24 April 2006

Bribing Your Way to a Worthless Degree

I was pleased to read this article on IWPR on the government's efforts to tackle corruption in education. The Tajik government is actually starting to take action in reducing corruption.

Corruption in education is a huge problem in Central Asia. Degrees in Kyrgyzstan are practically worthless except from a few universities that have made an effort to root out corruption. There are several places you can read about this corruption (Kyrgyzstan Student Blog, Neweurasia Kyrgyzstan, and four articles from RFE/RL 1 2 3 4). These articles are in no way exaggerated, in fact, they may not make the reader truly understand how widespread and devastating this practice is.

The system works like this in Kyrgyzstan: Students are assigned to a group at the beginning of their five years at their chosen university. All of your classes are assigned, including the times they will be taught. The classes are taught as a huge lecture with dozens or possibly hundreds of students taught by the professor, then those lectures are divided into smaller seminar groups that are usually taught by teaching assistants. The standard method is for the professor or assistant to lecture and the students to write down every word they say. No interactive teaching methods are used. Students are expected to memorize their notes and then regurgitate them on the exam. It is expected that most of the students will cheat on the exam, so some professors do an oral exam where they ask students one or two questions to test them on their knowledge from the entire semester.

Do I sound cynical? Yes. And it gets worse. The Soviet system uses a 1-5 grading system where 1 is the worst, 5 is the best. A professor can't give a student a 1 no matter what- too mean. 2 is the only failing grade, even if you never show up to class (this is a common occurrence). Even if you get a 2, you have two more chances to be tested by other teachers in the department who can change your grade. Therefore, if you happen to have the bad luck of getting a teacher who won't be bribed, you can always bribe another teacher in the department. There are also students who cannot be failed no matter what or the professor will be fired.

It is incredibly rare for a student to be kicked out of school because of poor performance. Your political views or lack of attendance at government-supported demonstrations are more likely to cause you problems.

This doesn't even cover the plagiarism that goes on. But there is little point in assigning students to write a paper. And once you've gotten through your five years, it's not too difficult to figure out what you need to do to pass the exams to complete your degree.

What it all boils down to is that when you graduate, no one has any idea what you really know. Good students, bad students, anyone gets the degree and it is almost completely worthless. You have to have that paper to get a job, and you have to know the right people to get the job. Your ability makes little difference.

But Tajikistan seems to be doing something about it, and a good thing too, because the problem is as big there as it is here:

Sunatullo Jonboboev, coordinator of educational programmes with the Aga Khan Foundation's humanities project, says low funding and poor teaching have caused
educational standards to slip in Tajikistan. In part, he believes, this is due to the retention of Soviet teaching methods, whereas what is needed is education that teaches students to think critically and make decisions for themselves.

A commission is working on inspecting universities, and some rectors and dean have even been fired.

Many professors argue that the main reason for the corruption are the low salaries. While the salaries are unreasonably low and should be higher, I am completely unconvinced that raising salaries is the best solution, or can work on its own to end corruption. There are plenty of wealthy people in Kyrgyzstan giving and taking bribes. The system itself is corrupt and increasing salaries won't change that.

The fourth RFE/RL article says that Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan had implemented some new procedures to try to reduce corruption. Kyrgyzstan does have entry exams to get into a university, but it still doesn't mean you can't bribe the right person to get into the school you want whether you pass the exam or not. The Supreme Court ignores laws, why can't schools ignore their own policies. And once you're in the university, nothing changes. While an entry exam has the potential to help, I don't think it has here.

What do I think will change it? Universities implementing and enforcing policies against corruption. Student groups who refuse to pay bribes. Getting rid of corrupt administrators. Government leaders who quit taking bribes. School teachers who start in kindergarten telling students that bribery isn't the way to go. There are many things that will help, but it will take far more effort than the Kyrgyzstan government has put into it.

I look forward to watching Tajikistan's efforts and I hope the have some success. If they do, I hope that other Central Asian countries take the hint.

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