Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Dagestan's Mushrooming Universities

The town of Derbent has dozens of higher education institutes – and thousands of poorly educated students.
By Rinat Turabov

Just one road in Derbent, Soviet Street, has four institutes of higher education. This southern Dagestani city, with a population of 100,000, has 30 universities and institutes – almost as many as the whole of St Petersburg and the surrounding region.

But local employers are unimpressed by the large numbers of graduates, and the proliferation of institutes seems to illustrate a Russian joke from the Nineties in which a newspaper small advertisement says, “Basement to let. Can be used as storeroom, cafe or institute.”

The Russian education ministry has announced a major reform programme, but at the moment there is no formal registration system that tests whether an institute or college is qualified to teach.

Derbent citizens used to head to the regional capital Makhachkala for higher education, but in the Nineties new institutes began springing up, generally as branches of big universities in other parts of Russia.

“I went to Dagestan State University,” said Aslan Dadashev, a maths teacher in a secondary school. “It was five years of very hard work. Then suddenly it turned out I could have got the same education here in Derbent, and much more cheaply. Like many people here, I reacted with disbelief to the appearance of these branch institutes. After all, the Nineties were a time of massive fraud in Russia.”

The colleges tend to teach the same subjects, mainly law and economics. Less common but also taught are courses in modern languages, history, and psychology. Other subjects are almost impossible to study.

“I have been drawing for six years,” said artist Xenia Husseinova. “It became much more serious than just a hobby, so when I finished school, I decided to go on to study art. I was amazed to find that there were no art faculties at any of the 30 colleges in Derbent. I had to go and study in another town, which wasn’t cheap.”

Facilities are basic, and only about five of the institutes are decently equipped. The rest are crammed into basements rented from schools and kindergartens. In general, they have poor libraries with little academic literature, and there are few computers. The same teachers usually teach in several colleges at once.

House No. 16 on Buinaksk Street is a typical Stalin-era building which used to house two communal apartments. Now it is home to two colleges. Coming in, you see an entrance hall with badly painted doors, a floor covered with old tiles and a wall inscribed with a quotation from Cicero, “To be free is to obey the law”. There are lecture rooms on the ground floor, and up a worn staircase there are classrooms with a few ancient computers.

This is the home of the Derbent branch of the Eurasian Open University and the Derbent Distance Learning Institute. According to the entrance examination committee, both institutions are run by the same person.

“We don’t have many students now – fewer than last year,” said the receptionist. “That’s clearly because we are not allowed to provide an alternative to military service.” University students in Russia are generally exempt from conscription into the army.

On average, 150 to 200 students study in this kind of institute, paying just five or six thousand roubles (175 to 210 US dollars) a year.

Employers say it is often barely worth hiring graduates from these courses. “Before, young people who came to work for us from higher education institutions were almost professionals,” said Askhab Magomedov, director of a law firm, “but since these newly-created institutes have appeared, we are getting young people whom we have to teach an awful lot.”

Despite the large volume of supposedly qualified graduates and the high unemployment rate, Derbent is full of employers’ notices seeking technical specialists.

Students questioned by IWPR said they were interested in getting a certificate of higher education, but complained about the low standard of teaching.

The teachers defend their profession. “We provide knowledge, and those who really want to receive it do so,” said the deputy director of the Derbent branch of Dagestan State University, Vadim Kuliev.

Everyone admits that the system is riddled with corruption. “Every teacher prints a pamphlet on his subject and asks his students to buy it, threatening not to give them good exam marks if they don’t. It’s legal bribery,” said one student, who preferred not to give his name.

It is commonly accepted – though hard to prove – that good exam results, reports, and diplomas cost money. One bridegroom reportedly received a university diploma as a wedding present.

Derbent’s deputy public prosecutor, Misbakh Nazirov, told IWPR, “There is one case where the directors of an institute - which I won’t name because there is an ongoing investigation – awarded a student marks when in fact he was away doing his military service in the Russian army.”

However, this is the only case currently under investigation. And few people have an interest in exposing the abuses in the system. A student who complains about being forced to pay bribes risks being denied his diploma. The police admit that cases which they have begun to investigate have subsequently been “lost” further up the system.

A recent high-school debate among school leavers in Derbent discussed the theme of corruption and higher education establishments. “Corruption makes life easier!” said 15-year-old Lyudmila. Another said it was easier to pay 300 or 400 roubles for an exam result than to spend the whole night slaving away over application forms.

There was general agreement that educational reform is badly needed. but that it needs to be implemented sensitively and it has to be aimed at improving the quality of higher education.

Rinat Turabov is a correspondent for Moskovsky Komsomolets Dagestan in Derbent.

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