One in two Romanian high school pupils failed their university exemption exams this year, a record low level after new anti-fraud measures cut back on cheating, new figures showed Monday.
Only 45 percent of pupils managed to get the A-level diploma required for university admission -- down from 69.3 percent last year and 81.4 percent in 2009, the education ministry said.
Described as a "disaster" by the media, the figures revealed that 20 schools could not boast a single 12th-grader among the 90,765 who passed the exam out of some 200,000 who took it nationally.
In Bucharest the success rate was barely 42 percent, a far cry from the nearly 80 percent recorded in past years.
"These results are a mirror of our society. Romania is now at a crossroads", Education Minister Daniel Funeriu told journalists.
"The nation should choose to encourage people who like to work rather than those who prefer cheating," he said, hailing the anti-fraud controls put in place earlier this year.
Cameras were installed in examination centres and students were strictly forbidden from trying to buy teachers' leniency.
In previous years, each student was asked to contribute the equivalent of up to 40 euros to a "class fund" that was either divided among teachers supervising and correcting their tests or spent on lavish meals for them.
"Romania would have been different if young people aged today between 18 and 38 had not cheated at exams," Funeriu had said last week, accusing his predecessors of having done nothing to curb widespread fraud.
But Gheorghe Isvoranu, leader of the Spiru Haret teachers' union, blamed the poor results on a shortage of funds.
"The budget of the education system dropped from 4.7 percent of gross domestic product in 2007 to 2.7 percent this year," he told AFP.
"It is obvious that we cannot reform a system unless we finance it properly."
While he did not excuse teachers who turned a blind eye to cheating, Isvoranu said their wages "are hardly motivating", especially after drastic austerity cuts last year.
Figures from the anti-corruption prosecutors' office (DNA) show that 145 persons, including 23 high school teachers and inspectors, were sent to court over graft in 2010.
They are accused of having received some 150,000 euros ($220,000) in bribes over 2008-2010.
"We must note the continuity of this form of corruption having a serious impact on the education system," the DNA told AFP.
This year, 665 high school students were disqualified after they were caught cheating, twice as many as last year.
In one high school, the test answers were distributed to 111 pupils before the exam. The police has launched an investigation.
In another school, teachers discovered that nearly 100 students had submitted identical manuscripts in the Romanian language test.
"The moment of truth has come," Liliana Romanciuc, a school inspector in Iasi (north-eastern Romania), told Mediafax news agency.
"Success rates topping 80 percent were not possible. We were simply deluding ourselves."