This is the story of how one blogger was able to overcome corruption in the Department of Journalism at Moscow State University (MGU). It seems unbelievable and impossible even, that this issue revolves around the entrance exams for the most powerful and prestigious university in Russia, despite the fact that this is perhaps the most corruption-prone element of the higher education system in the country.
Entrance interview mystery
On June 21, 2011, popular blogger Vladimir Varfolomeev posted an update [ru] in which he discussed the entrance exams for people trying to get into the Department of Journalism at MGU. Varfolomeev is not a state lecturer at MGU. He is the news editor at radio station Ekho Moskvy, but the Faculty of Journalism makes a point of inviting independent journalists to the commission that leads the entrance exam interviews. Had it not been for the fact that Varfolomeev is a journalist and popular blogger, this whole story might not have happened and justice would not have been served.
When Varfolomeev first wrote about this issue in his blog, he simply expressed his doubt and incomprehension of the following situation: Why had one applicant, whom he had interviewed and who had received 30 points from the commission, suddenly slipped down to 12 points?
The Dean of the Department of Journalism, Yelena Vartanova, reacted [ru] to the entry almost immediately. She said that there existed a certain “institute of review of higher and lower marks”, a process which was in keeping with orders from the Ministry of Education (they were referred to as No. 442 and No. 285) and had existed in the Department of Journalism “for 30 years”.
That is to say, that if at an entrance interview for the Department of Journalism at MGU you get a markedly higher or lower mark, your mark will be reviewed. It is not known who reviews them. While the members of the examination commission are known, the composition of the extra “reviewers” is kept secret. No one knows when and where this is carried out and the applicant learns their final grade only when it is posted on the bulletin board of the department.
On the very same day that Varfolomeev’s first post appeared, June 21, 2011, an entry [ru] appeared on the Facebook page of a journalist from Slon.ru, Natalya Falkon, who had herself graduated herself from MGU's Departmentof Journalism. It detailed how her sister, Nastya, had tried to get into the department. In the entry entitled ‘Shame on the Department of Journalism’, Natalya wrote:
Настя рассказала, что собеседование прошло прекрасно, что она ответила на большинство вопросов и в конце участники комиссии, проводившие собеседование, сказали: “да она знает больше нас!”. […] Насте повезло и позже она случайно встретила кого-то из этой комиссии, кто сообщил ей, что она молодец и у нее 30 баллов. […] Каково было удивление моей сестры, когда она увидела напротив своей фамилии цифру 64. […] За сочинение ей поставили 52 балла. То есть получилось, что она набрала 12 из 30 за собеседование.
Nastya’s situation is not unique: after a few days, Varfolomeev posted information [ru] on other applicants, identified only by their initials, showing that the points received by them after the interview – 30, 28 and 18 – had all turned into 2 points.
Of course it’s worth noting the problem of subjective grades. The fact is that an interview is not a formalised procedure and a lot depends on the emotional conditions of the lecturer and applicant. I say this as a university lecturer. The aim of an interview is to show the depth of an applicant’s insight, their motivations, interests and inclinations. Understandably, mistakes can be made.
The editors at Ekho Moskvy supported their journalist and took up the topic. First, they invited Yelena Vartanova on air [ru], where she again repeated that “in the department, there exists a practice of rechecking not only all higher, but also all lower grades.”
However, Vartanova no longer referred to this “practice” as being written in orders from the Ministry of Education, as she did in her first commentary. The editors of Ekho Moskvy then decided to check [ru] these orders. The editors attentively read not only the orders, but also a mass of other documents, both the ‘Rules of Entry to MGU in 2011‘ [ru] and the rules of the creative competition [the Department of Journalism entrance exam] [ru] at MGU.
Nowhere could they find one reference to the rechecking of the results of an interview by any sort of expert commission. As soon as this became known, the head editor at Ekho Moskvy, Aleksei Venediktov, even advised [ru] journalists of the radio station not to take part in entrance exams at the department until all its rules become transparent and known to both applicants and members of the commission.
The situation thus created unpleasantness. It became obvious that there was no legal basis for the changing of points given by the commission at the interview. It also became clear that some of the applicants were wronged and clearly could not get into the faculty as a result of this process, and the whole issue stank of corruption. In general, everyone accepts this, but the case of MGU, which became well known thanks to Varfolomeev and his popular blog, had only one clear solution: justice needed to be restored, otherwise the heads of the department and MGU would look very bad.
The story ended relatively quickly, on the very same day when the Department of Journalism had to post the points received by candidates and, correspondingly, a list of who got in. The Rector of MGU, Viktor Sadovnichy signed a ruling [ru] on behalf of the Central Acceptance Commission on the cancellation of altered points, made by the Department of Journalism after entrance interviews.
A clean victory!
A clean victory! It seems to me that everyone who gets into the department this year must remember the “heroic act” of Varfolomeev. However, there is nothing heroic about this act. This is the usual practice of the Russian blogger: to write about injustice, uncover violations of rights, investigate incidents of corruption, defend those without rights and the weak, make noise, and demand answers from the authorities, civil servants and leaders.
As we know, this gets results and the example of Varfolomeev and the MGU Department of Journalism is confirmation of this.
By the way, the story didn’t end there. On June 28, TV Channel 1 revealed more details connected to this story. This was remarkable in and of itself, but all the more so for another reason. In the discussion [ru], the President of the Department of Journalism, Yasen Zasursky, defended the honour of the department and hinted that this issue was not as simple as it seemed and that members of the commission also could be non-objective:
Журналисты – люди живые, и у них есть тоже дяди, тети, дедушки, бабушки, дети, внуки. Мы не хотели бы, чтобы наши экзаменаторы, в том числе журналисты, слишком сильно проявляли свои заинтересованности.
The next day, on the commentary of the radio station Svoboda, Yasen Zasursky put it [ru] more bluntly:
Они [журналисты] ставили высокие оценки всем, кто к ним приходил, особенно детям своих знакомых. […] Мы вынуждены привлекать к работе комиссии журналистов, которые, не будучи профессиональными преподавателями, рассматривают это как приятную дополнительную нагрузку, полагая, что они могут помочь хорошим людям у нас учиться. Они прямо говорили этим ребятам: мы вам всем поставим высший балл. Ну что делать? Мы, конечно, должны задуматься над тем, как и кого привлекать к творческому конкурсу.
Zasursky’s commentary has given rise to active discussion [ru] on Varfolomeev’s blog:
Oleg Kozlovsky – Владимир, неужели вы скрыли от общественности, что ваша тетя поступает на журфак?!
Владимир Варфоломеев – Случай гораздо более тяжёлый – поступать, несмотря на все отговоры, решил мой дедушка.
Oleg Kozlovksy – Vladimir, perhaps you’re hiding from us that your aunt is trying to get into the Faculty of Journalism?!’
Vladimir Varfolomeev – It’s a lot more serious than that, despite all dissuasions, my grandfather has decided to apply.
Who do you believe more: Varfolomeev or Zasursky?