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Corruption is one of the main afflictions of Russian society, especially in academia. How do students perceive corruption? Are there any differences between the experiences of first-year students and those about to graduate? These and other similar questions are currently being investigated in selected universities in Khabarovsk – one of the largest cities in the Russian Far East.

Preliminary results show that many students perceive corruption mostly on an external level – in politics, business or administration and rarely recognize corrupt practices in their own activities, such as cronyism, nepotism, intellectual property fraud or gifts. So, for example, ‘writing’ a paper by copying and pasting text from the Internet seems to be business as usual for many respondents.

At first glance, younger students seem to be more corrupt than their older colleagues. Our research shows that students who have just arrived at universities hear more about bribery at universities (83%) than students who are nearly finished with their studies (50%). The youngest students describe every possible means used, dividing them into monetary (cash) and non-monetary forms (alcohol, confectionary, household durables and mobile phones).

It should be mentioned that all of these young students enter the university after the EGE*  (an examination in Russia, which serves as both the high school leaving and university entrance examinations) and probably started experiencing different levels of corruption early in the school career. One third of respondents observed some violations during EGE exams, including the usage of mobile phones (for Internet search or  an SMS with teachers) or help from teachers monitoring the EGE on-site.

The EGE was originally introduced as a means of reducing corruption in entrance procedures, but in practice, it seems to be only another mechanism to manipulate for gaining university admission. Moreover, this study shows that, since the establishment of the EGE, the number of students getting into universities after receiving awards in different competitions (olimpiady) has in many cases increased. The number of students with disabilities entering university has also increased. Both groups enter universities without taking the EGE. However, the EGE has increased the mobility of students; the higher number of students from small towns currently enrolled in many of the universities in Khabarovsk confirms this. EGE gives potential students the opportunity to apply for many universities simultaneously, which was not possible before. Since EGE replaces previous entrance examinations, there is no need to visit a university during the application process and spend a few weeks on campus - an expenditure that not all families can afford, given the long traveling distances in Russia.

The idea that first-year students seem to acknowledge corruption more often than those about to graduate might be explained by the fact that young people are more naive and/or more willing to talk honestly about this phenomenon. Corruption is a rather taboo subject; for example, Anna Buryukova, the press secretary of Rosmolodezh (a state organization covering policy issues for young Russians) was fired after posting her confession to bribing a traffic policemen on Twitter.

But both male and female students tend to view university study as the only option for securing their personal professional futures, even though they are not always happy with their choice of future professions. The study also indicates that male students no longer use university studies to earn an exemption from military service. This problem is often ‘solved’ in a different way today. Indeed the Russian army is not an enriching experience for young Russians; on the contrary, soldiers usually come home physically and morally broken. Poor living conditions, unclear future perspectives as well as dedovshcina all counteract the desire on the part of the young men to serve their country. According to official statistics, 149 cases of suicide were registered in the Russian Army in 2009; unofficial statistics might vary.

The large number of students who choose to attend university only for the purpose of getting a diploma leads to a decrease in the quality of education, and increases the situations in which grades and other outcomes are pursued in different ways. The dissatisfaction of (even) students who chose university for more traditional motives such as the desire for education and qualifications is another big concern. In order to survive in this situation, professors are sooner or later obliged to water down their course requirements, adapting them to the students’ real level of knowledge and engagement.

Higher education should not be the only path to secure a professional future. In the long-term perspective, the system of secondary-level education and the associated blue-collar professions need greater social prestige and acceptance. Otherwise higher education will increasingly become a product available to everyone and its value will diminish in the near future. The consequences for academia, business and state might be dramatic. 

*EGEedinyi gosudarstvennyi eksamen

This blog was submitted by guest bloggers Elena Denisova-Schmidt, Lecturer, University of St Gallen, Switzerland (email)  and Elvira Leontyeva, Professor, National Pacific University, Khabarovsk, Russia (email)

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