A City Tour, Lakeside Dinner and PhD in One All-inclusive Package

Public sector employees find schools overseas – especially in Romania – that offer an easy route to a doctorate.

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The university in Cluj.
The university in Cluj.Credit: AP

Hundreds of public sector employees including educators and nurses have found a convenient way of earning a doctorate, generally in education but also in biology. Their studies are through correspondence courses and their degree is earned in record time.

It’s all arranged through a Haifa company, A.D. Atid Lekidum, also known as the Center for Higher Degrees from Abroad, which has groups of people earning doctorates from schools overseas. In the past the company was associated with universities in Britain, but in recent years they have mostly been in Romania.

“In Romania you can earn a doctorate for 100,000 shekels [$25,700] in just three years,” says one of the company’s owners, Dan Shenker. “Britain has simply become too expensive. There it costs 250,000 shekels and a degree can take six years.”

The Romanian program involves Babe-Bolyai University, a school commonly known as UBB, in the city of Cluj-Napoca.

In a YouTube clip, A.D. Atid Lekidum’s Shenker and his partner, Avishai Tal, boast that no fewer than 1,000 clients have earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees through the company and that more than 200 have earned doctorates since the firm was founded 20 years ago.

Shenker told TheMarker that about 15 Israelis a year embark on studies in Romania, and this year they include eight educators. Fees, he said, are paid to his company, “which takes care of everything,” rather than to the Romanian university. Asked whether anyone who applies to enter the doctoral program is rejected, Shenker said that is theoretically possible, but hasn’t happened so far.

Through A.D. Atid Lekidum, the students go to Romania for what is dubbed a doctoral workshop once a year in Cluj, Romania’s second-largest city. A document from a similar workshop in 2008 that was obtained by TheMarker seems to indicate that the students have a week of relaxation at their disposal. The doctoral program is organized into groups and, although the university is Romanian, the instruction in Cluj is conducted mostly by Israelis.

In 2008, most of the instruction was provided by two Israelis, Dr. Yehudit Od-Cohen, whom the company described as a guest lecturer at the Ohalo College of Education in Katzrin in the Golan Heights, and Dr. Miri Shacham, who was described as a guest lecturer at the ORT Braude College in Carmiel (who were joined for several lectures by faculty from the Romanian university). The Haifa company described the program as six hours of “personal preparation” meetings with the instructors and another six hours for “a symposium and presentations in a forum of instructors and students,” but many more hours were devoted to activities such as a tour of the city’s botanical gardens, a visit to the opera, a city tour organized by the university, a tour outside the city and dinner on a lake.

The program is recognized by Israeli authorities and provides its graduates with all the privileges afforded those with doctorates from other institutions. For public sector employees, this includes a rapid upgrade in employment classification, which automatically includes a salary increase and a larger pension.

The list of recent graduates from the Cluj program includes a number of nurses, preschool teachers and physical education teachers, all of whom now have Ph.D.s. Some graduates of the program have also found positions in academia in Israel, including Dr. Limor Kessler-Ladelsky, who teaches at Bar-Ilan University.

When asked whether Kessler-Ladelsky was actually based at the university in Cluj for her studies or whether she studied through correspondence courses, Bar-Ilan University said she was living in Berlin and in the Romanian capital, Bucharest, at the time, but did not explain why she paid considerable sums to A.D. Atid Lekidum if she was living in Europe at the time. Atid Lekidum’s list of doctoral recipients from Cluj also includes Aryeh Erlich, an outside lecturer at the school of business administration at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

“Doctoral study actually teaches how to be an academic,” explains Dan Ariely, an Israeli expert in behavioral economics who teaches at Duke University in North Carolina. “People outside this field don’t really understand what it means to learn to be an academic,” he says, adding that they do not appreciate the concept.

“They do want the title, but don’t understand what it’s all about other than the title. From their point of view, they are already experts,” he states, in reference to people who earn doctorates through non-traditional channels.

This may include boasting about a degree from institutions that don’t exist and cutting corners by earning a doctorate through correspondence courses via a commercial firm and later not explaining how the degree was earned.

“Take for example an expert in food,” Ariely suggests. “He argues: ‘I have been working with food for years at this point. I really already am a doctor, so I am entitled to the degree.’ When someone tells himself: ‘I know more than the academics’ it becomes easier to go on and say: ‘I’ll do something easy to get this degree, because I don’t need their nonsense.’ This is how people give themselves the capacity to justify their actions. It’s okay because they already know something that others don’t.”

