Ammannet – “We want to gain you as a customer,” said Dr. Hassan, a teacher at a private university, as he agreed to a compromise with the client who had approached him looking to buy a “tailor-made” graduation project. They settled for JD 150.
In return, the 40-year old academic promised to provide this journalist – posing as a student attending college in Egypt – with a 30-page essay on the Arab Spring.
“How many pages do you want?”, asked the professor of history and civilization, who also teaches a course in civics.
“What matters to me is the quality rather than the quantity, doctor,” I replied.
“Don’t worry about that,” he said confidently before calling a colleague to help him write the paper and collect the necessary references.
Dr. Hassan and his colleague are among scores of academics who sell graduation projects to university students in Jordan. They charge anything between JD100 and JD4,000 per paper, depending on the subject and the amount of work involved. Many of them own commercial bureaus which are licensed to undertake research and studies or provide student services, and use them as cover to illegally sell graduation projects.
These bureaus take advantage both of lax oversight by the ministries of education and higher education and the universities, and of regulatory and legal loopholes — to the detriment of graduates’ skills, universities’ educational standards, and the reputation of higher education in Jordan.
Students, for their part, are often faced with requirements and standards for their graduation projects that go beyond, or are unrelated to, the courses they have been taught, prompting them to turn to the bureaus, graduates say.
‘Walaa’, who graduated in electronic engineering from the Hashemite University, says she and her colleagues bought their graduation projects on photovoltaic cells for JD900. “It was the easiest solution we had,” she recalls. She takes pride in having obtained a higher grade than her classmates who did their projects themselves.
When told we are journalists probing the trade, Dr. Hassan acknowledges that his bureau “used to” sell graduation projects in the past, but gave up that business in favour of translation and statistical analysis work. He insists, however, that there was nothing unethical about his former practice, and says “I didn’t realize it was illegal.”
An Academic Epidemic
A survey of science graduates from 22 state and private Jordanian universities, devised by this journalist in collaboration with two academics, found that of the 8,718 who graduated last year, 60% submitted graduation projects that were not their own work. Six out of ten students admitted to buying their dissertations.
Ali, 22, who was a student leader at the College of Information Technology at al-Balqa Applied University, says he bought his graduation project for JD300 from a bureau, and reckons that 80% of the students in his year did the same. He claims that most of the remainder had theirs written either by fellow students in their project groups, or by friends or relatives without payment.
A faculty member at a government university who has supervised many IT graduation projects estimates that around half of those submitted are purchased.
The widespread occurrence of project-buying is acknowledged by both the Dean of the College of Engineering at al-Zaytoona University Dr. Muhammad Hamdan, who previously held the same post at the University of Jordan, and by al-Isra University’s vice president and dean of engineering Dr. Yousef al-Jaafreh – although the latter estimates that “it is less than 10%” at his institution.
According to the deputy chairman of the Council for Higher Education, Dr. Amin Mashaqbeh, the phenomenon has mushroomed over the past decade or so, and largely reflects a decline in the quality of the higher education sector’s output.
That, in turn, is due to “the poor quality of the input into the higher education system, which came from up-ending the pyramid and expanding universities’ admissions at the expense of community and complementary colleges,” says Dr. Issam al-Zaabalawi, a former minister of education and current head of the Arab Academy. That means the country’s universities have some 250,000 students, while lacking the requirements to create a proper university environment.
“What prompted me to buy my project were the impossible demands,” says Ghazi, a software engineering graduate from al-Zaytoona University who paid JD400 for his dissertation.
Ghazi agrees with Jaafreh’s observation that some faculty members make excessive requirements of students’ graduation projects in order to impress their colleagues – in order to compensate for their failure to publish any serious research of their own during their long careers – and show that they can deliver valuable research.
Even some of the bureaus that sell graduation projects complain of the unreasonable burdens sometimes placed on the students.
In the survey, 71% of students questioned said the courses they were taught did not equip them with the knowledge they needed to embark on the graduation projects they were assigned.
