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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lawmakers Seek End to School Graft

APHigh school seniors Tatyana Doronina, left, and Viktoria Yakovleva attending geometry class in Moscow last month.
When Yelena's son was preparing for admission exams for a top communications institute, school officials hinted he might not get in unless she offered them a little "reward."

She and her family scraped together the required $4,000 bribe, and her son was admitted.

"I knew that other parents would pay, and if I didn't do the same my son would not get in," said Yelena, 52, a Muscovite who declined to give her last name out of fear of compromising her son's studies.

The payment of bribes for admission and grades at universities and professional institutes has become endemic in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. And critics worry that this form of corruption -- which police and experts say is a growing problem -- is further eroding the quality of a cash-strapped educational system that once ranked among the world's finest.

In an effort to curb these practices, the parliament Friday approved a plan to introduce a nationwide test for high school seniors -- the equivalent of the United States' SAT -- which would substitute for written and oral admission exams that now leave room for subjective grading and bribes.

"Obviously, it should make it more objective -- there will be less influence on the part of university admission staff: you show your score and that's it," said Vladimir Yefimov, an official at the Education and Science Committee in the State Duma. The testing requirement is expected to come into force in 2009.

The global anti-corruption group Transparency International estimates that the level of graft in Russia has jumped as much as sevenfold since 2001.

Experts say corruption penetrated education as a result of the country's post-Soviet economic crises, when salaries for professors and staff plummeted and often were paid late.

Wages remains low at the state schools that make up most of Russia's higher educational system. Moscow State University, regarded as the country's top school, pays average salaries of between $470 and $980 per month to professors, a spokeswoman said.

Universities provide free education to most students, so raising tuition for the few who pay would not solve the problem.

In the Soviet era, some students were able to get into good schools thanks to their parents' political connections, but the system largely rewarded achievement, giving talented, underprivileged students access to top universities.

Moreover, claims by students that some university professors take bribes for giving out good grades have led to concerns about producing unqualified doctors, lawyers and other professionals.

"The problem of corruption is very acute today," said Yevgeny Bunimovich, a liberal lawmaker in the City Duma who specializes in education.

The Education and Science Ministry declined to comment on the problem of corruption, as did the federal education oversight service. The Prosecutor General's Office said it had no nationwide statistics on education corruption.

But Filipp Zolotnitsky, spokesman for the Moscow Police economic crimes department, said some 30 to 40 professors were caught each year in the city accepting bribes in exchange for good grades, and he said there had been about 30 cases of bribe taking by university admissions staff over the past five years.

"The problem of bribe taking exists in every sphere, from the sale of vegetables to universities: Where there is demand, there is supply," Zolotnitsky said.

Experts warn the new test alone will not curb corruption unless salaries for professors and administrations are raised and ethical standards are improved.

Viktor Sadovnichy, the rector of Moscow State University, said he had already seen an advertisement for a service guaranteeing a perfect score on the new test -- for a price.