Every July, Jamshid resigned himself to a month of study and buried his nose in his books.
Like many bright young Uzbeks, he was determined to spend the month cramming -- poring through history books and brushing up on his language skills, all in a bid to ace his August 1 entrance exam and secure a spot at the prestigious Tashkent State Law Institute.
But Jamshid, who declined to use his real name, was no ordinary student. He was a "soldier," a paid test-taker who spent four years in the trenches of one of Uzbekistan's numerous education-cheating rings.
"My job every year was entering the institute as a 'soldier' -- meaning, with a fake passport. It was my photo, but the information wasn't mine," Jamshid says. "We would finish our own studies at the institute in June, and then from the first of July we would start to study. We were living in a flat -- a three- or four-room flat. And our only job was preparing for the tests."
Corruption has been a long-standing vice in the educations systems of Central Asia and other countries in the former Soviet Union, where university space is limited and test scores paramount.
This year, some 431,000 Uzbek youths are vying for just 56,000 spots in the country's universities and institutes -- a ratio of nearly 8-to-1.
For high-demand schools like the Ferghana branch of the Tashkent Medical Academy, the challenge is even more stark. Applications there outnumber spaces 21-to-1. The ratio at Tashkent Islamic University is 13-to-1.
'Money And Good Knowledge'
Would-be students like Gulruh, a native of Uzbekistan's northwestern Khorezm Province hoping to study English at Tashkent University of Foreign Languages, say the scarcity of spots leaves them only one option.
"I set a goal to enter the university, but these days it is extremely hard. You need both money and good knowledge," she says.
These Uzbek university students returning home from college in May are lucky. Failure to enter means a yearlong wait, followed by a new exam with equally uncertain results
Unlike students in the West, applicants in Uzbekistan and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union are able to apply to just one school a year. Their August 1 exams -- multiple-choice, computer-graded forms in three specialized subjects -- are the main determining factor in whether they get in.
Failure to enter means a yearlong wait, followed by a new exam with equally uncertain results. With the stakes so high, increasing numbers of students have turned to professional cheating rings who provide a range of services for fees rising as high as $10,000.
In addition to providing test-taking "soldiers," such rings also concoct elaborate schemes for providing ordinary test-takers with hidden mobile phones, cheat sheets written in code, pen-scanners, and other methods for smuggling information in and out of test classrooms.
'Bunkers' Of Cheating
Gulchehra, who spoke to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service in 2011 just after finishing her exams to enter Tashkent's main pedagogical university, said people were openly using mobile phones during her tests -- after paying test monitors to turn a blind eye.
"One man handed out four mobile phones and kept one for himself," she says. "Then these people were getting answers via phone, and the controllers didn't say anything to them. They gave [the teachers] the money in advance, some 10,000 to 20,000 soms ($5-$10)."
If these students enter the university and they go on to work in a bank or somewhere else, it means that we are losing. We are losing our future."
The methods involved in cheating are diverse
and often take their inspiration from military terms.
Some corruption rings, for example, rely on "bunkers" -- secured rooms within the school building, or in nearby neighborhoods, where couriers can deliver tests to a team of book-laden researchers ready to correct wrong answers.
Others organize a "parachute" system -- literally a way of tossing a test form out an open window to a well-versed corrector below.
The corruption is so widespread that even those employed with securing the results are seen as profiting from the system -- down to the teachers who supervise the tests and the security forces who guard the classrooms.
One instructor at a Tashkent pedagogical institute said her attempts to control her students during a testing in 2011 were largely fruitless.
"I was a controller last year. I saw that some entrants had mobile phones. If they used them very openly, I asked them to put them down," she says. "I don't know who gave them those phones, but I heard that some teachers accept bribes to allow mobile phones in the room. They make money this way.
"But you know what? I know one guy didn't even go to exams, and now he is studying in a prestigious university. I always tell entrants, you should either have golden pockets or a golden brain to enter university."
'Brightest' In The World
The proliferation of cheating rings has meant that, at least on paper, Uzbek students are among the brightest in the world.
As recently as a decade ago, a score of 150 out of a possible 226.8 points -- calculated according to three 36-question tests with a weighted point system -- was enough to secure a spot at a university.
Now, even scores of 200 no longer guarantee students a spot, meaning even the cheaters are elbowing for a space.
Jamshid, who regularly earned as much as $3,000 for his single month of work as a cheating-ring soldier, says the practice has meant big business for those involved.
Ring operators, who maintain close ties to the state testing agency and the Ministry of Education, can bring in as much as $500,000 a year.
One testing ring that was busted last year in the city of Bukhara had proven so profitable that it had purchased $45,000 worth of equipment -- including a mobile wi-fi unit that could create temporary hotspots. (Uzbekistan typically switches off mobile-phone service during the 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. testing time to prevent phone cheating; this year, a dispute over the MTS mobile provider will leave phones even more silent than usual.)
Jamshid -- who retains so much knowledge from his test-taking days that his friends still refer to him as "the computer" -- says the cheating rings are an irresistible draw for sharp-minded Uzbeks looking to make extra money.
As for the students who pay for their services -- well, that's a different story, he says.
"They have no knowledge. That's why they are giving money. That's the problem," he says, laughing. "So you know, we get some students who really don't know anything. Nothing. If these students enter the university and they go on to work in a bank or somewhere else, it means that we are losing. We are losing our future."
Written and reported by Daisy Sindelar, with additional reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service