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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

In Russia, Corruption goes Right to the Bone

The Lex Libertas blog has a scathing indictment of the Russian system of higher education, which it depicts as fundamentally corrupt from stem to stern. It appears in full below.

La Russophobe would take issue, however, with a couple of points in the text. The author claims that Russian high school is much better, and that "the average Russian high school senior would easily wipe the floor with an average American senior in a discussion on any given topic, from literature to history to science." Though he acknowledges that this means nothing since higher education is unable to turn this raw material into a polished finshed product and Russia continues to languish in poverty, it's simply not accurate to claim that Russia exceeds America in all areas of secondary education. In math and science, Russia is better, but not good enough to "wipe the floor" with America. In critical thinking and creativity, Russia lags far behind, creating legions of robotic students who are utterly predictable even down to their handwriting. And to say that Russians know their history well is laughable; if they did, would they have elected a proud KGB spy as their president?

The author also tries to mitigate the blame placed on students by noting that many teachers are fundamentally corrupt. But, as the author acknowledges, that flows from their outrageously low salaries, and where is student action to raise them? Until it is in evidence, the students are accountable for that condition as well.

One might argue that Russian post-secondary education is actually good preparation for Russian life, which is itself fundmentally corrupt (as many international studies have clearly shown). But obviously it is impossible to build a successful society upon a criminal culture, and this culture clearly goes right to the bone in Russia. Not until it is uprooted will there be any hope of progress.

Most Russians will claim that their education system is far superior to the American one. If we are talking about high school, then they are absolutely correct. The average Russian high school senior would easily wipe the floor with an average American senior in a discussion on any given topic, from literature to history to science. There are several reasons for this.

First, Russia follows the European school of thought when it comes to education. Pupils are meant to be imbued with a large body of knowledge. Americans don't have this background and subsequent repositories of information. Second, American schools have succumbed to the touchy-feely hippy paradigm that children are fragile, and we shouldn't damage them by hurting their feelings. Making standards and expecting students to meet them only sets them up for failure and gives them low self-esteem. Russians don't care how you feel about your results on the exam. If you do poorly, you suffer the consequences. Interestingly, Russian youth often tell me that the smart people are actually well-liked in Russian high schools. In American schools, of course, they are the social rejects. Being smart is a curse, and you would do well to try and hide it. If you show any interest in learning whatsoever, you are completely shunned. It's difficult for me to comprehend, but apparently Russian high schools aren't like that.

Keep in mind that this all applies to high school. I received my Master's at one of the most prestigious universities in all of Eastern Europe, Saint Petersburg State University (SPBGU). It is President Putin's alma mater, and always raises an eyebrow when name-dropped. Though, sometimes, older people won't recgonize it unless you use its old title, Leningrad State University (LGU). In fact, as part of his KGB duties, Putin was in charge of vetting the foreign students at LGU. Along with bad food, boring professors, and departmentally sponsored parties at nightclubs, cheating is a time-honored tradition at Russian institutions of higher learning.

What only a few intrepid Americans have accomplished in cheat sheet mastery is second nature for Russian university students. Almost every student that I know makes these cheat sheets (шпаргалки - shpargalki), and the amount of info that they cram on tiny pieces of paper is awe-inspiring. Though the better students will often claim that they make them "only because doing so helps you study for the test and memorize the notes," which is undoubtedly true. As I was writing this entry, a friend instant messaged me that she was preparing for an upcoming exam, by making shpargalki. The students are brazen about making them, and the professors all know. In fact, they probably had them when they were students. When walking around the faculty on exam day, on the ledge of every window are discarded shpargalki from the day's exams. I was once sitting at the faculty cafeteria, which is in the center of the building and a main stop for professors and students, and saw two girls preparing their cheat sheets for the upcoming exam. They were doing a field test run-through, slipping the tiny papers into any part of their clothing that would both contain them and provide easy access during the exam - pockets, sleeve, cuffs, etc.