IT specialist Muhammad Khawaja says scientific courses at universities focus on theory and neglect the applied side, leaving students without the practical and technical skills their graduation projects require. The practical component of the applied computer science courses taught at Jordan’s universities, for example, amounts to less than 10% of the total, he maintains.
Muhammad Asmaran, who teaches computer science at al-Balqa Applied University, says the graduation projects are the first experience of applied science that students are ever exposed to as the time allocated to practical work in their studies is minimal.
Students share the feeling that they are not taught enough to be able to do their projects themselves. “The emphasis is mostly on generalizations and broadly outlining the courses,” rather than on the substance of the scientific subject-matter, says Ali, who graduated with a ‘very good’ grade from university. He says he and his colleagues at first wanted to do their graduation project themselves, but soon realized they did not have the practical know-how, as they had very little relevant training. “My knowledge of computer science is zero,” he confesses. Dozens of students say much of the same about the subjects in which they were awarded degrees.
Khawaja says the syllabi used for IT degrees are deficient, and include outdated topics that are of little practical use for students either in their projects or in their careers. For example, many of the programming languages that are taught are effectively obsolete.
Khawaja says the reason new topics are not added to IT syllabi is that “faculty members are ignorant of them,” even though the current curricula do not meet students’ real-life needs. All too many university teachers do not keep up to date with the new sciences, especially in IT, and then they expect their students to apply their learnings practically, he says.
Muhammad Harabsheh, dean of the College of Engineering at The Middle East University, believes all universities should update their syllabi each term, and expand them to cover subjects like technical writing and scientific research methods.
But he says faculty members resist this.
“Many of them do not want to bring in new things or make the extra effort that changing these syllabuses would entail,” he says. He adds that they are also too pressed for time to explore new approaches.
“Quite simply I wouldn’t have been able to do even a very small project, let alone a graduation project, “ says Jumana, who got her engineering degree from the University of Jordan. She paid a former student, who since leaving has been producing graduation projects for a living, for her dissertation. She says students do not get taught enough practical skills or given sufficient laboratory time.
Ali and Jumana both say their teachers did not even cover the full syllabus. One teacher only taught four out of ten topics, saying the remainder were “not required”.
As a result, says Kharabsheh, university education suffers, and some graduates “are still incapable of writing an academic technical report” after five years of study. In terms of science, he remarks, many students leave university no better educated that when they arrived.
The graduate survey, which was conducted with support by the ARIJ network, shed light on the reasons why students opt to pay for their projects. Some do so because they cannot do the work, some to spare themselves the effort, and others because they are convinced they have to.
The survey showed that this happens in every subject area covered, but is most prevalent in computer sciences and engineering. Six of the eight bureaus located opposite the main gate of the University of Jordan were found to offer graduation projects exclusively in these two subjects. Another specializes in agricultural studies and most of the many advertisements plastered in the vicinity target computer science and engineering students. The number of graduates in these two fields was 3,452 and 4,711 respectively.
Absence of Oversight
“I didn’t see my project or know what I was supposed to say until half an hour before my presentation,” says Khaled, a software engineering graduate, who only got a B+ for his project even though he bought it. He says he never even met with his project supervisor until the day it was due to be presented. Mahmoud, a graduate of the private Philadelphia University, had the same experience.
Al-Zaytoona University’s Hamdan holds faculty members and graduation project supervisors responsible for an almost total absence of oversight over graduation projects. He puts it down to “indifference”, saying a number of students had admitted to him that they had bought their dissertations, “but their supervisors asked no questions.”
The sheer numbers of students were cited by 65% of the survey’s respondents as another reason why proper checks are not made.
The universities’ lax attitude with regard to graduation projects is evident in other respects too; the cursory nature of presentations and assessments, instances of bribery and the widespread use of connections, and students being failed as a result of animosities – with the higher education ministry conspicuously inactive.
In the survey, 46% of students said they believed their supervisors knew they had bought their graduation projects, and 49% said they knew they were not their own work. Al-Balqa Applied University graduate Ahmad al-Sawalqa says one supervisor at his college recommended bureaus where he and other students could get their projects done.
53.5% of students said supervisors do not assert their authority to ensure that graduation projects are original, and 50% thought supervisors and discussion panels alike do not apply the relevant regulations.
