Corruption in Russian Medical Schools Triggers Uproar

July 12, 2011

An exposé in the Russian edition of Esquire has roiled education and health officials here by detailing the corruption at six medical schools. The magazine in April published nine short articles by medical students describing the various ways they can pay professors in exchange for passing tests.

It is not exactly breaking news that bribery exists at Russian universities. According to a May poll of 17,500 people by the Public Opinion Foundation, an independent group in Russia, respondents identified higher education as the most corrupt sector of public life, with traffic cops coming in second. But the news that future doctors, dentists, and surgeons often buy grades instead of actually learning the material triggered an immediate uproar.

Perhaps no institution has been embarrassed more than the I.M. Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University, one of Russia's best-known medical schools. In Esquire and in discussions with The Chronicle, students described an environment where bribery runs rampant. It is so common at the university, known as First Medical, that students aren't surprised to see a peer casually hand a professor of histology a thick wad of 1,000-ruble bills.

Vladimir, a third-year student who asked that only his first name be used, given the sensitive nature of the topic, told The Chronicle that before exams, his mother helps him pay $200 to $450 in under-the-table payments to faculty members. In exchange, professors help students "survive the brain-crashing number of tests and exams," he said.

After the Esquire article appeared, First Medical received a letter from the Ministry of Health that ordered university administrators to meet with the ministry. "Our rector and the rector of three other Moscow medical universities were invited to the Ministry of Health last week to discuss ways of fighting corruption," First Medical's deputy rector, Igor N. Denisov, said. He did not specify any concrete proposals put forward at the meeting to curb bribery.

One thing the medical schools did not do is deny the corruption. Mr. Denisov said he and the university's rector, Petr V. Globychko, have been actively trying to fight the tradition of paying bribes. They have asked students to inform the administration when it happens. During the last two years, two professors resigned after being confronted with accusations of taking bribes, Mr. Denisov said. "We let professors with a reputation for taking bribes know that they are not welcomed at our campus, so they prefer to quit voluntarily," he said.

'An Epidemic of Ignorance'

But relying on students to come forward may be a faulty strategy.

During his first year of studies, anatomy seemed absolutely incomprehensible, Vladimir said. His fellow student, Anna, said pharmacology "is threatening to drive me crazy." For both, the problem of passing difficult courses was easy to solve: The medical students paid $400 for a good grade or $500 for an excellent grade at the anatomy department. Last year some professors in the department switched from U.S. dollar to Euro rates, the students said. "Corruption is like an epidemic of ignorance," Anna said. "As a result of it, our poor skills will be dangerous for our future patients' health, of course."

The degree to which the students openly discuss giving bribes—and their willingness to acknowledge their lack of learning—does concern the university's administrators. "If I were there to witness a professor taking cash from a student, I would have fallen though the ground from shame," Mr. Denisov said in an interview at his office.

Mr. Denisov said the core issue was low salaries for professors: 50,000 rubbles ($1,800) is an average monthly salary for a professor at First Medical, which enrolls 13,000 to 14,000 students a year. "That is not enough for those supporting their families," Mr. Denisov said. He also blames parents for spoiling their children "by stuffing their pockets with cash for bribes," and schools for poorly educating students, who he compared to Raskolnikov, the Dostoevsky character ready to commit a crime without expecting to be punished.

Most mornings, Mr. Denisov arrives by his modest Suzuki at the university parking lot where students park their Infinity or Bentley luxury cars; some even have drivers waiting in the car until the end of lectures. "I do not understand what else but empty thirst for prestige inspires parents to pay so much money for their students to go to First Medical," the deputy rector said. "A surgery room is not going to be fun if they fear making a mistake, blood, pain, or emotional stress."

Corrupt Students Become Corrupt Doctors

Not every student can learn all required information, the deputy rector said with a sigh. First Medical has tried to screen applicants for those who may be unable to handle the difficult course load, but some students say they paid bribes to get into the school.

For those with poor learning skills, the university invented a system of extra private classes. To get a credit, a student has to take about 10 private lessons in a subject and pay the professor for those sessions. Instead of curbing bribes, the system quickly led to corrupt practices. To pass the anatomy exam last year, Misha, another student who prefers anonymity, and eight of his second-year classmates had to take extra classes from their professor. Officially, classes cost about 1,000 rubles, but the professor charged students 2,500 rubles, or $89 per class. "She did not give us any knowledge, just asked us questions for about half an hour, then opened the pocket on her white medical gown, so we could slip in our 50-euro or 1,000-ruble bills," Misha said. He said he was disappointed that the university management did not fire the professor after Misha and his friends reported her to the university management.

Mr. Denisov said that it is the responsibility of the federal security service to prosecute corrupt professors. The service "has its office on our campus—it is their job to check the evidence of crime," he said. The leader of the nongovernmental National Anti-Corruption Committee and a member of President Dmitry Medvedev's Human Rights Council, Kirill Kabanov, said the seeds of cheating and abusing rules are planted in Russian students' mind by the time they reach universities; as a result, "corruption in medical service is literally killing Russia." Corrupt medical students grow into corrupt doctors. "The health and social-development ministry has been repeatedly involved in scandals where hundreds of millions of dollars disappear from government purchases each year," Mr. Kabanov said.

Russia's Ministry of Health says it does not have data on the extent to which corruption is hurting the nation's health service, but it says it is trying to fix the problem. Sofiya Maliavina, an aide to the minister of health, said the government is pushing medical schools to provide more practical training to students. What's more, in February the ministry invested 1 million rubbles ($35,624) to establish a telephone hot line to report corruption in the state medical system. The ministry reports receiving an average of 50 calls a day.


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