Pay up or Fail, Uzbek Students Told

Bribe-taking is prevalent in Uzbek universities, and no one involved will do anything about it.

Pay up or Fail, Uzbek Students Told

Bribe-taking is prevalent in Uzbek universities, and no one involved will do anything about it.

It is examination time at universities in Uzbekistan, and students are racking their brains – not over their studies, but about how many bribes they need to pay to get a pass-mark.

Corruption is a major blight on the higher education system, and there are indications that the amount students have to pay is growing.

As the May-June examination period comes round, students have to figure out which lecturers need to be bribed, and how much. Students’ families are well aware of the problem because they have to find the money from relatives, friends and neighbours. Examinations for cash have become so commonplace that the rising cost of bribes is regarded as just another form of price inflation.

IWPR found that students were happy to talk about the problem once they were sure that the questioner was not a police informer. They were able to put a price tag to each of the course subjects at their particular institute or university.

“It has become impossible to study without giving bribes. I receive a scholarship of 11,000 sums (about 10 US dollars a month), but that isn’t enough to pay everyone who asks for bribes. Almost every subject is valued at a certain sum of money, and if you don’t give a bribe then you probably won’t be able to pass the exam,” said a third-year student at the University of Foreign Languages who introduced himself as Rustam.

Nikolai S., in his fourth year at the Architectural and Construction Institute, paints a similar picture, “Our students can easily pass an exam if they bring the teacher an expensive present.”

Second-year student Elena B. suggests that not all at the Institute of Oriental Studies, suggests paints a similar experience of bribing lecturers:

“Many lecturers at our institute take bribes, but mainly from people who don't want to study. One high-ranking staff member – I won't give his name – will go around all the lecturers and collect a set of grades complete with signatures, if a student pays him 150 dollars.”

Although everyone knows that students are bribing their way through examinations, no one talks about it. There is no public debate on sensitive issues such as corruption in Uzbekistan. People still remember cases several years ago where a dean of faculty at the foreign languages university and a lecturer in journalism at the national university were dismissed after being caught in the act of taking bribes. But these are seen as exceptions to the rule, especially since no one recalls anything changing after the sackings.

Students also have their own good reasons to keep quiet. They are afraid they could be thrown out of university, while their relatives are concerned to see that they finish their studies and receive the right diploma. Many students will have paid bribes to get into college in the first place, especially prestigious universities in the capital.

Independent analysts in Tashkent view bribe-taking by university lecturers as just one facet of the corruption that plagues Uzbekistan. Bribes are given and taken with apparent impunity, and the government seems unconcerned.

Political scientist Bahodir Musaev is worried about the effect corruption will have on the education system when it becomes so widespread that it is regarded as the norm.

“The issue is education – what sort of professionals can students become if they didn’t study, but were forced to pay money for exams? It is moral and ethical degradation,” he told IWPR.

Musaev believes that in a top-down political system like this, the only authority capable of beginning a serious war on corruption is the president himself.

But is the political will there? The signs are not good, says Musaev. President Islam Karimov has not announced a state programme to tackle corruption at national level, and his actions have been limited to dismissing provincial governors from time to time.

“Why is there no war on corruption? Whose interests is Karimov scared of hurting? Perhaps the interests of bureaucratic clan structures, which are not interested in transparency or openness. If that is the case, then I have no hope of improvements in any areas of public life in Uzbekistan in the near future,” said Musaev.

Low income is another cause of corruption. In Soviet times lecturers received a decent salary by the standards of the day, but like many other public-service workers they have been left behind in recent years so that salaries are inadequate and pay differentials are meaningless.

A senior lecturer at an academic institute currently gets paid around 35,000 sums, 30 US dollars, a month. Apart from being low by any standards, this wage is only a few thousand sums more than a newly graduated lecturer would get at the same institute. In April lecturers were further hit when they lost their rights to free public transport and half-price gas and electricity.

Those lecturers who do not take bribes are forced to make ends meet by teaching extra classes elsewhere, and many leave their jobs for more lucrative work in the commercial sector. As a result there are not enough lecturers to teach in many subjects.

“How can you live on this salary?” asked Anatoly Likhodzievsky, a lecturer at the Russian language faculty at the University of Foreign Languages. “I don’t take bribes, but I am forced to seek extra income to stay alive – I work as a tutor and teach additional classes at other institutes.”

Many lecturers are now warning that if the situation continues as it is the higher education system may collapse completely. They want to see salaries doubled and benefits restored, as a minimum. Without that, they say, more lecturers will leave, and then a graduate diploma will mean nothing more than the amount of money that was spent on it.

Anton Sinyshev is the pseudonym for an independent journalist in Tashkent.

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