Tuesday, May 02, 2006

"How Many Rubles For an 'A'?"

“University students buy their grades here. Did you know that?”

It was 6:30 last Tuesday morning, the sun had just risen, and air was crisp. I was walking along Pyshkinskaya Boulevard, the pedestrian-only thoroughfare that bisects the center of town, and chatting with a young lady whom I’d met minutes earlier thanks to a stray German shepherd. The stupid mutt had attacked both of us, biting me on the leg and then chasing her, barking and snapping until she tripped and sprawled out on the pavement. As I helped her up, I might have said something in English because the young lady hopped to her feet and began speaking in English.

We continued walking west, talking about my work, about her university studies and about life in Russia. And then she commented about university students’ paying for grades. I asked her to tell me more.

“It’s true,” she nodded. “It’s not uncommon for students to buy their grades here.”

“How much is an A?”

“An A can run between 3,000 and 8,000 rubles.” (That’s US$105 to $280.) “But the good students, the professors know who they are and won’t give them any problems.”

I had more questions but she needed to get home.

* * * * *

The conversation slipped my mind until Sunday after church when walking to lunch with dear friend, Julia.

“How’s Anton?” I inquired. Her son is a freshman at the university. A marginal student in high school, his acceptance into university was a great relief. It was either that or two years in the army.

“Anton’s okay. But he’s not doing very well with his studies,” Julia frowned. “He’s not the best student they have. Anton gets frustrated because he sees others who aren’t studying but they’re making good grades.”

“They don’t study but they make good grades?”

“Right. You know, it’s common here for students to bribe their professors for grades.”

“I had heard that. Is it really true?”

“Yes, absolutely. An A or a passing grade might cost $100. (That’s half a month’s salary for the average wage earner.) Not all will accept bribes. But everybody pays off everybody else here. Students pay their professors and parents pay to keep their sons in school and out of the army.”

“Looks as though the professors make more money. The students get good grades and everybody is happy.”

“Right. Except, of course, for those of us who can’t afford to pay.” Julia was upset. A single mother, she works several jobs to keep going. Her budget doesn’t include a slush fund for bribes. More importantly, she distains corruption. Julia was distressed at how the whole thing was affecting Anton and his studies.

* * * * *

Out of curiosity, I did a Google search on this issue and found lots of information. Russia has a long history of bribe taking. A study that monitors corruption shows that today Russians spend 10 times more in bribes than they did four years ago. Prime victims are business owners who pay large sums for “protection fees” and such, the average being $135,000. (Radio Free Europe. July 2005).

The typical Russian also frequently pays bribes to institutions that are meant to be free of charge including hospitals, police and the army. Higher education now tops the list of bribe-accepting institutions. Students use bribes to get good grades or to get accepted into prestigious universities. (Radio Free Europe. July 2005).

Only half of high school seniors are accepted into a university without resorting to bribes, according to another poll. The average amount of such bribes is US$1,200. (Novaya Gazeta, July 2004) Further, in the first six months of 2004, 5000 Russian families spent over 400 million dollars in bribes for their students to be accepted into university, to pass an exam or to have their grades raised. (Novaya Gazeta, August 2004).

* * * * *

So bribery goes on. But as I see it, that’s only part of the picture. There are many people here with the highest of ethics who find bribery disgusting. There are professionals who operate with the highest of standards. That includes the trauma clinic physician who updated my tetanus shots last week after the dog bite I mentioned. He could have charged me quite a sum and slipped it in his pocket. I was prepared to pay something but he shrugged his shoulders and declined payment.

My guess is that the 50% of students who do get into university without bribery are the top-notch students who are motivated to study. They have no need to bribe and are serious about preparing for a career. The 50% who do resort to bribery are the students out on the academic fringes who would flunk out elsewhere. I need to consult several more of my “local sources” on this topic of bribery. More to come. (And it won't even cost you!)

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