Russia’s Unified State Exam: Ripe for Reform?

An intriguing piece recently published in the International New York Times (Dagestan, a Leader in ‘Education Tourism’, 2nd February 2014) highlighted one of the biggest problems in the educational systems of emerging markets: corruption. The article focuses on Russia, where desperate candidates for the Unified State Exam or USE – the entrance test for universities and professional colleges in the Russian Federation – are transferring to poor, rural schools where they can bribe educators and invigilators to ignore or even facilitate blatant cheating. For the princely sum of RUB3,000.00 – less than €65.00 – teachers can be persuaded to allow a student to take an exam paper out of the test venue; videos have been posted on YouTube and Russian social media site VK purporting to show students dropping test papers from classroom windows to eager co-conspirators vaunting books and mobile telephones below.

Official figures released by the Russian Federal Education and Science Supervision Service (‘Rosobrnadzor’) estimated the number of ‘exam violations’ at 1,500 for 2013 – double the 2012 number – but the scale of the problem is such that Arthur Dalgatov, Dagestan’s minister of education and science, issued an open letter in September 2013 which underlined that students should not be allowed to transfer from city schools to their rural counterparts without a specified reason.

The problems with this kind of corruption are many. Firstly, by enabling students to cheat their way into higher education institutions, it lowers the ethical and academic standards of the tertiary education system. Secondly, this eventually feeds into the broader economy and society, with negative qualitative consequences for both; and thirdly, the very credibility of the education system is internationally questioned – and perhaps found wanting.

Many Russian universities have recognised this: since 2009, more than 100 of them have requested permission to set their own entrance exams in addition to the USE. However, in a country of limited autonomy for educational institutions, less than 30 have been given the go-ahead to do so. This is a profoundly problematic situation reminiscent of those in China and India, where bribery is accepted practice at many universities – but it needs correcting. Without either tighter technocratic insulation, liberalisation of the university entrance regime or a combination of both, Russia risks creating a two-tier university system in which artificial distortions engendered by unethical practices are accepted as systemic.

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