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The Corrupt World of Russia’s Education System

A young woman stands in a Moscow Metro station. She is dressed casually and appears to be no different to the hundreds of commuters that pass her by. She simply stands and waits. She’s mostly ignored, including by Metro staff, but occasionally someone would shoot her a glance. At her chest she’s holding a cardboard placard with the word “diploma” written by hand in thick black ink. The young woman waits for several hours, until a man in his twenties approaches her casually. A few words are exchanged and a deal is struck. A deposit is handed over and the two go their separate ways. The ‘customer’ continues on his journey and the young woman sets off to acquire some documents. A week or so later the two meet at an agreed location and the woman presents a degree certificate bearing her customer’s full name, level of required qualification and subject. The man then hands over a sum of money and the two part their ways, never to meet again. The young man can now use this certificate to get a better-paid job or a promotion in the company he works for. This is scene that happens countless times in Moscow and in many other cities across Russia. And not just in underground stations. Advertisements are often tactfully placed in newspapers and the numbers of websites offering fake degrees are growing. Sites like and – whose slogan is “Couldn’t finish your studies, buy a diploma” – openly offer a wide range of diplomas with a pricelist for just about any known qualification. Almost comically, looks more like a serious firm than an illegal operation with its business-like design and pictures of people in suits. Scroll further down the web page, however, and you’ll find the site boasting, “We’re offering you to buy diplomas at the lowest prices.” Another,, amongst its many other claims, says it offers something better - quality. Part of the reason why so many of these websites exist is because of the limited resources of many Russian universities. Many degree certificates are hand stamped and signed, even today. That makes the production of fakes easier. Higher Education is a big deal in Russia. Knowledge is valued very highly. Having a diploma indicates you are a well-read individual. An employer’s perception of you differs if you have a diploma. Without one, any job application looks weak. Plus it’s particularly hard to be promoted without that certificate, even if you’ve been with a company for 10 years (unless that is, you offer someone a bribe). The exact significance of education in Russia is partly symbolised in a joke: “Right now, no one’s performing in Russian strip clubs – it’s exam time.” The subtext here being that even strippers take their higher education seriously enough to be studying full time. It’s a mentality that’s been carried over from the Soviet times. Throughout the country university education is free, and in a post-communist era, there are now cash incentives for those that excel. Marks are graded on a scale of five: five being the highest and one the lowest. Exams run every six months. Score a five and you’re awarded up to $100 every month for that period. A four can equal up to $70 and a three $25. Anything below a three is considered a fail and you’ll likely be forced to retake the year or drop

out altogether. The latter isn’t something to even consider, when university education is a five year compulsory minimum. Those who do drop out often do so from fear of humiliation. The strict educational upbringing and pressure from both friends and society leads some students to the easy way out, to give up the idea of a university education altogether. Others find ways around the system – like buying a diploma. Although it’s quite easy to get hold of, this method of buying yourself an education is rarely used, as checking a certificate’s validity only takes one phone call by the employer to the dean of the named department to ask if the student existed in the university records. There are other underhand tactics. Like approaching a lecturer before sitting an exam. By saying, “I would like you to help me with my exams,” (in other words: “I’ll give you some money in exchange for the test questions”) you are giving the lecturer a choice of accepting or declining your offer. Both of you will have an understanding of the situation and the lecturer may not take the risk of jeopardising his or her job. The key here is in the subtlety of the words, which are open to interpretation. If the lecturer gets the gist, you might be given clues to what will appear in the coming assessment. The amount revealed will obviously depend on the size of your wallet. On occasions you can buy the exam itself. Less straightforward but also (at times) effective method involves being friendly with a lecturer. Getting to know a lecturer can prove useful when struggling to keep up with seminars. Private lessons can be arranged, although this isn’t strictly legal because the lecturer will not pay tax on their earnings. With content-heavy subjects like Law and History, where a lot of facts are involved, a lot of students like to use gifts. Visiting one university’s History Department with a lecturer friend, I entered the spacious staff room to find a long wooden table in the middle of the room. On it was the sort of array flowers you’d normally find in a wedding; a plethora of large, richly coloured bouquets. And chocolates. Dark, milk, white, Belgian – even Thorntons would be impressed. I later found out that my visit came at a crucial moment: at the brief interval between exams and the publication of results. The tactic of trying to win favours was, by the looks of it, everyone’s last effort of nudging their grade up a level. To achieve an almost bullet-proof diploma that’s as close to the real deal as possible you would need to approach an official at the university who’s at an executive level. As the risks to both parties are immense this usually requires deep pockets or big favours, or both. Nobody knows for sure how widespread bribery for diplomas is. Data from Russia’s Education and Science Ministry, the Moscow Higher School of Economics and other research institutes indicate that in 2003 the amount exchanging hands every year was $300m. Recent undercover work by journalists in Moscow estimated the figure was around $400m. Chris Williams, professor of European History and researcher of contemporary Russian political and social history at the University of Central Lancashire says, “This [faking of degrees] is happening partly because people want the prestige of an institute and partly because of exploitation. Russia is a country that has a lot of talented and clever people, and this devalues everyone. Russia needs to get a grip on it.”

