Degrees for sale: corruption scandal engulfs Russia's leading university

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The rector of one of Moscow's most prestigious universities has been accused of handing out degrees in exchange for bribes in a scandal that has offered a rare insight into Russia's corruption-riddled education system.

The rector of one of Moscow's most prestigious universities has been accused of handing out degrees in exchange for bribes in a scandal that has offered a rare insight into Russia's corruption-riddled education system.

Tatyana Kiseleva, 63, rector of the Moscow State University of Culture and the Arts, is alleged to have handed out 130 "false" law degrees between 2001 and 2004 in exchange for bribes worth £300,000. The authorities, who have opened a criminal case against Ms Kiseleva, claim the university does not even have the right to hand out jurisprudence degrees and say the awards in question could be annulled.

Ms Kiseleva protests her innocence while her colleagues maintain that the authorities have a vendetta against her because of an unrelated land dispute. But the scandal has highlighted an all too common practice in Russia; the purchase of qualifications, grades and university places. Experts say that many academics have no other choice.

Once the toast of the Soviet elite with an enviable array of perks and privileges, Russia's impoverished academics now find themselves at the bottom of the pile and struggle to get by on salaries which can be as low as £80 a month.

"How can I survive on such a salary?" asked Leonid, a physics professor who says he does not take bribes. "My earnings are enough to pay the monthly charges for my privatised flat such as electricity and heating, but there is nothing left over."

Corruption surveys show that education employees are some of the biggest bribe-takers, outstripping even the notoriously corrupt traffic police. Estimates of how much students pay teachers and academics in bribes every year range from £250m to £300m.

Moscow's metro is full of people holding scribbled cardboard signs offering "certificates and degrees" for cash, while many Western companies operating in Russia say they have long since stopped taking applicants' CVs at face value and need to painstakingly check each and every claim.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one university official who called himself Sergei Sergeyevich recently told the influential Gazeta.ru website how the system works. He said students routinely bribe academics to get into specific university faculties, with law departments being the most sought after and therefore the most costly. "Everyone is at it. Heads of universities and colleges, deans, their deputies - they all take bribes," he said.

A student might have to pay as much as £19,000 to bribe their way on to a prestigious law course, £11,000 for an economics course (the next most popular) and between £5,000 and £11,000 for a humanities course, he added. "Usually each department has its key figure. That might be a dean or a deputy. A list of "favoured" applicants is compiled, and ... the money flows upwards."

Another approach is to pay a private tutor specialised in preparing would-be students for entrance exams. The tutors usually have close links with the exam commission and in many cases also sit on it.

"The prices [for bribes] vary greatly depending not only on the university and the subject, but also on the scheme through which the bribe is paid. The more prestigious the institute the higher the amount that needs to be paid."

But, says Sergei, there is no guarantee the bribe will work. "Of course, those involved try to honour their obligations. However unforeseen circumstances are also possible. For instance at the 11th hour a tutor [who has been bribed] may find that he is not included in the exam commission.

"He will then seek out his acquaintances on the commission or switch off all his phones and tell the parents of his student something like: 'I've been summoned to Oxford for the next few months. But I have managed to prepare your son/daughter and am certain of his/her success.' With that he disappears."

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