Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Corruption in Higher Education Threatens the Future of Post-Soviet States

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 1 – The low salaries most professors now receive and the ongoing redefinition of students as customers rather than scholars has contributed to the spread of corruption in higher educational institutions in many post-Soviet states, devaluing degrees and reducing the ability of graduates to contribute to the future development of their countries.
Not surprisingly, given what is at stake, ever more people in these countries are expressing concern, and ever more officials are committing themselves to doing something about it. But so far, as reports about conditions in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan make clear, efforts to combat this most insidious form of corruption appear to have made little headway.
In an article entitled “Education Paid For Twice Over,” Irina Baskakova, a Moscow State University expert on social and political problems in the post-Soviet states, describes both the scope of the problem in Kazakhstan and what politicians, academics, and students are trying to do about it (www.ia-centr.ru/expert/1563/).
More than 80 percent of Kazakhstan’s students, Baskakova reports, told researchers at the ZhanuSu Youth Center that they know about cases when other students have paid professors and university administrators for grades or degrees, and almost a third – 31 percent – say they have given bribes themselves.
Most students of this problem, she continues, point to the law salaries most instructors receive and the failure of the government, itself corrupt in other ways, to take action against either those who give bribes or those who demand them. But that is not the whole story, she insists.
On the one hand, she notes, the same ZhanuSu survey found, three-quarters of students who offered bribes said they did so before instructors asked for them or even if the teachers indicated that they did not want to be bribed, with 35 percent of this group acknowledging they did so because they did not want to have to study or were simply lazy.
And on the other, the shift in the self-definition of those enrolled in universities since the end of Soviet times from being students to being purchasers of a “good” has had extremely negative consequences, leading students to be more concerned about credentials than about knowledge and convincing many that paying for grades and degrees is acceptable.
(This shift, Baskakova continues, has led more students to enroll without knowing what they want to study or caring very much about what they get their degrees in , attitudes that have among other things caused an overproduction of graduates without real knowledge in fields like law and economics.)
Because the growth of a large number of those with credentials and expectations that exceed their actual training has both economic and political consequences, Kazakhstan’s political leaders, most of whom received their training during Soviet times when corruption had less to do with money than with power have demanded action.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev has called for “a pitiless struggle against corruption inside the halls of higher educational institutions.” He has pushed for the creation of university ombudsmen to improve transparency. And he has insisted that rectors before being appointed commit themselves to fighting corruption.
Youth groups of the ruling party and student organizations have also gotten involved, seeking to create systems of student government that besides everything else will give those being pressured to give bribes a place to go and serve notice on those who demand them that they could be exposed.
If these efforts work, and Baskakova indicates that the jury is still out on that, then students “for real money will receive a real diploma.” But more than that, in contrast to many students now, they will not enter the workforce with the understanding that bribes can take the place of effort and knowledge.
Meanwhile, in a posting on the Centrasia.ru site, Askarbek Mambetaliyev, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts who conducts research at New York University in the U.S., decries what is taking place in the universities and other schools of his homeland Kyrgyzstan (www.centrasia.ru/news.php?st=1214565240).
Mambetaliyev describes a situation not terribly dissimilar from that in Kazakhstan, but his words of despair about it deserve to be quoted: “In the majority of the countries of the former USSR,” he writes, academic degrees are now bought and sold, and are not awarded on the basis of actual research.”
“Reviews and dissertations are downloaded from the Internet, and no one even reads them. No one does original research [even at the graduate level] because students are admitted on the basis of the results of examinations which are,” Mambetaliyev suggests, entirely accurately called “kandidat minimums.”

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