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Toni Schönfelder
A lifetime of innovation

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Toni Schönfelder
A lifetime of innovation

Bribery is devaluing the notion of education as valuable in itself. But the value of a diploma in Russia seems to be rising.  
MOSCOW, Russia |  
Russia’s university teachers may be protesting loudly, and in many cases going on strike, about their pay and the government’s plans to reform the education system, but for a good number of them 2005 may have been a bumper year. By all accounts, including the government’s, 2005 saw a record number of bribes pass hands.  
Exact figures are understandably not available, but there is no shortage of estimates. A corruption-monitoring team at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, a state university, said university teachers took roughly $1 million in 2004. Some estimates indicate that corruption in universities is rising by 7-10 percent annually; the daily Izvestiya suggested that at the upper end of the market – prestigious universities – bribes rose by 15-20 percent in 2004. The Higher School of Economics believes one in 10 university lecturers take bribes, and 20 percent of future students and their parents would be prepared to offer a bribe. Da, a student movement headed by the daughter of Yegor Gaidar, author of the shock therapy applied to the Russian economy in the early 1990s, found that 52 percent of Moscow students said they had encountered cases of corruption at their universities.  
Education Minister Andrei Fursenko fumes that he even knows the going rate for a diploma. But he seems to have no clear idea of how to deal with the problem. He sees two routes but sounds unconvinced. “Without controls on the quality [of education], without objective appraisals of graduates by employers we can’t change anything,” he told the magazine Itogi.  
Nor does the state seem vigorous in the battle with what is, by all accounts, a huge feature of Russia’s educational scene. The Russian education inspectorate, Rosobrnadzor, the body chiefly responsible for rooting out bribery, says it intends to inspect 35 universities a year looking for indications of bribe-taking. But in 2004-2005 it inspected just seven out of Russia’s 89 regions, not touching any of Moscow universities, the schools commonly believed to command the highest prices.  
The Interior Ministry says that, in an average year, it registers 1,000 complaints of bribery, starts prosecutions in around one-third of cases, and proves that bribes worth $10,000-$20,000 changed hands – a tiny figure for the country as a whole and only a little more than the reported value of some individual bribes. On average, 20 teachers are punished a year for accepting bribes. Most escape the harshest punishments, and simply lose their jobs.  
With little being done to curb corruption and a minister seemingly resigned to its continuation, it is perhaps not surprising that forecasts suggest that 2006 will be an even better year for bribe-takers.  
The Art of Bribery  
Still, a sense of fatalism about how to deal with corruption is perhaps partly understandable. The lack of active prosecution reflects the obvious but important truth that bribery benefits both the giver and taker. Complaints are normally lodged only in the relatively few cases when a bribe has failed to have its intended effect.  
Moreover, bribery is a sophisticated business. Middlemen are often used, just one reason why tracking bribery can be complicated. Some forms of corruption are indirect, with some examiners working privately as crammers, to coach schoolchildren through their entrance exams (though Da found that only 56 percent of students believe this qualifies as corruption).  
“The skill of offering and taking bribes is an ancient art, perfected for centuries,” an anonymous teacher from Moscow State University told the daily Gazeta.  
For many of Russia’s current crop of university teachers, corruption is not a new phenomenon. In the Soviet era, the rich and members of Russia’s ruling elite – the nomenklatura – used their privileged positions to ensure their offspring entered prestigious universities.  
Now, the prize is not so much a place at university as a free place – and, for men, a chance to defer their stint as conscripts in the Russian military. This year, the Russian university system offered a free education to the country’s 441,000 brightest students – or to bribe-givers. Roughly the same number paid to attend state or private universities.  
A free place is much prized. Just how much depends from institution and on the region, but the ball-park figures stated in Izvestiya suggest that the price of a place in a law or economics faculty ranges from $12,000 to $26,000 in Moscow’s universities and from $9,000 to $22,000 in the province. In humanities faculties, the price floor is similar – $9,500 both in Moscow and the provinces – but the ceiling is much lower than in law and economics faculties, at $18,000 in Moscow and $14,500 in the provinces.  
But bribery is not just a way of saving costs; it is a way of saving time and a shortcut to a job. Many students spend their university lives working; for them, a bribe is the most convenient way to gain a diploma and an “education.” They can do without education, but not without a diploma.  
The importance of a diploma can be seen in two specific areas of the education system where bribes flourish. In addition to 650 state universities, Russia has 600 or more private universities. At these universities, students are expected to pay for their education. The purpose of bribes here is, then, simply to get a diploma without hassle. Indeed, some students view the existence of private universities merely as a form or legitimized bribery.  
Another area where the incidence of bribes is “traditionally” high are very popular, usually vocational distance-learning courses that require students to work at home but also to attend short courses, as a rule, twice a year.  
The same market principles mean that the highest bribes are reputedly paid to enter the most prestigious universities. Believing a diploma from these universities is better, major employers first turn to these schools for new recruits.  
What is to be done?  
If the government is giving little indication about how to deal with the problem, what do others think the possible solutions are?  
The survey conducted by Da suggests that many students believe the answer is to increase the salaries of teachers. But the government plans to raise university salaries only in 2008. And, in any case, whether greater honesty would discourage bribes or simply encourage would-be students to offer a higher bribe is an open question.  
Another suggestion is to ensure that state-set courses address a primary concern of most Russian students: how their education will help them on the labor market. At the moment, future journalists find they have to pass physical-education tests, and future accountants and economists are required to study philosophy and psychology. Many students would prefer a system where they could choose subjects to study and take credits, rather than to spend time studying and attending courses they believe can never put to good use.  
But perhaps market forces could do at least something to restrain the growth in bribery. In 2008, the length of mandatory military service will fall from two years to one. And bribery itself could cap bribery. As corruption grows, diplomas might theoretically become a less valuable commodity – and, in practice, some say employers are already paying an increasing amount of attention not to what education a student has but to what work experience they have gained.  
Copyright © 2006 Transitions Online.  

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