The student sitting in front slips folded 1000 rouble (£20) notes in between the pages of his end-of-term coursework paper; students whisper, text, check their iphones and sit with open text books during a mid-term exam; a girl in the toilets adjusts cheat-notes (shpargalki) pasted over her thighs, hidden under her skirt and held in place with semi-opaque tights – just a few examples of my first-hand experience of corruption in the Russian higher education system over the past year.
Over the past few years in Russia there has been a lot of debate over the introduction of the new General State Exam (Edinnaia Gosudarstvennaia Examen, or EGE). A computerised, standardised test such as the SATs we have in Britain, this is aimed at rooting-out corruption in university admissions and improving accessibility for students from lower-income families. This year the EGE is to be fully implemented across Russia, yet it has come up against tough opposition since the idea was first mooted. The argument against the test’s corruption-busting potential indeed seems to have been prophetic. For a kick off the federal department responsible for the EGE is itself suspected of embezzlement of over 33 million rubles. Not exactly setting an example from above. Furthermore, there have been numerous discrepancies with EGE results, including cases of answers being known beforehand and posted on the internet or of concentrated levels of suspiciously high or low results in certain regions of Russia. Other criticism has been based on the unsuitability of a one-test-fits-all style approach to evaluating students’ knowledge.
How many, how much… and how?
The extent of corrupt practices is difficult to measure due to the nature of the problem and corruption within universities can take on many guises. The most common - and all of which I witnessed - include bribery, cheating, plagiarism, preferential treatment and discrimination. On higher levels, we’re getting into the realm of embezzlement, extortion and fraud. According to Ararat Osipian in his paper “Corruption and Reform in Russian Higher Education”, in 2005 over 3000 economic crimes in the education sector were reported, of which there were 849 cases of bribery and 361 cases of embezzlement of central budget resources. 20% of students used corrupt practices to gain admission to university. This is certainly but the tip of the iceberg.
The magnitude of the problem is also reflected in the population’s perceptions. A survey by the All-Russia Centre for the Study of Public Opinion last year showed that whilst 33% of respondents considered that knowledge was the most important thing needed to get into a higher education institute, 49% considered that it was money. Meanwhile, 13% of those who had a child in education said that they had had to pay admissions tutors for their entry. 27% had been forced to hand over money to teachers to ensure the necessary results during exam time. A study by the Higher School of Economics in Moscow showed that during the 2002-2003 academic year Russians spent around 21.4 billion rubles on bribes in admissions and in grading at university. It’s worth nothing that the abovementioned opinion poll showed that only 14% of respondents thought that the EGE would help combat corruption.
Greasing your tutors palm may be an age-old trick, but new, elaborate ways of cheating are also becoming commonplace. Friends of mine told stories of a radio earpiece worn hidden under the hair. As they pull their exam question at random from the pile students read it out loud, and those on the other end of the radio look up the question in the textbook and recite the answer into the earpiece. Add this to the hundreds of adverts posted round university buildings offered ready-made coursework on every topic imaginable and one gets the distinct feeling that education irregularities are a profitable business.
Why does the geek peek?
Which all leads us to ask – why? Professors’ salaries are often pointed to by means of one explanation – pay them more and they’ll do their job properly, right? Yet the institutionalised nature of this phenomenon points to deeper-rooted issues. Where do you draw the line between a lecturer turning a blind eye to whispering during a final-year exam, bumping up his friend’s son’s marks and accepting £200 to pass a lazy student? At MGIMO, depending on the extent of the tutor’s apathy or how much he was in need of a new washing machine for his wife either goes; a soviet-era mentality valuing personal relationships and links – svyazi – continues to prevail. In Britain, free from a burdensome past of pervasive corruption, the system is clear: exams are presided over by strict external moderators; students sit apart from one another, and write on official-use paper only identified by a candidate number. The slightest suspicion of unfair play leads to immediate disqualification from all exams that year and possible permanent exclusion full stop. Although favouritism can undoubtedly play a part, coursework papers are double-marked, checked through an electronic system for plagiarism and periodically sent to external moderators. A system that I would say is fairly effective (I can safely say that neither I, nor any of my friends would have even dreamt of attempting to cheat at university in Britain).
But apart from habit, and, well, just because they can, in my experience, honest students are often forced to cheat because of the set-up of the education system itself. Take high contact hours (compare approx 30 hours/week in Moscow to my 11 in London) and a heavy work load and add a demanding administrative system and often chaotic (or lack of) programme/workload/course coordination, even the most hard-working geek might be tempted to, say, sneak a peek at their notes in order to pass an un-announced exam that requires regurgitating hundreds of facts on a topic that the programme has not actually covered. Eventually a briber-bribed relationship is constructed; as both sides settle into the unspoken arrangement each is increasingly dependent on that system continuing to work for them.
Paying your way from the cradle to the grave
The implications of corruption in the higher education system are as serious as the problem is widespread. As a recent study by the Institute of Economics of Education in Dijon, France shows, corruption in higher education institutes seriously damages their competitiveness. The cost of corruption in higher education is analogous to reducing the economic productivity of a university and thus its rate of return by 2 – 15% as its quality is reduced.
Furthermore, corrupt practices in higher education institutes nurture corrupt attitudes in students that they take with them into the professional world. At a time when Russia is in dire need of modernisation and innovation, efficiency-crushing corruption is a two-sided sword, creating extra costs and undermining a healthy work-ethic. It will ultimately serve to completely devalue degrees from Russian universities.
Finally, a widespread acceptance of corruption feeds the image – and reality – of Russia as an increasingly polarised society: one of have-nots, still marginalised by years of cut-throat capitalism, and good-for-nothing haves living an empty existence, producing nothing and continuing to deprive the country of some much-needed real creativity and innovation.
But I think that my smart Russian pals who have worked their way through this quagmire of a system with their consciences still (as) clean (as is humanely possible) would agree with what our grannies in England would remind us – at the end of the day if you cheat, you’re just cheating yourself.