I can’t remember ever knowing a Russian who reminisced about his or her college days. So I’m not sure what once led a close family friend of ours to recollect an episode from her undergraduate math class that occurred many years ago. Russian students typically sit for exams in bite-size groups, say five at a time, in the presence of the instructor, who waits at the front of the room for the results as they come in. Our friend finished her problem set and brought it forward for feedback and a final grade. The instructor went over each question, finding nothing amiss until he came to the end. “Aren’t you forgetting something?” he asked.
Confused, our friend looked again at the exam paper, since she had watched him check off her answers. Now she shrugged. With that, the instructor scrawled his verdict: she’d made a B. She was bewildered, and it was only later that she realized she’d been caught in a shakedown. But the story did not end there. When official grades were posted a few weeks later, she saw the A she knew she’d earned. Apparently, the man had lacked the nerve to exact a penalty; or maybe—lacking a good bookkeeping system for such things—he just forgot.
A few weeks ago, Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s better bloodhound newspapers of record, broke the story that this same professor, Vladimir Ivanov, had finally been ensnared in a far larger web of intrigues than extorting vzyatki from students. The founder and director of the Graphic Design Department at the St. Petersburg Polytechnic University, Ivanov—a mathematician by training—had evidently exploited a 2012 Putin directive raising teacher salaries, by instructing faculty last year to return the balance of the increase, altogether around half a million rubles, or around $10,000. (NG: “The system of monetary distribution for a university department is entirely subjective, a system in which the department head is both tsar and God.”) Unfortunately, Ivanov also had a formidable track record as a global “business traveler”—not an uncommon indulgence among Russia’s academic elites, but an indiscreet one in this case, since the timing of several trips coincided with some of the confiscated money. It didn’t take long for Novaya Gazeta to get hold of the details, along with even bigger ones, such as the revelation that Ivanov had been using students in the Polytechnic lab to produce cutting-edge 3-D models, ostensibly to apply what they had learned from their state-funded educations but, in reality, to supply Ivanov with free labor on projects for his two private design companies. As the Gazeta put it, “Vladimir Mikhailovich Ivanov really isn’t a bad businessman.”
I’ve been informed that Ivanov has since been canned—for getting the university’s name into Novaya Gazeta if nothing else—though he still has a page on the faculty website. Founded in 1899, the Polytechnic is one of Russia’s leading research institutions; it doesn’t wear its full name, Saint Petersburg Polytechnic University of Peter the Great, lightly. That won’t alter the fact that the Russian Federation itself has remained stuck in or around the 30th percentile in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index for as long as the rankings have been tabulated. But that’s the trouble with descriptive statistics: there will always be a lot of people who protest, rightly, that the numbers don’t describe them—indeed, having known and worked with many excellent and admirable Russian academics, I’ve been fortunate never to have had to prove any negatives. At the same time, I don’t think I’ve ever known any Russian citizen who did not have personal or anecdotal evidence that Russian higher ed is, like the real estate beneath the great tsar’s city itself, a swamp.
This is something of a cynical pastime among Russians. I’ve been poking around the Russian website Newtonew.com (link: https://newtonew.com/opinion/corruption-education), which I didn’t know existed until I stumbled on it just a few days ago. There is really no equivalent in English that I’m aware of. It’s not consecrated to audiovisuals like TED, and it’s not a big-box portal site like Arts & Letters Daily, though it runs on a similar blend of whimsy and Mensa-lite. It is a uniquely Russian concept: a website devoted to teachers’ musings, cultural analysis, art, cosmology, and interviews. Earlier this month, they shared survey findings from the Russian Analytical Digest revealing that large majorities of Russian college students have practiced some form of academic dishonesty, from downloading course papers from the internet (58%) to using a cheat sheet during exams (92%). Those who can afford it (32%) have actually paid someone to write their research paper. None of this is a laughing matter, but I find it poignant that the smallest group of offenders (26%) consists of those who found the courage to “ask a professor for preferential treatment.” (It would be interesting to know how often student corruption and faculty corruption successfully coincide.)
There is no shortage of research on corruption in higher education that picks on the countries of the former Soviet Union. Heyneman, at al. (2007) even went beyond the merely descriptive, regressing on data from the Transparency Index and various economic variables to demonstrate that investing in higher education in the Kyrgyz Republic significantly reduces one’s lifetime income. Osipian (2009) depicted postsecondary corruption in the former Soviet Bloc as systemic, with the observation that “parallel structures” developed in the sector after the USSR’s collapse “to increase the rate of embezzlement in order to compensate for the potential losses due to the shrinking base, i.e., declining government funding.” Where have we heard that before?
Probably the most telling statistic of all had nothing to do with actual corruption. No doubt, we are meant to be amazed when NCES reports that 40% of U.S. adults age 18-24 were enrolled in college in 2016. According to Russian Analytical Digest, 80% of roughly the same cohort (18-21) are enrolled at a tertiary institution. Even allowing for real differences in population (and Russia’s much-reported demographic decline), that is massification on a serious scale, especially considering that the country’s institutional capacity is about one-quarter the size of ours—and bound to shrink further, if the government’s plans for sweeping closures are carried out in full. (Putin’s goal is to invest more heavily in research.)
Historically, the biggest difference between the U.S. and Russia in terms of human capital was as follows. The U.S. wouldn’t promise you a college education, but could definitely promise you a job. Russia, on the other hand, couldn’t guarantee you a job, but would give you all the academic training you would have needed if it could have. The two countries have always had some uncanny symmetries; now, they seem to be converging. But that’s another post.
On a final note, the Newtonew.com story ended with what looked like a smartphone photo of a typical student obshezhitye, or apartment. (You can follow the link, having been forewarned that it cannot be unseen.) Students who lived with their parents, it was found, were less likely to cheat on tests than students who lived in such disaster areas. But researchers pointed out that the students who lived with their parents, by implication, also had the means to live in town; those who live in obshezhitye have probably had to migrate far from their provincial hometowns, where they are unlikely to have had very strong preparation for academic life.