Ahmad owns a company that produces final-year dissertations for bachelors’ and masters’ degree students in different subjects. The company operates openly on one of Amman’s best-known commercial thoroughfares, unconcealed and unworried. “You come in if you’re a student wanting to buy their graduation project, and you leave after agreeing on the requirements, deadline and prices, all documented in a signed contract,” he says.
Ahmad’s company is licensed by the ministry of industry and commerce. On checking the ministry’s records, it turns out to be registered as an investment, accounting and tax firm.
After being told about our investigation, Ahmad insists his work is both legal and ethical, and that he helps students get through their university education and avoid difficulties and failure.
The service offered by educational and cultural centers licensed by the education ministry is officially described as the provision of “project courses.” The students use the term too. But these establishments are in the business of selling graduation projects. “Courses” is a euphemism, designed to provide legal cover, says Ranya, who runs a center located near the University of Jordan.
Twelve such centers can be found within a short walk of the university, ten of which offer graduation projects for science students.
The ministry of education, which is responsible for overseeing the kingdom’s 506 licensed educational and cultural centers, has received no complaints regarding their sale of graduation projects, and none have been implicated in such activities, according to Omar al-Khasawneh, head of the ministry’s directorate of private educational establishments.
Rania says her bureau has received only one visit from ministry inspectors in two years.
The ministry of higher education is in charge of licensing university services bureaus, which are supposed to help students with placement in local and foreign universities. When telephoned, two out of six of these agencies said they were willing to provide graduation projects at a price.
The ministry’s assistant secretary-general for technical affairs, Munther al-Batayneh, said it had no knowledge of such activities by any of the 29 similar bureaus in the country, and had received no complaints about them. Similar assurances were earlier provided by the former higher education minister, Wajeeh Owais.
Ahmad Saleh is a 25-year-old schoolteacher. After graduating from university he and some friends formed a group to do graduate projects and offer them for sale on the Internet. The ten-member team are not licensed and have no physical premises. They do business via the Web and on social networking sites, and hand over the completed projects and explain them at a cafe in Amman, or at Knowledge Society opposite the University of Jordan. They sell around ten projects per term, and have not been subject to any government controls since they began their operation a year ago.
“Controlling the sale of projects will make the problem worse, because the students are not qualified,” says Izzedin, proprietor of a studies and research bureau near the university. He says the solution is not to prevent the bureaus from selling projects, but to improve the quality of education.
Dr. Jaafreh of al-Isra University agrees that the bureaus are too numerous to bring under control, especially as “you’re usually just dealing with a telephone number. You agree terms and are handed the work without knowing who actually did it,” he says – though the author is usually, regrettably, a university staffer.
A review of the regulations related to the award of bachelors’ degrees – which are very similar in all Jordanian public and private universities – shows that there is no specific prohibition on plagiarizing or purchasing graduation projects. Senior academics like Jaafreh and Kharabsheh agree that these rules should be changed to provide for more rigorous oversight.
Similarly, there is no such explicit reference in the universities’ student discipline codes issued in line with Jordan’s universities’ law.
Even the regulations related to cheating are applied only sparingly to students found to have bought or purloined their graduation projects. There have been only three such cases at al-Isra University over the past three academic years. In each case, the penalty was for the presentation and discussion of the graduation project to be delayed by a term.
58% of the students who took part in the survey thought there was no risk involved in buying graduation projects, as no serious efforts are made to deter or punish the practice. Academics like Jaafreh, Kharabsheh and Hamdan say there should be an explicit ban on students engaging in it, or teachers colluding in it, and that the universities and relevant government departments should both tighten their regulations.
The 2008 law under which the cultural centers are licensed also does not explicitly outlaw the preparation or sale of graduation projects by them.
But both the education ministry’s Khasawneh and the higher education ministry’s Batayneh deny there is anything wrong with the regulations. “Anything that is not spelled out as permitted in the code and directives,” explains the latter, “is prohibited.”
This investigation was completed with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) by the investigations unit of al-Balad Radio under the supervision of coach Saad Hattar.