“This work is outstanding. Would you consider a Mount Holyoke law fellowship? I can nominate you” – my political thought professor, last year.
“This paper is well beyond the requirements for this course” – my economics of healthcare professor, last year.
“You appear to have an impressive and solid grasp of the subject” – my economic development professor, a couple of days ago.
“I think you will get in [graduate school]. You are a self-made woman from an interesting country” – my Mount Holyoke friend Natalia, last year.
“This is an impressive work for an undergraduate. You should consider this topic for your PhD thesis” – my research supervisor in Nepal.
“If you need a letter of recommendation, let me know. You possess strong intellectual curiosity” – my geography professor, this year.
“You are so hard-working” – my linear algebra professor, this year.
“I really don’t understand why you are surprised to see all this poverty and dirt in Nepal. You are from Siberia” – an acquaintance from the UK.
-What part of Russia are you from? -I’m from Siberia, or the Far East, to be more exact. -Really? My friend has recently taken a trip through Siberia. I have always wondered if anyone actually lives there.
--- my acquaintance from Switzerland.
-I’m from the Far East. -So you are from the woods. Do you guys, like, use mobile phones there?
--- my American acquaintance.
I feel that my male friend is treating me like a dumb blonde from the movies. So I say: -Hey you, don’t forget that I am a good student. I got a 4.0 GPA last semester. I’m a nerd. -Are you sure? You don’t look like that.
AND HERE COMES THE "WINNER"
“How did you get that huge financial aid award [from Mount Holyoke]? Did you come to an interview with the admissions committee in a mini-skirt?” – my male friend from Russia.
Talking openly about corruption in today’s Russia is not a good idea. One risks retaliation from those directly involved in filthy activities. Sometimes, state bodies like the police may be involved into the filth themselves. For this reason, you will not find in the article below any names of people or institutions, only facts. Yet I have access to the proof – in electronic form – of everything I am talking about below.
May and early June in Russia is the time when graduating seniors of all majors take a state qualification examination in their field. The examination is developed by the Ministry of Education for every major in advance and tests students’ knowledge of the most important concepts they were supposed to learn during their entire course of study at a university. State exams are conducted after universities’ own exams but before students are awarded diplomas.
University X is a specialized school in Moscow. It is a prestigious research university in Russia with more than a hundred specialized support centers in Moscow. It is currently ranked number one in Russia in its field. Mister Y is a graduating senior at University X and my acquaintance. In early June this year, I was staying in Moscow and I asked Mr. Y how his preparation for the state examination was going. Mr. Y says he is concerned that he does not have enough time to memorize the correct answers for his state exam. I did not get it and asked for an explanation. Mr. Y says that dean’s office at his university (Yes, dean’s office) distributed to all students, a few days before the exam, a full list of exam questions with correct answers marked. I thought it was a bad joke and asked Mr. Y to show me the test questions, which he did. Ironically, looking through the questions, I noticed a typo – an incorrect answer was chosen in place of the right answer. I asked him what answer he was going to memorize for that particular question. “Of course, I’ll put the answer they (dean’s office) told me to!” Then our conversation went like this:
ME: But we know this answer choice is incorrect.
Mr. Y: There is probably an error in the testing system and they [dean’s office] know about it.
ME: Or they just do not want the whole school to score a hundred percent on this exam and attract suspicion from the Ministry of Education.
Mr. Y: Well, they also told us to make a couple of mistakes on the test.
ME: This is probably to ensure that not all of students’ mistakes are identical…. But why do you even need the answers? Can’t you answer the questions yourself? You have been an A student at this school, you are graduating with honors, you must be able to get all the questions right yourself!
Mr. Y gets angry with me: You don’t understand! They don’t teach you this in school!
I wonder what they have taught him then in the school that is considered best in Russia in its field. I wonder what they teach you at other, less prestigious schools. It’s quite understandable, however, what kind of fears make Russian universities go that far and distribute the right answers to their students in such a centralized manner. The universities understand that there is a discrepancy between the quality of their teaching and professional standards established by the Ministry of Education. They understand that if a significant proportion of their graduating students fail state exams, they (the schools) risk losing their accreditation with the Ministry of Education. So they engage into this machination, collect money from government and students’ families, and continue to produce defective professionals – accountants who don’t know what accounting is about, doctors who incidentally maim their patients, teachers whose knowledge of the subject they teach is equivalent to that of their students…
Russian students reading this will undoubtedly get irritated and accuse me of all sorts of things, from the lack of understanding of the benefits of Russian education to the lack of patriotism. Yet, unlike most of them, I have been fortunate to study abroad and see that education without corruption is possible, where professors teach students the minimum that is expected of students and trust the students to learn it.
What is interesting here is that the problem stems from something other than lack of funding. In that particular school, students enjoy the latest education technologies and are taught by nationally and internationally recognized professionals. This fact leads me to conclude that production of defective specialists is an institutional problem rather than an economic one, and solving it requires dealing with institutions directly. Also, as my next example below will illustrate, the scope of this problem is much wider than just incompetent and corrupt university authorities. Since dean’s office at University X somehow managed to obtain the exam questions before the exam, someone at the Ministry of Education must be someone’s friend at University X. But professionals from outside universities, who represent the state during state qualification examinations, get involved into the machinations too. It seems that who gets involved and how depends on the form in which state exams are conducted in a particular school.
Consider, for example, University Z in a city thousands of miles away from Moscow. University Z is a well-known and respected public school locally. Here is what students say about the state qualification exams at that school:
“The exam lasts about three hours and is attended by a special state committee. It is an oral examination and students are supposed to answer to that committee. A couple of weeks before the exam, the departments distribute to students a full list of exam questions. Students contribute money to the pot and then use it to buy food the day before the exam day. On the exam day, students set the table with this food in a room across the hall from the room where the exam is supposed to take place. When the exam starts, students invite the committee to the table, all the committee members accept the invitation and leave the exam room [whether they actually go to eat what the students have put on the table for them is an open question]. The committee members leave the exam room for about an hour. This one hour is just enough time for students to copy the answers from their cheat sheets which they had prepared having been given the exam questions in advance. When the committee returns, the students take the examination and all get excellent or good grades. The process is repeated every year.”
Here, the state committee did not mind disappearing from the exam room for an hour or so. As it has been seen, although state exams are conducted differently in different schools (orally or in form of a test), schools adapt to circumstances. Thus, each particular school has its own way of surviving to continue to produce defective professionals for the national labor market, while in the meantime Russian media are shouting that the West with its double-dealing politics is really to blame for all Russia’s social ills. This is, however, a topic deserving its own post.
A continuation of my conversation with Mr. Y that didn’t fit into the article above:
ME: … Imagine this hypothetical situation: you take the exam and you fail it. What will the consequences be? How would dean’s office react?
Mr. Y: Errr … I don’t know. They have already put “Excellent” for the state exam into my diploma.
ME, almost speechless: A week before the exam? How is this possible?
Mr. Y: Dean’s office distributes to students draft copies of their diplomas so that each student can check it for spelling and other errors. It is a standard practice. I saw in the draft copy of my diploma my grade for the state exam.
ME: What about other students? Did everyone have “excellent”?
Mr. Y: I’m not sure about others. I only know that all students graduating with honors had “excellent” written in place of their state exam grade, and some other students who are not going to get honors got “good.”
Welcome to Russia, the country where students can get their exam grades a week before the actual exam, and then dare claim that Russia’s education is the best in the world!
 Here I am talking about three real people, all are my peers, whom I know personally.