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Diplomas for Sale

Moldova’s schools struggle against graft, but low pay for teachers makes it hard to resist the extra cash. [Also in Russian.] by Nils Kauffman 4 February 2008 CHISINAU | Ion speaks with quiet resignation about the corruption in the Moldovan school system. Ion recently graduated from a lyceum in northern Moldova and paid 450 Moldovan leu (27 euros) to take his school-leaving exams. The exams are required for university admission, and they are supposed to be free.

At the most, Ion should have paid just enough for the pen and the bottle of water provided during the test. The extra money he had to pay presumably went to teachers.

During the exam, which was proctored by a teacher from a different school, students frequently left the room claiming they had to use the toilet. While away, they met with their regular teachers to get help on the exam. When they returned to the room, the students shared the answers they had received.

The proctor, Ion believes, “was informed of the arrangements.” Ion said he did not participate in the scheme.

Ion, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, has other stories.

He once knew a teacher who fined students five leu for coming late to class. He knew another teacher who encouraged students to do construction and renovation work on her house in order to improve their grades. More than half of her students helped out.

A third teacher blatantly asked for money from students in exchange for better grades. A typical sum was 350 leu. It was higher if a student’s parents worked abroad and earned more money than parents working locally.

Graft is a widespread problem in the Moldovan education system. The Center for Combating Economic Crime and Corruption in Chisinau documented 315 cases of corruption in 2007. Of those, 57 were related to education.

The numbers, however, don’t tell the whole story. Everyone in the education system seems to have a story about corruption, although the stories tend to be about what others have done; people are wary to admit wrongdoing.

“Before the ninth grade exams, there was a place you could go to buy answers for the test,” a recent high school graduate said. She added that she did not buy the answers, but she knows some students who did. Another student said she didn’t think it was possible to pass exams without paying off the teacher.

There is a lot of slippery money exchanging hands in schools across this poor country, which has a per capita GDP of $2,200. A recent survey by the Institute for Public Policy in Chisinau indicates that each year, Moldovans pay 3.7 million leu “for a good grade,” 118.5 million leu for after-school lessons, 6 million leu to take supposedly free exams, and 25 million leu to buy gifts for teachers.

In a letter published in several newspapers in the fall of 2006, Tatiana Tverdohleb, the superintendent of schools for the Municipality of Chisinau, wrote, “The exhibition of corruption in the educational system affects the quality of instruction, negatively influences the formation of life skills of future citizens of the Republic of Moldova, and substantially reduces the credibility of our state structures.”

QUESTIONABLE PAYMENTS

Graft is not a problem unique to Moldovan schools. In its 2007 Nations in Transition report, the pro-democracy group Freedom House gave Moldova a low score of six – seven being the lowest – in the area of corruption. The report said with regard to corruption that, “problems within the public administration and the society as a whole persist.”

In the education system, school officials may siphon money away from legitimate institutional needs. The Institute for Public Policy estimates that parents of students pay 20.1 million leu annually for heating and school repairs. Some schools in particularly dire financial condition also collect funds to subsidize teacher salaries.

While some of these funds are put to good use, it is hard to know where some of the money ends up. It just disappears – and parents are afraid to ask why.

“They collect more and more money for repairs, but nothing is done,” one mother, who asked to remain anonymous, said of school authorities. “I don’t want to say something because my children are in the school and they might penalize them.”

As of late 2006, new rules in the Municipality of Chisinau prohibit teachers from collecting unauthorized funds from parents and students. Parent associations are supposed to oversee the collection process for legitimate funds. The Ministry of Education even prohibited parents and students from giving teachers traditional gifts of chocolates or flowers.

But rules aren’t stopping teachers from collecting money under the table, nor are they stopping parents and students from paying for grades. “Not one parent has said anything [about the problem],” said one lyceum director in Chisinau, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Such an arrangement suits the parents and teachers.”

One parent with two children at a well regarded lyceum in the center of Chisinau said that for months, he, his wife, and his in-laws worked with the students on their school work, but despite their efforts, the children did poorly in school. They received grades barely above passing.

The children’s teachers had a solution: they told the man he should send his children to after- school classes, for a fee. Many Moldovan teachers teach this “second shift,” in which they tutor their own students for extra money. The children’s grades inevitably improve.

ROOTS AND REMEDIES

Education suffers from poor funding, and teachers in particular feel the burden of the state’s dry coffers. A primary or secondary teacher receives about 1,080 leu per month, which is barely a living wage. Monthly utilities for an apartment in the winter often cost half this amount.

Ludmila, who spoke on a first-name-only basis, is a university professor who has taught professional development courses to Moldovan teachers. She said teachers who try to survive on roughly 1,000 leu per month cannot afford to buy books, heat their homes, or attend cultural activities like concerts or plays. Many she knows work in kitchen gardens to grow food.

It is no surprise that thousands of teachers have left the profession.

School officials often allow some forms of corruption to go unpunished because it means keeping teachers in place. “If I did not let teachers teach [private] lessons, I would not have any teachers to work,” one lyceum director in Chisinau said. “They would all leave the country.”

The director said the Ministry of Education compares students’ grades with their end-of-year exams to look for serious discrepancies between final grades and those received during terms. Also, an anonymous hotline set up by the Chisinau Municipal School Administration in 2006 takes calls about problems in the schools. However, it hasn’t led to any punishments.

School administrations have also organized seminars on the topic of corruption, but some teachers who have attended said the meetings lacked substance and were meant to distract from the problem rather than fix it.

Ludmila said questions of corruption are not the right questions to ask. “We need to change the attitude of society so teachers are supported and live a comfortable life,” she said.

Others think the problem stems from absent parents. A mid-level administrator from the State Pedagogical University, which trains teachers, said corruption was less of a problem before so many Moldovans began working abroad.

Since the late 1990s, an increasing number of parents have been making money in foreign countries, and they are paying teachers to ensure that their children graduate, go to university, and have opportunities – even if the students’ efforts are less than sufficient. Recent surveys estimate that 28 percent of children have one parent working abroad, and another 9 percent have both working abroad.

Many teachers complain of the discrepancy between their salaries and the salaries of their students’ parents who are working abroad.

One teacher, who admitted to taking bribes, said that many students cheat and don’t study because like their parents, they don’t care about their record in Moldova. They want to get fellowships, jobs, or other positions outside the country. Studying for the sake of learning has less assured benefits than paying for advancement, which can help students book a ticket out.

Ion, however, said he is motivated to study. He knows that because of the problems in the system, studying is not enough for success in school; he will have to pay to take pass his exams regardless of how much he has learned on his own. Still, he hits the books.

“I study for myself,” Ion said.
Nils Kauffman is a doctoral candidate in educational policy and international education development at Michigan State University. He is a Fulbright-Hays Fellow in Moldova.
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