Private colleges take the law into their own hands

August 29, 1997

Young Russians increasingly see a law degree as the fastest track to prosperity in a market-oriented society, and higher education institutions, both state and private, have been swift to meet the demand.

Despite the growing number of courses available, the pressure for admissions is intense with 20 candidates competing for each place at the flagship Moscow State Juridical Academy.

But recent warnings in the media show that young people aiming for a law degree should pay careful attention to the ancient legal precept of caveat emptor lest they end up with a qualification which is virtually useless.

According to Russia's ministry of higher and professional education, 5 universities and higher education institutes now offer law courses, including 30 private establishments which have received state accreditation.

The ministry figure does not, however, take into account the many private institutions without accreditation, whose educational competence is often dubious and which seem to have been set up simply to provide a quick income of hard currency for their founders.

The fees charged by law colleges and faculties are considerable: $4,000 a year at the International University in Moscow; $3,900 at the First Moscow Juridical Institute, $3,000 at the Law College of Moscow State University and the "Friendship of Nations" University. The average salary is equivalent to $180 a month.

There is also the problem of converting roubles to the dollars in which many of the private institutions insist on being paid.

But high prices are no guarantee of good or even relevant teaching. Some institutions, as an Izvestiya article pointed out, offer only a bachelor's qualification. This has no real standing, either for entry to advanced studies or into the state legal service. Others have dressed up their basic "economics" courses with superficial courses in business or international law.

A number of the less prestigious state universities have added law courses to their programmes, although they have neither the necessary staff nor the government licence to teach this subject.

A frequent trick of the private universities and colleges (particularly prevalent in law courses, although not confined to them) is to promise "international diplomas" to their graduates. But, as Moscow News warned, the term has no real meaning.

Usually it implies that the Russian institution has an agreement with a United States or European university to recognise each other's degrees; it does not mean universal recognition of the Russian "qualification". And for virtually all official law-related posts, only a degree from a state institution is acceptable.

Those who turn to the private sector believing that it supplies superior tuition may well end up following the state courses at second hand. For many private establishments simply purchase their curricula and guidelines from impoverished state academics.

The ministry of higher and professional education apparently turns a blind eye. One official, quoted by Moscow News said that the "guidelines established in the ministry are open to all", and there was no reason why the private sector should not have them.

However, because of "technical difficulties" (ie lack of money) the ministry is unable to "publish" the necessary guidelines for all 435 specialities in which degrees are conferred in sufficient bulk in order to distribute them to the private education sector too.

State universities supplement their scanty resources by selling on to the private sector information which, properly speaking, the ministry should be providing free.

Regulations for opening a private university are extremely lax, one has simply to prove that one has leased an appropriate building, possesses the basic educational equipment, and can provide a list of teachers. No questions are asked about educational qualifications or even the curriculum.

However, around 150 private universities and colleges have not bothered even to take this basic step, including a number which claim to offer "international" qualifications in law.

Recently the ministry filed a complaint with the interior ministry, calling for the persons in charge of such unlicensed institutions to be prosecuted under an article of the Russian criminal code dealing with "unlicensed business activities".

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