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Central Asia: Buying Ignorance -- Corruption In Education Widespread, Corrosive (Part 1)

A student in Tajikistan is forced to pay three times the average monthly salary for a high grade. A Kazakh teacher gets her students to pay for her trip to Moscow -- and they all pass their exam. In Turkmenistan, the obligation to pay bribes gives students there yet another reason to seek education abroad. All over Central Asia, corruption in education is a serious problem. Ahead of the annual admissions season, RFE/RL correspondents have been talking to students, parents, teachers, and officials about the issue. In the first of a four-part series, they report that corruption in education is widespread and taking a heavy toll on society.

Prague, 7 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A university student in Tajikistan describes how she bought herself a good grade in one of her weaker subjects.

Student: "To be honest I don't know the subjects well. You have to bribe, so I worked for a while, got some money together and went to talk to the professor. He said 'OK, if you can't write your course work yourself, bring me some money and I'll do it for you.' I paid, he wrote it out for me and I took it, then I had it all prepared. I paid 120 somoni [about $40] to the teacher. Altogether with other fees for materials, paper, it came to 160-170 somoni."
Reporter: "And what grade did you get?"
Student: "I got a '4' (a 'B')."

It's a familiar story all over Central Asia, an example of what students, parents, and some officials acknowledge is a widespread problem -- corruption in the region's education systems.

Correspondents and interviewees point to one main reason -- rising poverty in all five republics following independence. Teachers and administrators are forced to live on tiny salaries and find alternative ways to make ends meet.

The corruption can start as early as elementary school. But it appears to be worst at university level.

Even where education is still free or cheap, students or their parents often have to pay hefty "unofficial" extra charges.

The bribes are for high grades, to pass exams, or for places at universities.

Sometimes the bribe can take the form of personal items like clothing, or equipment. But students and parents say that most often it's cash -- ranging from several dollars to pass a mid-year test, to several thousand dollars for a place at a top university.

Amangeldy Aitaly is a member of the Kazakh parliament and a former university vice rector.

"Parliament's department of information analysis has conducted special studies in the country's universities recently. In the result of the studies it became clear that one-third of all full-time university students confessed that he or she gives bribes to their teachers, every tenth student said that he or she studies only through paying bribes. In general, university students give bribes to their teachers regularly and the teachers take the bribes from their students for credits, grades, and diplomas on a regular basis. That is a widespread plague in our education system," Aitaly says.

To be sure, our correspondents say it's still possible for some bright students to advance through study and hard work alone.

But they say a culture of bribery can make that extremely difficult. One student told our Kazakh correspondent that teachers have deliberately given bright students low grades -- as a signal to others that they must pay.

This can give students the idea that studying is a waste of time. As one Uzbek student puts it, "If students would study then when would they find time to get money? Maybe in a few years it will change. You can't study without money."

Ethics suffer too, since it does not pay to be hardworking or honest. As this Uzbek elementary school teacher says, "There is a difference between students who are now 20 years old and new students, and [one can say] there is no common ground. Today's students, 90 percent of them, rely on their parents' money or lucky circumstance. Only 10 percent are relying on their knowledge. You can count the number of [students relying on their knowledge] on your hands. Even some of those children who know their parents don't have money don't study harder, they rely on God to help them."

Bribery in any sector is bad news. But experts say corruption in education can be particularly damaging. Students suffer because educational standards plummet and their degrees are worth less.

Corruption, obviously, is also unfair. It favors those who can pay over those who have talent.

As the international group Transparency International notes in a study on corruption in education, "social disorder is on the agenda in societies in which advancement is rather based on money than on merit."

And society suffers too, from having unqualified doctors or engineers or public officials.

In the next three parts of this series, we'll look more closely at the consequences and possible solutions to the problem. One of the answers may be to introduce a system of standardized tests, with written instead of oral entrance exams. Both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have recently introduced such tests.
"To be honest I don't know the subjects well. You have to bribe, so I worked for a while, got some money together and went to talk to the professor."

But corruption is so deep-rooted that some people, like this Kyrgyz student Jyldyz, suspect the new systems will have problems too.

"The test was quite transparent,” he says. “But there were cases when the teachers later on would change the [results] of the test on the computer and sell the scores. Forty-two people graduated [from my school]. Many of them studied well. But only one girl was accepted to study free of charge. That is why I think it was not fair."

(Compiled by Kathleen Moore from material by RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek services.)