Thursday, July 31, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Corruption in Russian Higher Education Threatens That Country’s Future

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 31 – The Russian Federation, like many other post-Soviet states, is plagued by a kind of corruption that gets far less attention there and in the West than it deserves given the far greater impact on that country’s future it is certain to have -- the illicit purchase of admissions to universities and of grades and even degrees once a student is enrolled.
That is because such corruption is creating a class of people with credentials but without skills, who will expect to be rewarded according to the former even though they should not be because of the latter and who thus threaten to become a disgruntled class ready to listen to anyone who promises to take care of them as they believe they deserve.
This week, the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), an agency with close ties to the Russian government, published the results of a poll on the levels of corruption in the educational process and how the authorities are currently seeking to struggle against it (
The poll results underline the reasons for serious concern about this form of corruption but give some basis for optimism compared to similar surveys conducted some five years ago about the same subject.
According to VTsIOM, half of all Russians – 49 percent – say that money is more useful for gaining admission to universities that knowledge – only one in three suggests the reverse. As disturbing as those figures are, they are markedly better than those from 2005. Then, 61 percent said money was more important, and only 19 percent said knowledge was.
That may mean that young Russians will prove to be more comfortable with or at least not willing to challenge this dangerous kind of corruption, and it means that over the next several decades when the last graduates from Soviet-era institutions retire, there may very well be even less opposition to the influence of money and personal connections than now.
Thus, the VTsIOM analysts conclude, “the level of corruption in the system of higher education remains approximately at the same level it was at in 2005,” an indictment of the failure of anti-corruption activists to focus on this kind of corruption and of the ineffectiveness of the Russian government’s much ballyhooed anti-corruption campaigns.
Slightly over half of the sample – 54 percent – said that the best way to overcome this kind of corruption was to increase punishments for those instructors and administrators who are caught taking bribes, but the share of those who favored imposing punishments on those parents and students who offered them rose over the last three years from 23 to 31 percent.
The poll also found increasing support for the use of a single state examination for university admissions, but it did not address what many experts believe is the fundamental problem: extremely low salaries for university teachers who are only able to make do in the new environment by taking bribes.
As the results of the VTsIOM poll were being released, the portal featured an article on the nature of corruption in higher education in Uzbekistan. Its conclusions, which likely apply in some other post-Soviet states, give even more reason for concern (
According to the article, competition for university admissions is rising – the number of young people in the prime post-secondary education age cohort is rising and the number of slots in state institutions is stable – even though tuition is rising far more rapidly than the overall rate of inflation.
As a result, more and more applicants are offering bribes to get in. Some of the arrangements in this regard would be amusing if they weren’t so pernicious. At the Tashkent State Institute of Oriental Studies, those who “pay” in advance are places in a separate room during admissions testing and instructors “help” them come up with the right answers.
Indeed, the article continues, bribes for university entrance are now so common in Uzbekistan that there is a well-developed scale with more money needed to buy one’s way into prestigious schools and less for less favored institutions.
Getting into the University of the World Economy and Diplomacy costs 10 to 12,000 U.S. dollars. Purchasing a place at the Tashkent State Economics University or the National University of Uzbekistan costs “only four or five thousand dollars depending on the faculty the student wishes to enroll in.”
But Uzbek students who want to enroll in the Agricultural University, the State Institute of Irrigation, and similar less prestigious institutions, can count on paying “in the neighborhood of two to three thousand U.S. dollars,” a pattern that effectively tracks students parental income rather than ability into higher education.
There are two other “hidden” consequences of this situation. On the one hand, those who would like to apply but have little money simply give us and do not even take the “required” examinations. And on the other, some decide to try their luck abroad, contributing to a brain drain no country can readily afford.
As a result, the article concludes sadly, “the future of , which in the first instance depends on the qualification of its workers and intellectual potential, completely depends on the consciences of those who today are responsible for admissions” to its universities.” Judging by such reports, that is a very weak reed not only in Uzbekistan but across the post-Soviet space.

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