German prosecutors are investigating over 100 senior academics at a dozen of the country's top universities on suspicion that they awarded doctorates to hundreds of mediocre or unqualified students after taking bribes from a firm of educational consultants.
State prosecutors in Cologne said the students paid between €4,000 and €20,000 to the academics after being told by the consultancy firm that the money would go a "long way" to ensuring that their doctorates "were in the bag".
The investigation follows a raid on the premises of the Cologne-based Institute for Scientific Counselling last year in which hundreds of company files were confiscated by police.
The company has since closed down, but Günther Feld, the Cologne state prosecutor said the documents had produced a wealth of incriminating evidence which was now being used to investigate the academics concerned.
Mr Feld said they included senior university lecturers and professors but not those holding long-term appointments. The academics are suspected of having used the bribes to renovate homes, buy cars and go on holiday.
The Cologne company at the centre of the investigation had been in business for 20 years. Like scores of other similar academic consultancy firms in Germany, it offered to help students obtain Phds in a range of subjects and to put them in touch with a suitable senior lecturer or professor.
But the Cologne institute is alleged to have committed fraud by paying bribes of between €4,000 and €20,000 to the academics to ensure that the students obtained their doctorates. Most of the students were said to have been unaware that their fees were being used to bribe their professors.
Academics at universities including Frankfurt, Berlin, Tübingen, Hamburg and Leipzig were said to have been involved in the bribery scandal. Manual Theisen, a business professor at Munich University, said the investigation showed that German universities had "looked the other way for too long". He said PhD consultancy had become big business in Germany: "We are talking about millions of euros here," he added.
The scandal is a blow to German universities' reputation for academic excellence. But Margaret Wintermantel, the head of Germany's Universities Association, said: "We have a problem with a few people, not with the system."
'Herr Doktor': A Teutonic obsession
* Germany is still obsessed with the importance of academic titles. It is not only medical doctors who are entitled to be addressed as Herr or Frau Doktor but anyone who holds a PhD.
* Academics with a doctorate in beekeeping may even insist on being called Doktor, although in Germany (though not Austria) this Teutonic habit is in slow but steady decline.