Interviewers 'bribed' by would-be students

Emma Burstall on reported widescale corruption in the school system after the fall of socialism

The collapse of socialism and the growing financial crisis facing schools in the Republic of Kazakhstan is leading to an increasingly unequal and corrupt education system.

This is the view of Alan De-Young, from the University of Kentucky, and Bakhytkul Nadirbekyzy, from Kazakh State Academy of Management, who have written two reports on post-Soviet secondary school reform in Kazakhstan.

According to the authors, now the Communist party no longer informally controls the ethical and moral channels of the nation, the use of bribery to proceed through formal schooling has become commonplace.

"Teachers often enquire about the personal background and professional situation (or the types of animals owned) of students' parents. Such information sets the stage for later requests for presents by many teachers, " they say.

"In higher education, bribes are often expected for entry into the university, and certainly for entrance to more prestigious schools and faculties (law or international relations, for example)."

Although there is no concrete proof, anecodotal evidence abounds that bribery begins in kindergarten with gifts to teachers and continues into the university years. One higher education institution was recently found guilty of corruption after it emerged that the selection committee was given information about potential students with whom an agreement had been reached.

The secretary of the committee informed the teachers at the entrance examination whom to give a pass mark to.

The growth in corruption is partly due to severe financial problems facing Kazakhstan's education system, say DeYoung and Nadirbekyzy, who interviewed key government and school leaders and surveyed 130 classroom teachers for their reports.

In 1995, government support for secondary schools fell from 8 per cent of the nation's budget to about 3.6 per cent, they say.

Teachers and professors are rarely paid on time and have to depend on their extended family to survive. Salaries are often two or three months late and barely cover the average, monthly shopping bill. Around 30 per cent of teachers left the profession in 1993 to find higher paid work in the private sector.

Bribery has been one outcome, another is the growth of a different kind of inequality. Better-off parents in affluent areas are increasingly dipping into their pockets to partly, and in some cases wholly, subsidise what were once state-funded, comprehensive schools.

As a result, better staff and facilities are to be found in those secondary schools where parents can afford to pay up to the equivalent of 20 or 30 US dollars extra per month for their children's education.

These schools can afford to hire the best teachers remaining in education, to heat their buildings and buy computers and softwear, while other institutions, especially in poor, rural parts of the country, are barely able to survive.

In some hard-up areas, classes are being taught by teachers who retired several years earlier. In others, teachers are hopping from school to school for extra pay, doing 50 and 60-hour weeks.

Conditions are often appalling. The authors visited one school where there was no heat or electricity. The temperature was never above freezing and there were few supplies paid for by the Kazakh Ministry of Education (MoE). Most came from teacher salaries.

Textbooks are no longer free. Yet the MoE estimated last year that only about 20 per cent of students could afford to buy them.

Despite these inequalities, the president and education minister of the Republic, which became an independent state in 1991 and is now the world's ninth largest country, have both said they would like to see private schools springing up to increase the quality of education in the nation and expand parental choice.

"Unfortunately," say DeYoung and Nadirbekyzy, "the implications for unequal social and occupational futures for poorer children and children of different ethnic groups are clear in such developments.

"We suspect in the rush to a market economy the schools of Kazakhstan are being asked to follow, that the value of educational equity, a goal many of us in American education still appreciate, is being sacrificed under the name of private sector needs. Expertise is becoming mostly available there to children who start from an advantaged position."

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