Russia’s pervasive corruption leaves few stones unturned, and the country’s highly regarded university sector is most certainly not immune. Just a few weeks ago, Mikhail Basharatyan, the deputy dean of the faculty of World Politics at the elite Moscow State University made headlines when he was caught accepting a 30,000 EUR bribe for a PhD admission. The scandal followed on just a year after another MSU professor was taped receiving 35,000 EUR from a student.
'If bribery in the West has the shape of an elite discipline, then in Russia it is a sport for all.'
Corruption in higher education is popularly considered to be endemic; and while no one can argue it is exclusively Russian phenomenon, the practice here does stand alone in terms of both scale and nature. If bribery in the West has the shape of an elite discipline, then in Russia it is a sport for all.
A tidy business
According to data presented in a 2012 report (link in Russian) by Open Government (OG), a council of experts established by Prime Minister Medvedev, higher education is perceived by the Russians to be the fourth most corrupt sector in the country, after the road police, security forces and community facility agencies (graph 2: red is dishonest, green honest; the other three service areas are hospitals, schools and employment). The black market, which runs from kindergarten to professional education, has an estimated value of 5.5 billion USD every year (source: OG report). It is a sophisticated system, with a multitude of agents encompassing professors, teachers, students, parents, ministerial officials, contractors, publishers, librarians, canteen administrators, mediators and fixers… All sorts of services and goods are exchanged, from exams, admissions and grades, to degrees and private tutoring, not to mention public tenders and auxiliary services such as free food at the canteen, unlimited access to books at the library and places in student hostels.
In 2011, the outspoken and extrovert liberal Moscow magazine Bolshoi Gorod set the cat among the pigeons with an investigative piece entitled ‘All Moscow’s grafts’ (link in Russian). The article contained a menu-like list of services procurable by bribes, from elbow surgery to a new driving licence (5,000 RUB plus a bottle of mid-market Cognac, and 50,000 RUB respectively). Many of the house specials came in the field of education.
A friend, himself in the middle buying a Master’s degree at one of Kazan’s universities, described the business to me in detail. ‘Some universities look like supermarkets’, he said. ‘It isn’t only demand driven. You just need to walk around a university to discover dozens of ads proposing tailor-made or recycled dissertations and theses’. Money and contacts, he adds, are key: ‘It’s not a trivial deal to bribe someone. You need to know the procedures, the appropriate way of approaching people, contacts that will introduce you, and of course the right sum to hand over’. My friend says he shows up just a couple of times a year, at the beginning and at the end of the sessions, with presents.
Not everyone concurs with the popular perception of ubiquitous corruption. Alexander Tevdoy-Burmuli is Professor of European Integration at Moscow’s elite university, MGIMO. He explained to me that today’s prestigious universities are reasonably upright and trustworthy: ‘these days, it’s almost impossible to buy degrees or even top grades in a renowned institute; everything is carefully monitored and top universities are very concerned about their reputation,’ he says. At the same time, he acknowledged, there is occasionally evidence of malpractice in leading Moscow institutes.
'The assumption ‘the further from Moscow, the more corrupt the university’ is a dangerous over-simplification, because there are respectable institutes in the regions too.'
There seems to be significant variation across Russia’s 83 regions. The assumption ‘the further from Moscow, the more corrupt the university’ is a dangerous over-simplification, because there are respectable institutes in the regions too. But clan loyalties and the absence of central control in the peripheries of Russia can create a particularly propitious environment for corruption. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the North Caucasus takes the gold medal in the sport. According to a one-time academic (now working as a human rights activist in this impoverished region), buying your way here is reasonably straightforward. ‘You can buy whatever you want, it’s just a matter of money. Obtaining a counterfeit certificate is generally quick and cheap. Getting it registered in the national database is more complicated and costly. It’s not impossible, but there are many ways to do it. If you’re not in a hurry, the simplest arrangement is to enrol directly in the final year and then buy your way out. In this way you’re sure that nobody can contest your fake qualification.’
The government acts
University corruption is not a new problem in Russia. It was an often discussed reality of the Soviet era, particularly during the stagnation of the Brezhnev era. ‘With the end of early Soviet social uplift, corruption and favouritism became widespread’, recalls Tevdoy-Burmuli. But it was only in the 1990s and 2000s, with weakening of central authority, that the problem became particularly serious. ‘When the USSR collapsed, new universities, regional branches, and departments of all sorts mushroomed nationwide. They went out of control and it was the start of a new business not always motivated by pedagogy.’
The scale of the problem eventually forced the government to act. A 2001 experimental reform replaced entry tests run independently by every university with a nationwide standardised test for all universities - the Unified State Examination (USE), similar to the American SAT. Besides fostering competition from students who live in the provinces and are therefore unable to attend the tests of the prestigious establishments of the capital, the reform intended to ensure more transparency in the matriculating process, considered to be particularly corrupt. CCTV and electronic marking were also introduced.
'The scale of the problem eventually forced the government to act.'
But the reforms have, by general consensus, proved to be disastrous. It was not long before the new tests themselves succumbed to corruption, as the Director of the Federal Testing Centre, Vladimir Khlebnikov, himself readily acknowledged. Tevdoy-Burmuli believes the new tests actually took corruption to a new level: ‘..the universities immediately understood that USE results were not reliable, so they started to run their own supplementary entry tests, opening up more opportunities for corruption’.
In essence, the reform highlighted the very complex nature and multiple causes of corruption in education. And it proved that the hope of solving a structural problem through a mere technical solution was excessively naïve.
The miserable wage of professors, paid as little as 1000 USD per month, undoubtedly continues to be a key issue that must eventually be tackled. That said, it alone cannot explain the whole picture. Higher wages in public administration may be a deterrent only if the probability of detection and punishment rises as well. Salary policy is useless if it isn’t coordinated with measures strengthening accountability and the rule of law in the country.
The way forward
Ruslan Yurevich Shulga, professor at the Civil Society Department of MGIMO, is convinced that no less than a root-and-branch reform of the whole Russian university system is required. For Shulga, this means reducing the number of establishments, increasing public spending on education, adopting a more impartial system of evaluation and putting in place special mechanisms like crisis hotlines and watchdog bodies in universities to strengthen civil society control.
'Even if the government can agree an effective plan, implementation is some way off. In the meantime, corruption will continue to blight the country.'
Even if the government can agree an effective plan, implementation is some way off. In the meantime, corruption will continue to blight the country. Bright minds, competition and financial resources will continue to be squandered. Education’s quality control mission will continue to be undermined, with the potential for incompetent people rising to highly responsible positions in e.g. medicine or law, a situation that is at best inefficient and at worst a danger for the community.
But the most pervasive aspect to corruption in education is that it spreads the culture of dishonesty among the younger generation. It teaches that cheating and bribery are perhaps the only way to succeed, compromising the entire political and economic future of the country.