Want to Buy a Doctorate? Russia Has a Deal for You

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May 29 (Bloomberg) -- Corruption in Russia is like a hydra that constantly grows new heads to replace severed ones. Just ask the people trying to reform the country’s college-admissions system.

Getting a prestigious university education in Russia has long been largely a matter of money. At the most sought-after institutions, which are all state-owned, the government covers tuition for a certain number of students. Until recently, competitors for the coveted “free” slots took written and oral entrance exams. The grading was arbitrary, giving unscrupulous admissions officers the power to extract bribes in return for high scores.

That all changed in 2008, when the government introduced mandatory standardized tests, Russia’s equivalent of the SAT, and instructed colleges to give government-financed slots to students with the highest scores. Educators were not pleased. Teachers complained that cramming for multiple choice tests took the soul and creativity out of learning and destroyed the Soviet education system’s edge in the sciences. The Communist Party demanded that the new test, known as the EGE, be abolished.

The new system has proved no less dysfunctional than the old -- a reality that was on full display this week, when Russian high-school graduates took the first of this year’s EGE. The state-controlled RIA Novosti news service, citing the education ministry, reported that there were at least 30 leaks of correct answers on the Internet before the tests were done. Interfax news agency reported that the social network Vkontakte, at the request of authorities, had to block 72 communities with a total of 1.5 million subscribers where answers were published ahead of time.

Russia stretches across nine time zones, giving test-takers from the Far East plenty of time to help their cheating peers in Central and Western Russia by publishing photos of their papers. Test-takers also reported that answer sheets could easily be obtained the day before the exam.

“Some bought them at 500 rubles ($16) a pop, some got them for free from friends,” opposition activist Roman Dobrokhotov wrote on Facebook. “Essentially the EGE has lost all meaning.” He quoted one graduate as saying that eight out of ten test-takers in his class had had access to answers.

After the first test, a joke went viral on social networks: “Responding to the publication of EGE answers on the internet, officials decided that the questions would be the same across all time zones, but the answers would be different.” This is typical Russian gallows humor, reserved for situations that may be ridiculous but are by no means funny.

The scandal was serious enough for Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev to react. The publication of answers “is enough reason for the exam commission to annul EGE results for those who do this,” RIA Novosti quoted Medvedev as saying. “Sometimes one has to regret that we don’t have just one time zone like some of the neighboring countries.”

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the ultranationalist LDPR party, wrote on Twitter: “EGE irregularities again. The LDPR has long demanded its abolition. Testing knowledge in this way is inefficient and it creates opportunities for corruption.”

Medvedev, a longtime EGE proponent, admitted last year that the test was not perfect after his son Ilya took it -- and, with 359 points out of 400, earned a “free” slot at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of Foreign Relations. “My perception of the EGE is changing,” the RBC newspaper quoted Medvedev as saying. “When you experience it yourself, you see all the shortcomings and holes in any system.” Medvedev said he was convinced a traditional oral exam was needed to complement the standard tests.

While the EGE makes it more difficult for universities to admit unqualified candidates, it creates opportunities for graft in the high school system. Teachers are often willing, for a fee, to turn a blind eye to graduates using mobile phones during the exam. Bureaucrats in the education ministry system who have access to answers can be bribed to leak them. Test developers at the state-owned research institute FIPI have openly, under their own names, published test preparation books and received royalties for them.

In the Caucasus Mountains republic of Dagestan, where 31,000 people are taking the tests this year, EGE cheating has grown into a cottage industry. The website PublicPost has reported that high school students from other regions, including Moscow, have been enrolling in Dagestan schools for their final year so they can take the tests on their own terms. It is reportedly cheaper to game the test in village schools than in the regional capital of Makhachkala.

“In Makhachkala they charge 15,000 rubles ($480) to take the exam paper out of class and 20,000 to 25,000 to bring it back in,” New Region quoted Patimat Alhasova, the mother of a local graduate, as saying. “And I’m not even counting what you have to pay those who fill in the answers. In total, the four tests my son is taking will cost us about 200,000.”

Local journalist Magomed Magomedov, who served as a volunteer observer during the Russian language test, told PublicPost that students were openly photographing test sheets and using phones. Russia’s domestic counterintelligence agency, the FSB, was called in to monitor the tests, which have yielded surprisingly high scores in Dagestan year after year. Magomedov said that one FSB officer told him: “If you start taking phones away from graduates, they will all have to be kicked out, and that would start a revolution in the entire republic.”

Fixing the system is particularly difficult in a country where the problem goes straight to the top. College administrators sometimes sell doctorates outright. Opposition bloggers have uncovered plagiarized passages in the doctoral theses of a number of influential lawmakers, including Zhirinovsky and some ranking members of the ruling United Russia party. One parliament deputy charged with plagiarism, Vladimir Burmatov, had to resign as deputy chairman of the parliament’s education committee.

This week, Igor Fedyukin, a deputy education minister who had been fighting the widespread practice of issuing unearned doctorates to politicians and wealthy businessmen, resigned “to reduce pressure on the ministry.” Early this year, a commission headed by Fedyukin uncovered “a fake thesis factory” at a Moscow college. Burmatov rejoiced at Fedyukin’s resignation: “It is the correct decision to fire the most incompetent of the deputy ministers.”

As columnist Semen Novoprudsky put it in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta: “It is stupid to accuse kids of cheating on the EGE in a nation where officials cheat on their doctoral theses.”

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: bershidsky@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net.