral degree you have gives you added value and that you should be paid more," Miclea told RFE/RL. "According to our way of thinking, a simple degree means more money, not whether you are competent or not."
In 2011, Romania began to take action, with then-Education Minister Daniel Funeriu ordering that CCTV cameras be installed in schools as part of an anti-cheating initiative. As a result, over half the students taking the school-leaving baccalaureate exam failed that year. Two years prior, the pass rate was 80 percent.
At around the same time, universities began acquiring anti-plagiarism software that can detect similarities between submitted work and sources -- books, papers, and articles -- that have been uploaded to the Internet. But that is no panacea, says Mihai Coman, a journalism professor at the University of Bucharest.
"The software is effective as long as you have about 80 percent of sources digitized," Coman lamented, adding that Romanian universities often opt for cheaper, and therefore less effective, software.
"The software that many [university] departments buy is primitive. You'd be better off [checking for plagiarism] by using Google than with [the anti-plagiarism software]."
Despite those shortcomings, the anti-cheating measures appear to have had an impact. After the number of doctoral degrees peaked at more than 6,000 in 2012, the numbers decreased, with about 2,000 now issued annually since 2015.
"The decreasing trend is primarily due to the more rigorous evaluation processes to which the theses are subjected to. It is more difficult to complete a thesis that is evaluated more carefully and scrupulously," Mircea Dumitru, the vice president of Romania's National Council for Attestation of University Degrees, Diplomas, and Certificates, said in recent comments to Romanian media.
Plagiarism has thrived, says Marian Popescu, chairman of the University of Bucharest's Ethics Commission, in large part due to a void of "moral values in the public sphere."
"Fraud is the order of the day in education. But in order for it to be fraudulent, there must be a permissive atmosphere. And in our case, the fact is that Romanian society has exiled moral values from the public sphere," Popescu, also director of the Center for Action, Resources, Training for Academic Integrity of the University of Bucharest, told RFE/RL.
A Lack Of Ethics
Ethics is noticeably absent from high-school curriculums in Romania, and the subject was only introduced at universities in 2018 at the urging of then-Education Minister Liviu Pop.
It wasn't always that way. In Romania's pre-communist past, ethics was even taught in schools, including a notable textbook on the topic in circulation in 1941.
"Today we are barely trying to create programs for ethical education in high school…. You realize, we are in 2022, 80 years after the publication of the ethics textbook from 1941," Popescu said.
For Mihai Costache, who benefited when his teachers looked the other way, educators now aren't doing enough to stop his daughter from doing the same.
"What angers me the most is this thing with the papers. I swear I don't understand these teachers. I went to her school and raised this point with them, that they let the students simply copy things from the Internet," he said with exasperation in his voice. "What is going on here?"