Pay as You Go
Why combat bribery in Kyrgyz universities when students, teachers, administrators, and even employers have learned to work the system? [Also in Russian.] by Jessica Jacobson 16 February 2007
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan | Ruslan – not his real name – is a second-year student at a university in Osh, elected by his classmates to represent them in talks with teachers and administrators. One of his important roles is to pay the bribes necessary for his classmates to get the grades they want.
Last year, Ruslan’s class entered with 25 students. Six were dismissed for non-attendance. Another six work in Russia, but connections with the dean allow them to continue as students. According to Ruslan, of the rest, two or three actively study, and 10 pay for their grades.
Typically, a student who chooses to buy an education pays between 1,500 and 2,000 som (about $40 to $50) per semester, about 150 som per course, Ruslan says. He collects the money and negotiates with the teacher.
“This has been profitable for me,” he says, admitting that he takes a cut for his work. “I was able to buy myself a cell phone with this money.”
He insists the students are satisfied, a statement borne out by interviews with other students. “They can do no work and continue with their degree. If they were unhappy or if they didn’t want to give the money, I wouldn’t do it.”
This randomly selected class, from which, by all appearances, only a few students will finish their studies having acquired any specialized knowledge, does not seem atypical. Ruslan's brother, also a university student in Osh, claims that only about one-fifth of his class of 35 do their coursework.
Despite some recent changes meant to improve the system, corruption continues to thrive at Kyrgyz universities, with many students paying for entrance, paying for scholarships, and paying for high test grades.
To be sure, it is possible for hardworking and committed students to study without paying, or paying very little. But such students seem few and far between, with the average student preferring to give bribes.
The problem is compounded because the universities are loath to fail students, whose tuition payments are vital for revenue. Tuition fees at Osh's higher education institutions range up to $350 per year. The low level of state funding leaves universities short of cash, and low salaries mean that teachers often look for extra income to get by. Many professors are willing to accept bribes simply to meet basic needs. Salaries for typical public employees (teachers, doctors, police officers, government workers) rarely exceed $100 a month. Interviews with university teachers and other urban public officials indicate that they consider a range of $100 to $500 a month (depending on experience and the city) necessary to lead the life of a comfortable, middle-class professional.
As a result, corruption thrives in all public spheres. A report in 2001 by an independent Bishkek-based organization, the Center for Public Opinion Studies and Forecasts, found that well over half of people interviewed had paid bribes within the last three years. In dealings with the police, courts, hospitals, and universities, between 63 percent and 92 percent of respondents admitted to having paid a bribe.
Between classes at Osh State University's business and management school.
SCHOLARSHIPS FOR SHEEP
Aijamal Kaikeeva, a 2004 graduate of the Technical University in Osh, was one of the exceptions, gaining admission due her achievements in a regional academic contest.
“I was in a group with strong students and almost no one paid. I only paid 45 som to miss gym. But the eight students who got budget slots [scholarships] killed sheep and took people out for meals in order to get those spots.”
Despite not paying herself, she later accepted bribes when she became a teacher at the same university.
“The salary, 1,500 som a month, was too low. We received money from students twice a year at the end of each semester. Those who didn’t come to class at all paid 100 som per subject. Those who came but didn’t study well paid 70 or 80 som.”
She also had income from correspondence students. “None of them studied at all,” she said. “They are all working somewhere else but just want to have a degree.”
She earned 5,000 som per semester from bribes. Together with her salary, it came to a compensation of 30,000 som a year, or $63 per month for a college-educated professional.
Marina Jarova, a graduate of a Bishkek university, explained how a popular teacher sold tickets to the final exams. In the typical Kyrgyz university exam, the student randomly chooses a ticket at the time of examination with a question written on it. The exam grade is based on the student's answer to that single question. In this case, the students and teacher agreed ahead of time on which question each student would answer.
“It was such a show,” Jarova said. “Before the students came in, the teacher told them where on the desk to find the question they wanted – say, near the window.”
Such assistance costs 300 to 500 som. According to Kaikeeva, if a student attends class and completes assignments throughout the semester, it is possible to skip exams. But for those who haven't done any work, the exam determines the entire grade. “The exams are so important because so many students don’t study,” she said.
Corruption flourishes because the payment system is accepted, even encouraged among students, and there is no will to stop it among administrators.
“Students see what happens around them,” said Kubanich Toktorov, the vice dean of Osh State University's faculty of business and management. “They begin to think they can’t succeed without bribes. They are psychologically prepared to give bribes. They think it’s normal.”