The most creative was when she slid the paper into her bra. And yes, extremely low-cut tops, especially if well-endowed, are appropriate attire for exams. In addition to cheating on exams, an enormous number of students copy class papers from the internet. I'm sure that it happens in the states, but here it seems almost everyone does it. I can't tell you how many times a shocked student will ask, "you mean you actually write the paper yourself!?!?" In fact, often they'll download something and turn it in without ever actually reading it. They're not too afraid of getting caught, usually the professor doesn't read the paper either. Just so I don't pour all the blame on the students, though they are certainly deserving, some of the professors have their own version of cheating. University professors often make only a couple of hundred dollars a month. This is clearly not enough to live on. Some make up for it by teaching at multiple universities, others by working side jobs as consultants in various fields. Still others decide to fleece money from their students. Some will straight up allow you to give them money for a good grade. It doesn't happen during the exam, of course, but beforehand. This option is for those who want to take the easy way from the start.

For the students who don't want to bribe, but try to study their way to a good grade, some professors can pressure them using the exam system itself. If you fail an exam, you are allowed to retake it within the same finals period. A friend once failed the first time, and upon arriving on the assigned day for the retake, was told by the professor that she had to pay an administrative fee. She asked where to go pay, and the professor responded that there was no need to take time and go to the office. If she would give him the money, he would take care of it for her. Unhappy, but aware of what was going on, she grudgingly handed over the cash.

In fact, this bribing even goes beyond the professor to some of the administrators. At the state university, there are two kinds of students. Paying students (платники - platniki) and scholarship students (буджетники - budzhetniki). Those on scholarship don't have to pay tuition, get a free place in the dorm, and a monthly stiped (pathetically small, around $30 a month). In order to enter a Russian university, you have to take an entrance exam. In theory, the people with the highest scores on the exam are given scholarships. The proportional number of these spots vary by the faculty to which you are applying. My faculty, International Relations, has a relative low number of scholarship students, whereas the Eastern faculty has a higher percentage (Asian languages and cultures, think the old usage of the word "Orient"). Several people, however, have told me that everyone pays something. Even many scholarship students probably paid someone along the way to get on the scholarship list.
Don't get me wrong, Saint Petersburg State University is a fantastic center of higher learning. Some of the best and most intelligent professors of my academic career taught in the Master's program. The majority of students from SPBGU that I met are at least as smart, and many smarter, than people at my own alma mater, UCLA. That said, cheating is an endemic and systemic problem at all Russian educational insitutions, in a way unimagined in the US. As with many things here, the main problem is that the people just don't care to change it. They all know it's a bad system, but it's always been this way, and what can one person do?


SiberianLight said...

From personal experience, the majority of university level Russian students that I've met (most of who were languages students) were phenominally dedicated to their studies, not to mention well informed about the world and opinionated. Admittedly, they were at one of Siberia's better universities, but they put linguistics students at most British and US universities to shame.

(Although I'm sure that there are also plenty of less dedicated students).

On the other side of the coin, I've met many teachers - particularly school teachers - who have complained about corruption. Some have (told me that they've) refused to let students buy grades, others have complained that they are virtually forced into the practice because of their low salaries.

The impression I get is that decent employers in Russia are well aware of which universities allow you to 'buy' grades, and value degrees from those universities far less than they value degrees from universities that they know are competent.

La Russophobe said...

My personal experience is exactly the opposite. They are remarkably ignorant concerning basic facts about the United States and their own history, and their opinions are almost freakishly uniform, chauvanist and predictable. The one area where they really excel is in selling a bill of goods to good-hearted foreigners about how dedicated they are.

I don't doubt that Russians are good at memorizing rules of grammar, but their ability to truly communicate with Westerners is utterly lacking and vastly exceeded by Westerners who study Russian because the Westerners focus on studying culture as well as language. Russia's total inability to get what it wants in negotiation with the West is proof of this, and examples of errors in translation are legion. Of course, Russians do lack the ability to study languages abroad due to their limited means, but they are poor because their higher education systems have created a non-competitive society. If you think they're good at translating, I suggest you read my post on the translation of Mark Twain.

After all, the Soviet system is still in place, and so are the creaking Soviet teachers. The Soviet system denies the ability to promote creativity and innovation, which is why the USSR collapsed.