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Targeted recruitment Journalists reveal Russia’s own ‘college admissions scandal’

Source: Meduza

Every year, high school students in Russia take the Unified State Exam — a standardized test used in college admissions. According to a new joint investigation published by the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, there’s one group of students whose scores are irrelevant to getting into top universities. These select individuals are guaranteed acceptance thanks to something called “targeted recruitment,” which means that various branches of the Russian state have agreed to sponsor their higher education. The system is meant to improve social mobility and promote government service, but more and more high-ranking state officials are abusing the program to subsidize their own children’s educations, as well as the educations of relatives’ children who fail to qualify for top schools on merit alone. Meduza summarizes the key findings of this report.

Bypassing university admissions 101

Russia’s “target recruitment” program essentially works like this: any government body seeking specialists in a particular field can send high school students to university, provide them with additional scholarship money and housing during their studies, and in return these students will work for that branch of the Russian government for at least three years after graduation.

However, as Novaya Gazeta explains in a joint investigation with the investigative outlet IStories, Transparency International Russia, and the student journal Doxa, “A lot of high-ranking officials have sent their children and relatives to prestigious universities through targeted recruitment by state structures that they themselves are leading or supervising.” 

The targeted recruitment program allows these students to gain admission to Russia’s top universities with little or no competition, even if they score poorly on the Unified State Exam. Students reach preliminary agreements through government agencies, which guarantees their admission to a particular university without having to apply to the institution directly. This makes it easy for officials responsible for targeted recruitment to influence selection, allowing them to send their own relatives to the very best schools.

After studying the procedures for targeted recruitment, Transparency International lawyer Grigory Mashanov said that the process is “entirely opaque” — government bodies are under no obligation to publish information on the who’s doing the recruiting or which students they select, and there’s no clear set of standards for evaluating candidates. “The heads of government state structures can single handedly decide who to send for higher education, without any justification,” Novaya Gazeta concludes.

How they figured it out

The joint investigation relied on case studies of targeted admission to 15 universities across Russia from 2015 to 2019 (using data from universities that make this enrollment information publicly available). The sample included 12 of the country’s best universities as per international rankings (such as Moscow State University, the Higher School of Economics, and St. Petersburg State University, to name a few examples), as well as three “key industry institutes” (First Moscow State Medical University, Moscow State Linguistic University, and the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography). 

Using information openly available on university websites, the journalists found the names of students admitted through targeted recruitment who appeared to be related to civil servants. Taking into account only those whose family ties could be confirmed by additional sources, they were able to confirm 102 cases where the children or relatives of government officials received university admission via targeted recruitment, thanks to a government agency that their given relative either runs or works closely with within the civil service.

On top of the fact that this poses a clear conflict of interest (especially since, in addition to admission, these government agencies often provide additional scholarships and housing), many of the students in question didn’t have high enough grades to get into a top university on their own merit. 

Who’s involved 

Novaya Gazeta refrained from releasing the names of the students involved, but published a full list of government officials whose children or other relatives got into university through targeted recruitment. Among the higher-ranking officials are:

  • The head of the Presidential Affairs Department, Alexander Kolpakov, whose department sent one of his sons to First Moscow State Medical University in 2015
  • Former presidential advisor Sergey Dubik, whose son was recruited to study law at Moscow State University (MGU) in 2016
  • Lieutenant General Alexander Mokritsky, a high-level military prosecutor whose son was recruited to MGU’s law faculty by the Attorney General’s Office in 2016
  • And Major General Andrey Tretyakov, who ran the Organizational and Mobilization Department of Russia’s Emergencies Ministry until he was fired and dismissed from military service in 2016. That same year, the Emergencies Ministry sent Tretyakov’s son to study at Nizhny Novgorod State University.

According to the investigation, civil servants working in Russia’s regional governments are also known to have taken advantage of targeted recruitment, as well.

Not paying their dues

Novaya Gazeta says that it’s “not uncommon” for these targeted recruitment students to drop out of university, or never go on to work for the government agencies that recruited them in the first place. “In theory, if the ‘targets’ don’t go to work for the employer that sent them to university, then they have to reimburse the money that was spent on them to the state. However, there is no clear definition of this procedure,” the investigation explains. 

According to legal databases, the Russian Health Ministry appears to be the only government body that has sought compensation from targeted recruitment students who didn’t go on to work for them. As such, whether or not there are any cases where the recruited relatives of civil servants were forced to pay compensation for dropping out or taking other jobs remains unclear.

In conversation with Novaya Gazeta, some students (who spoke on condition of anonymity) admitted that they had gone through targeted recruitment for “guaranteed employment” or because their relatives presented them with this opportunity, and it would have been impossible for them to get into university otherwise.

Meanwhile, spokespeople for a number of universities maintained that it’s not within their institutions’ authority to look into potential conflict of interests when it comes to targeted recruitment, since they aren’t involved in the selection process.

That said, some university employees expressed a difference of opinion on the topic: “In [its] current form, targeted recruitment provokes corruption and injustice,” RANEPA associate professor Yulia Galyamina told Novaya Gazeta. “Targeted admission is possible, but it should take place openly and under public scrutiny.” 

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Summary by Eilish Hart