Yasmin Ablimitova, a third-year student at the International Academy of Law, Finance, and Business in Bishkek, says that complaints would be effective only if an entire class united. “Individual students don’t complain because they will only face problems in the future,” she said.
The practice of widespread bribery in the universities is well-known to employers. In this situation, companies are unable to judge applicants based on their transcripts. In effect, the diploma has become devalued, offering nothing more than a preliminary qualification for the many jobs that require a higher education.
Thomas Wolanin, an education expert at the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, D.C., writes in Winter 2002 issue of International Higher Education
that the combination of corruption, low salaries, poorly trained faculty, inadequate facilities, and resource shortages in Kyrgyzstan has “significantly deteriorated” academic quality.
According to Toktorov, 50 percent of economics graduates can’t find work. “Employers, especially private firms, look at knowledge and the ability to work in a team. Most students already see that private companies hire on a competitive basis. This gives them motivation. They see that without real knowledge they can’t get work. However, many government jobs are filled through relatives or corruption and some students continue to think their friends and relatives will help them.”
Elmira Abjaparova, a regional manager for AKB Kyrgyzstan bank in Osh, is one of those employers who seek new staff through a competitive hiring process.
“The candidates take a logic test, then participate in a roundtable, and then individual interviews,” she said. “If they write a good test and pass these rounds, then we try them out for a probationary period, to see if they can work. We only ask for diplomas at the end of the process before they are formally hired.”
Despite large numbers of applicants, she struggles to find qualified staff.
“The education level right now is very low,” she said. “A score of 20 or 25 points out of 60 on the logic test is considered strong.”
A TESTING PROBLEM
Students, teachers, and administrators interviewed point to just a few universities in Kyrgyzstan that have taken on corruption with some success. Foreign-sponsored institutions such as the American University of Central Asia and the Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University are thought to do a better job than public universities, partly because the relatively high salaries they pay – between $120 and $350 a month at the American University – make the cost of bribing a teacher prohibitively high for most students and make teachers less dependent on bribes. The schools also offer more modern teaching methods and a richer intellectual atmosphere, so that students want to study. But even at AUCA, widely considered the country's most prestigious university, a teacher reported hearing of a “sponsorship,” in which a parent gave gifts to an administrator in return for admitting a student who wouldn’t get in otherwise.
A national admissions test implemented in 2002 has helped to combat one form of corruption – buying a university place – by guaranteeing admission to students with top scores.
“Both my sons got into the university because their score on the national test was high enough,” said Salima Sadikova, a market vendor in Osh. “But those with poor scores on the national test have to sit for the university test and they can pay a bribe to get in."
Universities have also become more willing to kick out students who don’t attend class.
Until six or seven years ago universities saw rising student numbers as the way to increase revenues, Toktorov of Osh State University said. “But that time has passed. … If a student misses 60 hours in one semester and doesn’t have any documentation of illness, we can kick him out.”
If the universities expelled students, regardless of connections, who rarely attend class or can't do the work, "then those who come once or twice a week will worry and start trying harder,” said Rakhat Toktueva, a 2005 university graduate.
What else needs to be done? Some say the weak and unmotivated students should be prevented from entering universities in the first place. “The only way to stop corruption would be to admit students honestly, to not allow people in via bribes,” Ruslan said.
The business and management faculty at Osh State University plans to adopt the credit system on a trial basis in 2010. Under such a system, students will pay for individual classes instead of an annual tuition fee. To limit the number of students, tuition fees will rise. Students who fail a class will have to retake it and pay for it again. Administrators hope that the higher cost of attendance and failure will push students and parents to higher standards.
Some students themselves seem to be taking corruption more seriously. Aliya Raeva, a freshman at Bishkek Humanities University, said one day last semester she met a group of young people dressed in red near the campus. “They handed us brochures and asked us to fill out questionnaires about how often corruption occurs,” she said.
Although salaries were doubled in the last year for education and health workers, the argument for further raises remains. “If salaries were high enough so that teachers strictly refused bribes, then the students would be forced to try harder if they wanted to get a higher education,” Toktueva said.
Baktigul Aikinbekova in her classroom.
Baktigul Aikinbekova, an English teacher at the Osh business and management faculty, refuses bribes to supplement her 2,000-som salary, believing it would be a sin to accept them. She accepts financial help from her parents but believes increasing teachers’ salaries is necessary.
“When we have enough money, we don’t need to take extra,” she said. “Four or five thousand som for a young teacher should be enough.”