Monday, 3 November 2008

Feature on Corruption in Russian Universities

A little feature co-written with Zhanna Titova. Sadly not yet up on the web edition.

Grease me up Vlad [Student, 28.10.08]

James Ellingworth and Zhanna Titova shed light on Russia's corrupt education system

If you thought the university was ripping you off, would you go to the police? One student at Tyumen State Agricultural Institute in Russia did, and made national news. The reason? He'd bribed his lecturer, but the pass mark he'd expected in return hadn't materialised.
The above story was only newsworthy because of the student's idiocy in reporting the matter to the police, not because of the corruption involved. Sadly, that's all too common in many, if not most, of the country's universities.
As the row over tuition fees looks set to ignite once again, perhaps it's time for a step back and a look at the privileged position our money buys us, and how our degrees, comparatively at least, offer one thing more prized than any other in global education – they can be trusted.
We've all received those junk emails that promise a 'college degree' online with no work involved. And we all know that they're scams and that any certificate they might send you would be worthless. But with a simple search for 'buy a degree' on Yandex – the Russian-speaking world's answer to Google – you can find what is effectively a shopping list for corrupt degrees, detailing the bribes required to get in, get extra tuition, and pass exams.
Places at the most prestigious institutions, such as the elite Moscow State International Relations Institute, start at about $30,000 worth of 'favours'. $10,000 buys you a place at Moscow State Law Academy, although medics must feel left out – their course requires just $2,000. One principal at a top Russian university was recently arrested for selling law degrees – despite the fact that her university doesn't teach the subject.
Lera, a friend, describes her university experience: “A lot of my classmates from school paid $5-6,000 to get into university. And they keep paying to get good marks. But they just don't want to study, to go to the university day by day, they just go at the end of the semester...and pay a teacher or a dean and have good results.”
Russia is a country that I feel passionately about, and it's hard talking to friends worried that the degree they are working for will be worthless because of bribery. Russia, like a lot of countries with corruption problems, has a lot of potential and aims to compete with the EU, India and China. But corruption there is destroying the value of Russian degrees, for those who pay just as much as those who deserve their grades. Talented students who can afford to choose to study abroad, leaving the vast majority of ordinary Russians with no way to get a plausible qualification – there are now only two Russian universities in the world top 400, hardly indicating future prosperity.
The situation has got so bad that a lot of companies in Russia (and in other countries where the problem is just as bad, such as Ukraine) often list universities they will not accept students from when they advertise for graduate trainees. Their degrees are simply so doubtful as to be worthless.
Having a good degree that you worked hard for is valuable. But if everyone who has one had to work hard for theirs too, it's priceless. As soon as even one person is able to buy their way to a degree, every student's degree is cast into doubt. The British system's greatest asset is respectability – something that cannot be bought for the simple reason that it only exists when people don't buy their way in, but instead deserve the product.
For this reason, news of the various recent controversies over international students in Britain and the increased fees they bring is so worrying. Allegations of universities bending the rules for students paying several times the fees of a British student, true or not, put the reputation of everyone's degrees under just a little bit more suspicion.
While I'm not suggesting that a few dodgy favours for high-rolling foreign students – as some reports have alleged – will put the British system into the state Russian education is in, any hint that UK universities are motivated more by the money a student brings than the potential for learning, can only be damaging. Given the risks involved at a time when British universities are trying to challenge on the world stage, corruption is something we simply can't afford.

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