Just when you think the cool-headed forward-looking Kazakh government has higher education under control, another scandal erupts and throws things off kilter.
On April 24, a report emerged that the Astana Medical University had been forced to expel over 100 of its students [ru] for doctoring their language test documentation.
All (post)graduate students studying medicine/allied subjects are now required to produce proof of their English language abilities upon admission to a Master’s or PhD course or in applying for a residency.
Following complaints last year from other students that something was afoot with the language skills of certain of their coursemates, an investigation was opened, eventually finding that the IELTS (International English Language Testing System, one of the two most widely used tests of English language ability for non-native speakers) certificates of 117 students had been faked.
Not only have all the students been expelled, but they must now repay the state funding that went towards their tuition fees and living costs. All bar a handful of the accused students had been in receipt of a much sought after government grant.
There is also a possibility of legal action, which can range from a monetary fine to imprisonment in line with Kazakh law.
For Astana Medical University, this is a highly embarrassing and unwanted piece of negative publicity. But it lost the chance to come out cleaner than it has by slowing down the government’s investigation, insisting that it was not fully responsible for taking action. As a result of what has been seen as deliberate interference, it may lose its licence to offer educational courses.
The TV news report that accompanies the written article ends by asking whether those who were responsible for offering the falsified IELTS test certificates will also face any punishment for their role in this messy affair. After all, the report notes, there is a huge demand for English language testing in Kazakhstan, and it seems that some companies may be taking advantage of this.
The higher education system in Kazakhstan has for the most part changed dramatically since its most recent inception as an arm of the Soviet state. Yet there are some elements that stubbornly persist, despite what I consider to be genuine efforts by the current leadership to clean up the system.
One of those elements is corruption in admission to higher education. Whereas nepotism was commonplace in Soviet times – who you knew and what political or social position you held could make a huge difference to where you could get your children in to university, for example – these days, bribery usually takes on a financial character.
The fake IELTS certificates scandal at Astana Medical University is the latest in a contemporary and sophisticated embodiment of what is sadly becoming a longstanding tradition in Kazakhstan’s higher education system.
Another week, another university league table? Are you getting bored of Buzzfeed-esque listicles? Are you tired of listening to yet another Vice-Chancellor/Provost tell you how well their university has performed in the latest round of classifications?
Then how about this: here’s a league table that I guarantee no university would want to join. I can promise you that you wouldn’t be on the receiving end of a self-congratulatory memo from the Press Office saying what a fantastic achievement this is for the university (although of course we don’t really believe in rankings)…
The league table of fraud
This set of rankings is the result of more than three years of hard work by Russian networking community Dissernet, through a project they have called “Disserpedia” [ru]. The project examined the content of theses at doctoral and post-doctoral* level at 235 institutions and has come up with the top 10 universities in Russia where degrees are most likely to be falsely awarded.
Entry into this insalubrious elite is based on finding five or more instances of fraud. There are no fewer than three categories of deceit:
- Plagiarism – unattributed use of other people’s works, or breaching Ministry of Education and Science citation regulations;
- Falsification – making up articles or fabricating research results;
- Procedures – violating procedural or administrative regulations for thesis preparation and defence.
Shockingly, the Dissernet researchers found evidence of five or more instances of fraud at nearly 90% of the institutions they investigated (207 out of 235).
The top 10
And without further ado, here is the Disserpedia Top 10 Fraud Factories:
- Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation, Moscow
- St Petersburg State University of Economics
- Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, Moscow
- Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration
- Razumovsky Moscow State University of Technologies and Management
- Moscow State Automobile and Road Construction University
- Moscow State Pedagogical University
- Prioksky State University, Oryol
- Yevdokimov Moscow State University of Medicine and Dentistry
- Moscow State Institute of International Relations
Note that ALL TEN are state (i.e. publicly funded) institutions… The mind boggles…
Read on to learn more about the methodology to this madness.
How does it work?
On the Disserpedia website (all in Russian), you can search by institution, by location or even by the number of fraudulent instances found thus far. There is also an A-Z listing if you want to search for an individual by name.
I picked a person at random to see what the data analysis looks like. Enter Yuliya Neudakhina, currently Assistant Professor in the State and Muncipal Management Department at Nalchik’s Kabardino-Balkarian State Agricultural University in the Caucasus of southern Russia. Her entry in the Disserpedia first includes information such as what her thesis was on, when she defended it, who her supervisor was, and the composition of the thesis committee.
Then you get to the heart of the fraud. This is a table (screenshot below) showing exactly which parts of the thesis are copied from where. In the schema, grey represents the title page, index and so on that are not included in the analysis. In Neudakhina’s case, four other colours (bright pink, light purple, bright blue and olive green) represent other doctoral theses that she has plagiarised. You can immediately see that the vast majority of her dissertation is simply a cut-and-paste job.
Underneath the schema there are a some additional observations on specific instances of dubious behaviour. For example, one reads: “In copying (in our view) the text of Yelena Zdorova’s dissertation [shown in light purple], Orienburg Region has been replaced by the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic. On page 50 (in our opinion) the region and year has been changed but the rest of the text has been retained. It did read: ‘According to Expert Journal, in 2003 Orienburg Region was ranked 29th based on its innovation potential and 47th place for risk to investors…’. It has become: ‘According to Expert Journal, in 2009 the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic was ranked 29th based on its innovation potential and 47th place for risk to investors…'”.
This is mind-blowing stuff.
*Russia offers two forms of doctoral degree (although is shifting towards to the European three stage certification of Bachelor – Master – PhD). These are “Kandidat Nauk”, which is closest to the PhD, and “Doktor Nauk”, a higher degree similar to the “habilitation” degree awarded in some European countries.
Dissernet – http://www.dissernet.org/
Colta (independent community based Russian news) – http://www.colta.ru/news/10394
Wikipedia (it pains me to cite this other ‘pedia, but on this occasion I found their English language page very helpful…) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dissernet