French University Head Suspended after Alleged Diploma Trafficking

October 21, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015

French Higher Education and Research Minister Valerie Pecresse leaves the Elysee palace after the weekly cabinet meeting.  (Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images)
French Higher Education and Research Minister Valerie Pecresse leaves the Elysee palace after the weekly cabinet meeting. (Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images)
PARIS—The president of the University of Toulon and two vice-presidents were suspended on Oct. 19 for obstructing an investigation into alleged trafficking of fake diplomas.

An official statement from the Ministry for Higher Education and Research accuses the three officials of “harassment and threats toward university professors.” They said that their seizing documents “can only be understood as an attempt to destroy evidence.”

The alleged diploma trafficking at the university, located near Marseille in the south of the country, would have benefited dozens of Chinese students. It highlights the pressures caused by a growing number of Chinese students traveling abroad to acquire a foreign diploma, a highly valued item in China's competitive job market, according to the Washington Post.

The issue is currently under investigation in the Marseille Court of Justice.

After the local press began uncovering details of the trafficking in March this year, Minister of Higher Education Valerie Pecresse requested the general inspector of Education to carry out a careful investigation.

Finalized at the end of September, the report “highlights severe irregularities linked to admissions procedures of foreign students, Chinese students in particular, in Toulon University,” Pecresse said to Le Figaro newspaper. “Some students who failed their undergraduate course in another university were accepted into the second year of postgraduate courses at Toulon University,” she said.

The suspension of university President Laroussi Oueslati comes as the result of a seven-month process that began at the end of March. According to analysts, the unusually severe decision is linked more to the attempt to obstruct the investigation and pressure local personnel than to the diploma trafficking itself.

For university employees, “This is a deep relief,” said one member of the university administrative board quoted by Le Monde. “Nothing is definitively solved however, since this is only a six-month suspension.”

Oueslati called the accusations politically oriented. “I condemn this plot against my vice-presidents and me. The aim is to shoot at a university president who does not belong to the same political group as the minister.”

He said his lawyers would fight back against what he called a negation of the presumption of innocence.