INDEM, a non-governmental Russian organisation that deals with anti-corruption, found in 2004 that the average admission bribe to Moscow universities and colleges was between $2,000 to $5,000. It also said that students in 2003 paid bribes of $30,000 to $40,000 to get into leading institutes. While some methods are subtle and some aren’t, there’s no doubt one common factor binds them: money. Earlier this year, a television documentary about corruption in higher education was filmed by undercover journalists. It showed clips of a part-time Moscow State University lecturer promising entry to the prestigious institution in exchange for $30,000. Pensioner Vladimir Rusetsky was recognised and police investigated him on fraud charges. The average annual salary for university lecturers is around $200 per month, so the evidently the temptation is there. The Communist Party once provided academics with better apartments and better salaries. These days, the sight of professors selling books or beer from a table on the streets isn’t uncommon. Unsurprisingly, lecturers and students never give out any hints that they’ve profited from their positions as well-regarded academics or as well-off students. If someone is caught, they tend to admit that ‘only a small amount of money’ was involved. Often lecturers within institutions are aware which of their colleagues take part in bribes with students. I asked Svetlana, an Economics student at the Institute of Radiotechnology, Electronics and Automatics in Moscow how many students she thought used devious methods to pass or get a better grade in their course. “I could probably name a few. There are probably others I don’t know about so I’d say overall it’s between 40 and 50%. People who are clever and bother to study hard don’t need to use other means of passing anyway.” Svetlana herself has mostly 4s and 5s on her reports and says she has never had to approach lecturers. “I’ve never done it. And I never will. I have nothing to gain from it. I’m only going to lose any knowledge I would’ve gained. What’s the point?” If pushed, she admits the only cheating she has done was during one sitting, when an examiner walked in the opposite direction and a friend showed her a mathematical formula. “That’s nothing,” she says. “Everyone does that. You just can’t get a five if you don’t. They make it practically impossible.” Many subjects limit the amount of coursework they give. Assessments are usually on a one-to-one basis in the form of question-and-answer sessions. Random questions are asked (the idea being you should know the answer to everything) and marks depend on the quality and quantity of the answer given. This makes cheating a more difficult task. At the History office I asked Michael Raslov, a senior lecture, if students have ever approached him. “I’ve lost count now of the number of times that’s happened. They know me well. They know I’m an easy person to talk to – that I won’t says anything about their attempts.” So has he ever taken part in accepting bribes? He laughs wryly. “I have to say a lot of the time I’m tempted. Sometimes they raise their offer. I’ve never agreed to falsify any student’s marks, though.” I suggest to him that in that case, he must be better off than his colleagues. “I don’t always have running hot water at home,”

he says. Raslov, unlike many, sticks to his morals. “I would rather,” he says, to maintain my integrity.”

Michael Raslov and Svetlana are pseudonyms

Corruption in the Russian Education System