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

Kazak Exam Scammers Outwit Officials

Competition for subsidised places at university fuels entrance exam corruption.
By Anton Dosybiev
Government controls are failing to prevent endemic corruption in the Kazak education system, with officials accepting bribes from secondary school students to let them pass a national test necessary for university admission.



The Unified National Test, UNT, which was established in Kazakstan four years ago in an attempt to introduce standardised and transparent assessment procedures, took place this year from June 12 to 15 at exam centres around the country.



A pass in the test is necessary for university entry, and with tough competition for state-funded places at universities, there is pressure on students to obtain as high a score as possible.



But despite the authorities’ attempts to control the test and prevent cheating, increasingly sophisticated scams are uncovered every year, with students being given more opportunities to pay to pass the exam.



Last year, a scandal emerged when information was leaked which threatened to undermine the integrity of the test.



In order to prevent a similar occurrence this year, answers to the UNT were publicly declared to be top secret and put on the register of secret documents of the Kazakstan National Security Committee, NSC.



At the same time, the director of the National Centre of State Standards for Education and Testing also reassured the public that safeguards had been put in place and that the education ministry would ensure that the integrity of the test would be protected.



Security measures at the centre where information in the test is stored were increased and education ministry officials claimed a leak was practically impossible, as computers storing answers to the test were completely isolated, NSC officers stood watch, and 16 security cameras were set up around the centre.



In spite of this, the press service of the Almaty NSC reported on June 12 that the alleged organiser of a criminal gang had been arrested in Almaty, apparently distributing answers to questions - the first time anyone has been detained for such an offence.



According to the press service, the man was arrested as he attempted to sell a compact disc for 1,300,000 tenge (around 10,600 US dollars) containing 10,000 codes of correct answers to UNT questions.



During a subsequent police raid prompted by the arrest, NSC employees found large sums of money - 25,000 dollars, and over 2 million tenge (around 16,000 dollars) - said to have been received for assistance in passing the UNT.



Lists of graduates’ names, as well as photocopies of their identification and passes to the test, were reportedly confiscated from the group, and a criminal case has now been opened.



And this was not an isolated incident. In Almaty alone, NSC officers recorded over 180 incidents where people attempted to cheat during testing.



There were 20 attempts by unregistered people to be admitted to sit the test, over 40 cases of people apparently using mobile phones to receive answers, and over 30 cases where people sitting the test had notes containing the answers confiscated from them.



According to the students themselves, corruption is rife throughout the system.



Azamat, a graduate of one Almaty school, told IWPR that at his school this year officials accepted bribes from students for a range of services.



“The codes of the correct answers could be bought for 3,000 dollars, and you could bring cheat notes for free, but to use them you had to pay 100 dollar. To make them ignore the fact that you were using a telephone or pocket computer, you had to pay 300 dollars,” said Azamat.



Some students’ parents say it’s understandable that people are tempted to pay these bribes.



“Of course it’s expensive [to bribe an official to pass the test] and not everyone can afford it, but studying is even more expensive,” said the mother of one school graduate of an Almaty school who wished to remain anonymous.



There are a limited number of state-funded university places, and in order to qualify for one, students must gain high marks in the test.



But with increasing opportunities to pay for answers, students’ scores are being raised artificially, making the competition to secure assisted places even harder.



With more students looking to cheat, the bribes become higher and the various tricks used become more sophisticated.



Zinaida Savina, an independent education expert, said that the “unprecedented excitement surrounding higher education which has been seen over the last six to seven years is linked with an incorrect understanding of prestige.”



She argues that the value of certificates is undermined, because people are paying to receive them.



“For girls, a diploma is often seen as a part of the dowry,” said Savina. “The people have declared the slogan – ‘Educated at any Price’ - and bend over backwards to get higher education.”



Human rights advocate Rozlana Taukina said the demand for higher marks and the development of sophisticated methods of cheating means that the education system is turning into a business.



“I was told of a case when children were approached while they were sitting the UNT and asked if their parents were outside. If they could pay 1,000-2,000 dollars, then they could be sure of an excellent result,” Taukina told IWPR.



She said the current scandal surrounding the UNT is a “sign of the corruption of the country” and believes that paying to pass exams not only degrades the society of Kazakstan, but above all the children – the future of the country.



The corruption surrounding the UNT has also brought out a large number of confidence tricksters, and students and parents looking for easy ways to pass the test risk falling into their traps.



In the Saryagash region of the South Kazakstan region, ten parents demanded law-enforcement bodies to find a conman who promised to ensure their children received 100 points in the UNT for 1,000 dollars, and then disappeared.



According to Savina, Kazak society is being degraded by the drive for money and the positions that can be bought with this money.



“An official who gets into power at his own expense and the expense of his relatives, and loses his honour and shame as he does so, becomes dangerous for society and undermines the entire system of state security,” she said.



“The scandal surrounding the [test] shows once more how low we have sunk.”



Anton Dosybiev is an IWPR correspondent in Almaty.