Scandal erupts at French university over alleged Chinese bribes
PARIS -- The president of the University of Toulon and two top aides were suspended Monday over charges of irregularities in the admission and graduation of Chinese students allegedly ready to pay bribes for the prestige of a French diploma.
The suspension, decided by Higher Education Minister Valerie Pecresse, was an unusual public stain on France's cherished tradition of opening its largely free education system to students from around the world. It underlined some of the pressures created by a skyrocketing number of Chinese students who go abroad, sometimes unprepared, to win the honor of a foreign diploma in China's increasingly competitive job market.
Pecresse said university president Laroussi Oueslati and vice presidents Pierre Sanz de Alba and Yves Lucas were ordered to step down because they were trying to prevent a ministry investigation by intimidating professors, threatening retaliation against witnesses and hiding documents that described admissions procedures. At the same time as the ministry investigation, the local prosecutor has opened a criminal inquiry to see whether any laws were broken.
Ministry inspectors in September had uncovered what Pecressse said in a communiqué were "serious irregularities in the application of rules governing the admission of foreign students and the validation of their studies." A further report, handed to the ministry Monday, alleged Oueslati and his aides tried to block the inquiry from finding out more about what happened, leading to the suspension.
France's open-armed attitude toward foreign students evolved from what the country used to call its "civilizing mission," a duty to bring learning and European culture to less advanced parts of the world. In that context, more than 260,000 foreign students are enrolled this year in French universities and other institutions of higher learning, the Foreign Ministry estimated, making up 12 percent of the student population.
As usual, more than half the foreign students came from Africa, particularly West African countries that were former French colonies and where French is widely spoken. But Asian students made up 16 percent of the total, up 8 percent from last year and part of a steady climb. A large part of that increase was due to a surge in Chinese students, some after having been refused visas in the United States, others because they are interested in French culture.
According to an Education Ministry investigation, several University of Toulon officials were approached by Chinese middlemen who proposed paying bribes for a number of admissions and guaranteed graduations for Chinese students. Those approached told investigators they turned down the offers.
The Sunday Newspaper, which obtained a copy of the ministry report, quoted it as saying one professor in charge of a master's degree program reported being contacted in the summer of 2008 by a Chinese alumnus who proposed almost $3,000 for each Chinese student admitted and another $7,500 for each one who obtained a diploma. The professor, identified as Nathalie Hector, said she turned him down but kept receiving e-mails from him suggesting Oueslati agreed with the arrangement.
She said she went to Oueslati and was told to break off contact. But Oueslati never reported the bribery attempt, she complained, and his aides pushed her to accept students who could not speak enough French to follow courses and whose admissions were handled through administrative offices rather than the normal admissions committee.
Neither Oueslati nor his aides commented on their suspensions, citing ministry disciplinary procedures that are underway. Previously, they have denied wrongdoing. The ministry report did not allege that Oueslati and his aides took bribes but that the undefined irregularities were committed under their administration.
Some professors suggested to local reporters that Oueslati might have cut corners because he was particularly eager to get foreign students into the university, a young institution that is, with 10,500 students, small by French standards. But they said the bribery, if any occurred, probably took place in China during language examinations qualifying Chinese students for study in France.