Aschbacher’s Plagiarism – of Titles and Tragedies

A government minister resigns in disgrace. But the bigger scandal is the value of Austrian universities' degrees.

Austrians have an almost religious awe of titles, especially academic honors. Most of us have witnessed a small shopkeeper almost kowtowing to an unobtrusively modest woman: “Grüß Gott Frau Doktor …”  Her husband is a local Beamter, a middle level bureaucrat for which, for some reason, he needs a doctorate.  

Perhaps the most important passage in any applicant’s diploma or doctorial dissertation is the “Ehrenwörtliche Erklärung” (Statement on my word of honor) the legalese promising that this is my work and I haven’t cheated, dated and signed by the applicant. Federal Family and Labor Minister Christine Aschbacher had signed off on her dissertation at the Technical University of Wiener-Neustadt, but it now appears the work was not all her own. Last week she resigned.

The affair was triggered by professional plagiarism investigator, Stefan Weber. Watching Aschbacher on television one evening, his partner commented that the Minister was “hardly able to get through a sentence without grammatical errors.” A quick look at her dissertation was enough to convince Weber: “After three minutes I knew what was going on,” he told the daily Der Standard. It was plagiarism, cribbed from somebody else’s work, parts of it disastrous, absurd. 

To her credit Aschbacher did not follow the common playbook of total denial, followed by halfhearted admission and a painful protracted process of public humiliation. She offered her resignation within hours and declined her federal salary. Kanzler Kurz reacted swiftly moving the  Family portfolio to party colleague Susanne Raab’s Ministry for Women and Children, and the Labor portfolio to a highly respected non-party economics expert, Martin Kocher. 

Kurz’ agility cut off the political fall-out, but the bigger debate is just gathering momentum: How widespread is plagiarism in Austrian universities?  “Peering into a world of shadows,” ran the headline on Weber’s op-ed piece for the liberal weekly Falter. The two schools that had rated Aschbacher’s work “excellent”, the Technical University in Wiener-Neustadt and the University of Bratislava, are now blinking nervously in the spotlights. They are both being called on to review their assessments of her work and of course the universities themselves will have to work hard to salvage their own reputations. 

The bigger question: Are academic degrees and doctorates in Austria really worth the paper they’re printed on? Weber mentions a review published several years ago: Only 20% of academics had actually consulted the work cited, 80% had simply copied and pasted. Many thanks to Bill Gates.

The RU Bologna program, with its laudable objective of standardizing European academic credentials to make them comparable on the Continental education and job market, has had the unfortunate side effect of steadily downgrading the value of lower degrees. The once well-regarded Matura (high school diploma) is of little value without at least a Bachelors. And even that leaves a graduate in a weak position; without a Masters chances are poor. Simply put, academic inflation.

International meta-analysis suggests that 3.5% of students and scientists have used ghostwriters or bogus data in their published work.  The real number is probably greater. There is an additional factor that is perhaps typically Austrian: a lack of transparency. The intended watchdog, the ÖAWI (Austrian Agency for Scientific Integrity), has a statutory secrecy clause, “a sweep it under the carpet tradition,” comments Weber drily. In contrast German authorities invite whistleblowers and other informants to participate in the process of investigation.  Germany’s rising political star Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg’s career was demolished in 2011 with similar accusations of plagiarism, and like a Prussian officer of old he took the bullet (resigned). 

Christine Aschbacher’s career on the federal stage has probably also ended, but she may well reappear in regional politics. That, too, would be typically Austrian.

Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.

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