A.D. Atid Lekidum issued a statement that said in part: “We represent the UBB university in Cluj and UAIC [the Alexandru Ioan Cuza University] in Iasi, Romania, universities recognized in Israel by the Education Ministry for purposes of salary classifications. The average cost of doctoral studies through us at universities in Romania is about 100,000 shekels, including flights, a hotel, academic and administrative support, and fees. The students’ payments are all transmitted through the representative office, which transfers the tuition to the university. The matter of our profit is not of interest to any party other than the tax authorities in Israel. The students are well aware of the use to which their funds are put.”

The degree is not earned as a group, the company said, but through a personal program, and the group travel is a result of the fact that the participants are Israelis who go to Romania once a year, which also helps cut the cost of the program. The university in Cluj makes its faculty available to the Israelis for one-on-one meetings. Students are required to submit a research proposal, and final approval of the degree follows the students’ defense of their research and a decision by a review committee of the education ministry in Bucharest, the firm said. “No Israeli instructor is required and there is none,” the company added.

Some applicants for the program have been turned down, A.D. Atid Lekidum said, if no appropriate instructor was found in their fields of research, while others were turned down because their proposed research did not meet academic standards and some students have not received a degree because they didn’t meet the university’s requirements.

For its part, the Israeli Education Ministry said the university in Cluj is a recognized institution for the granting of doctorates. Degrees from the university provides an increase in employment ranking for employees in the Israeli public service sector after a trial period and since 2005, doctorates are only recognized following a review by a panel of experts, the ministry said.

A.D. Atid Lekidum ran a similar doctoral program at Anglia Ruskin University, which has three campuses in Britain. Among the graduates of the program is Dr. Ofra Walter, the head of the education department at Tel Hai College in the Galilee.

“The studies take place at the university itself at intensified sessions spread out over the period of the doctorate in addition to personal meetings with the instructor abroad. In my field, I didn’t have many opportunities in Israel, and I also preferred to continue to conduct research in English, in which I studied for my M.A. when I lived in the United States. I received a scholarship from the British Education Ministry,” she noted, but she did not directly respond to the question as to why she chose to undertake her studies via a commercial firm.

Dr. Doron Lederer, the dean of students at the Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College in Tel Aviv, who succeeded Dvora Gesser in the post, sheds some light on who seeks to get a degree through an intermediary such as A.D. Atid Lekidum. Both Lederer and Gesser appear on a list of degree recipients through the Haifa company.

“I got started with this at a late age and doing a doctorate in Israel simply doesn’t end,” she says. “In Israel they started to tell me to do this and that course, and if there is chemistry with the lecturer, you will continue. I understood that it would never end. Ruskin University is a very serious, organized place and everything is run as it should be. It did in fact take me five years but at age 50, I didn’t need to start running after the instructor.”

She met with the instructor the university assigned to her “dozens of times,” she said, even though the instructor did not work at Ruskin itself.

Asked why she chose the school, Lederer replied frankly that the program provided an entity that would provide help in coordinating things, apparently referring to A.D. Atid Lekidum. “I chose a recognized university where you need to study. I could have done it in Hungary but I decided that it wasn’t serious.”

In response, Anglia Ruskin University said that all the students' research proposals were approved in advance in Britain by the university. The program may be conducted through distance  learning, but there are a number of points of face to face contact, including a mandatory preparatory week in Britain; a week-long compulsory workshop part way through the program, held either in Britain or Turkey; and another week-long workshop held either in Britain or Turkey that focuses on preparing for the viva doctoral oral examinations and defense of the student's thesis. The thesis defense also takes place in the UK - and in English.

In addition, states the university, the part time doctorate is no different than any of its other academic arrangements overseas and takes five years to complete on average, with the minimum registration period for the degree being 36 months.

The university says its director of research in the education faculty regularly visits Israel to meet with students, and many of them visit the university in England to meet with their academic supervisors. Students are assigned two supervisors, one of whom is a permanent member of the university staff based in Britain, while the second may be based in Israel, though this requires prior approval from the university. In addition, the students have regular access to the faculty through email, Skype, video conferencing and online training throughout the program. Students who do not make adequate academic progress during the program are required to withdraw, says the university. 

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