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False Newtons
By Maria Ryakhovskaya The Moscow News
In a few years, the country will be inundated with hundreds of thousands of graduates from colleges and universities that only exist on paper

Recently, a curious ad on Yandex, Russia's largest Internet portal, caught my eye. Posted right below the search command line, it read: "University For Sale." The ad contained a link to the Web site of a law company, Orsil, and offered an infinite selection of items for sale - inflatable beds, firms, auditing services, colleges - you name it.


The university on sale was named Stolichny gumanitarno-technichesky universitet (Moscow University of Arts and Sciences), providing instruction and training and instruction in six licensed specialties. An accompanying picture showed a posh Stalinesque building located in a luxuriant park.
"It looks almost as good as the one on Vorobyovy Hills [Moscow State University, or MGU]," I thought, and decided to go and take a look. I wanted to find out exactly what hardships of modern life had compelled someone to sell a university, and how its students felt about being put on the block. Judging from the information posted on its Web site, they were primarily first and second year students. The educational establishment was registered in 2006.

As it turned out, there was nothing like the advertised building at the address indicated in the ad. Only a modern, sophisticated office building, with a host of tenants, including a bank called Integro, sat on the site. But none of the security guards there were able to tell me where the for-sale "university" was.

Eventually, I found a telephone number on the wall that was apparently related to the establishment I was looking for. I dialed the number and got the "university admissions office." But my request for a meeting to get some information was turned down. I decided to go for broke and said that I would like to receive a second higher education. That got me in the door. I was led to the fifth floor, to a section with a few doors spaced a couple of meters away from each other.
"Where are the lecture halls?" I asked an employee who had introduced herself as Olga. She only smiled in reply.
"I would like to receive a second higher education, a degree in law. My first degree is in Russian literature, which is more or less useless now," I said. Olga readily agreed with me.
"How many students are there?" I asked.
"We do not provide such information," Olga said.
"What kind of faculty do you have? Do they have academic degrees and titles?" I asked.
"I cannot disclose such information," she said.
"May I see the lecture rooms?" I asked.
"I'm sorry, but I am not at liberty to show you," she said.
"Why?" I asked.
"We have the lowest tuition fees in Moscow!" she said, presumably in reply to my question.
"When may I enroll?" I asked.
"Any time, even right now.

It proved impossible to see the rector: He was out, or away. We had reached an impasse. Olga and I stared at each other for a while, and then I decided to disclose the real purpose of my visit. Olga became almost hysterical. She made a phone call, and two men and a woman broke into the room almost at once.

"Who are you? Who allowed you to come here?" the woman shouted, while one of the men threatened "serious consequences," including prosecution.

The other man calmly asked his colleagues to leave the room. When we were left alone, he revealed that he was the pro-rector of the Moscow University of Arts and Sciences, but declined to give his name. He offered me a cup of coffee with candy, but said that he was not authorized to answer any of my questions. He was "surprised" to learn that his "university" and the Orsil company had the same phone number.

When I told Oleg Smolin, first deputy of the State Duma Committee for Education and Science, about my visit to the "university," he promised to send a query to the Prosecutor General's Office and a federal education watchdog. He said that what I'd found was probably some kind of a barter arrangement: "Some people want to get a degree as soon as possible, while others want to get some money as soon as possible." As for the students who pay tuition fees but get nothing in exchange, they have only themselves to blame.

That comment, from a senior MP representing the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, puzzled me.


There are a few simple rules to follow. First, check whether a university has a license issued specifically by the Federal Service for the Oversight of Education and Science.

Second, read the license carefully. It sometimes happens that a "university" only has a license to provide training by correspondence.

Third, if a university has a license but no state accreditation, it should be avoided since there would be no guarantee that its training meets the established quality standards.

Fourth, a contract with a university must not be signed without a preliminary consultation with a lawyer. Something else to look out for is tuition charges.


The Federal Service for the Oversight of Education and Science conducts checks once every five years. During this time, a scam artist can deceive thousands of people.

"What can we do if some people want to obtain fake diplomas?" Sergei Kolesnikov, deputy chairman of the State Duma Committee for Science and Education, asked rhetorically. "This is none of our business. Our business as MPs is to ensure that these services are provided legally (!) but if they are not, we will take action."

But it seems like a Catch 22. To make sure that everything is legal, regular checks are needed, whereas the Federal Service for the Oversight of Education and Science is very people, it is impossible to check all universities regularly. Furthermore, it is not the quantity but quality that counts. From Kolesnikov's office, we called the federal regulator and asked about Moscow University of Arts and Sciences. Ms. Gevorkyan, deputy head of the service, told us that the university does hold a license, while its lecture halls and other facilities are located at a different address, which is not against the law.

Well, I'm not sure about those lecture halls - they may be some kind of Potemkin village. [Purportedly, fake settlements erected at the direction of Russian Count Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to the Crimea in 1787 - Ed.].

An MP once proposed that universities that do not have their own premises be denied a license, but his proposal was turned down: Virtually all non-state universities would have had to be closed then.


"Gevorkyan sells licenses: this has been established by the Prosecutor General's Office," said Sergei Komkov, chairman of the Russian Education Foundation. "She sells them to training establishments that have nothing at all - no teaching staff or premises or training facilities or even textbooks. There are hundreds or maybe thousands of such establishments in Russia."

Indeed, according to a report posted on the PGO's website, in early April Ms. Gevorkyan was officially reprimanded for "an improper exercise of certification, accreditation and licensing functions." The PGO said that "a substantial number of licenses were issued in breach of the law." There was nothing about bribes and kickbacks, however. But Komkov gave me a pretty good estimate. According to him, a license costs from $50,000 to $100,000, and accreditation between $300,000 and $1.5 million. Accreditation procedure is conducted once every five years, while according to Education and Science Minister Andrei Fursenko, there are 3,000 institutions of higher learning in the country. The minister once said he wondered how it was possible to find so many qualified teachers and professors to fill all these positions.


According to Komkov, the only way out of this situation is to abolish state accreditation completely. After all, there is none in Europe or the Americas. Russian state and government agencies are horrified by the number of "unprofessional specialists" in their ranks. Smolin said "many regional government officials have fake diplomas."The PGO's check of the Federal Service for the Oversight of Education and Science started when First Prosecutor General Aleksandr Buksman asked: "Why are there so many lawyers in our law enforcement agencies who do not know the first thing about law?"

Actually, it is an open secret that there are employees at defense sectors who are "graduates" with degrees in rocket engineering from the International University of Technology, which is located in just three small rooms.

"And then we ask why our rockets fail so often," said Nikolai Savostyanov, general director of the Russian rocket and space corporation Energiya.

It is disturbing to think about what will happen to Russia when, in five years, its agencies and institutions are flooded with hundreds of thousands of "graduates" of universities that only exist on paper.

Gevorkyan and her boss were reprimanded. Meanwhile, recently the State Duma adopted a law to expand the watchdog's functions. In particular, it may revoke a license for certain violations. Furthermore, as of now, certification and accreditation will be conducted simultaneously. But this will only fuel corruption. Moreover, the number of colleges and universities will also increase. Now their branches will be licensed and accredited as independent training establishments.

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