Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Entering Alma Mater through the back door

One wonderful morning some time ago, I arrived at work and immediately went to another room where the colleagues had the good habit to boil coffee. After the much needed liquid speeded up my brain, I remembered that I had called my student "Bozhidar" (not his real name) to discuss his malignant absenteeism. And I hadn't even left a note where I was! I returned to my room and wished to ask whether "Bozhidar" had sought me but my colleague didn't know him. At that moment, I invented a very accurate description of him. So instead of using broad and practically useless terms such as "short" or "dark-haired", I said:
"Has a young man looking like a terrorist come to ask for me?"
I hope your interest is aroused and you will continue to read this controversial and scandalously long post, which nonetheless is one of the most important posts ever on this blog.
University education, unlike primary and secondary education, is an elitist and ability-based system. It is not for all but only for those who, besides the wish to obtain it, have the corresponding abilities assessed by an entrance exam. Unfortunately, other people also want university diplomas for themselves or their children. So there is much pressure to place in the university young people who do not really belong there. Non-privileged candidate students and their parents are always afraid that there will be tampering with the entrance exam at the expence of their children. We always reassure them that this is next to impossible and the entrance exam is fair. And we are telling the truth. The only detail is that the privileged children do not need such tampering... because it is much easier to bypass the entrance exam altogether. Let me explain how this is done. I am afraid that this could give somebody the needed know-how to smuggle his child into the university, but on the other hand, these tricks are already well known by those able and willing to use them.
The simplest and most legitimate method to bypass the entry exam is to study in another country. All universities known to me have much tougher admission rules for local that for foreign students. As I wrote in a comment to an earlier post on this subject, a very important problem is "the double standard of our educational system, regarding the local students as the country's future elite and the foreign ones as a mere source of revenue. I guess that a lot of countries do the same and, as a result, the good-for-nothing but ambitious young people from each country go to study somewhere else and then return triumphantly with diplomas." Many foreign students have admitted to me that they have come to study in Bulgaria after, and because of, failing to meet the admission requirements of universities in their home countries. To enrol as a preparatory student in a Bulgarian university, a foreigner needs only to pay the tuition fee and supply some high school diploma (which in some cases later turns out to be forged). In the preparatory year, the foreign students are "learning Bulgarian and some secondary-school-level biology. To become full-right freshmen, they have to do a multiple choice test of biology in Bulgarian. This test is a joke; it serves just to fulfill the requirement of our law that nobody becomes a university student without an entrance exam" (the quote is from the same Sept. 20, 2006 post).
Among our foreign students, good learners are so rare that they become celebrities and are remembered for long. The general level of performance is shockingly poor. When I have expressed concern that our university is teaching people not really fit to become doctors, officials reassure me with words like, "Don't worry, they will return to practice in their countries of origin." This drives me nuts. First, nobody can guarantee where the graduate will settle, and second, isn't the country of origin also populated by human beings deserving proper medical care? A colleague jokes that we must issue diplomas "pro Orienta". Such diplomas were allegedly given by some colonial powers to professionals considered fit to practice only in the colonies but not in the mother country (can't find a Web source to check this).
Of course, allowing the presence of foreign students with very poor academic records is also a threat to national security. Any smuggler, pimp, drug trafficker or terrorist with secondary education can pose as a student for years. So I fear that our laws concerning this matter will be reconsidered only if some foreign "student" blows himself up in the Sofia subway because of e.g. unhappiness about the Bulgarian troops in Iraq. But even if this doesn't happen, the situation is troubling enough because bad doctors, although less feared than terrorists, on average have a higher human toll.
Children of mixed marriages with double citizenship are most privileged. They can apply for Bulgarian universities as Bulgarian citizens and, if admitted, can study with the corresponding low tuition fee. If they fail, they can use their foreign citizenship to enroll as foreign students. This was the case of the above mentioned "Bozhidar". After receiving a non-passing grade at the mainstream entrance exam in July, he enrolled as a Spanish citizen in September of the same year! (I don't really know if one of his parents was Spanish, but I suppose this to be the case, because I hope Spain doesn't grant instant citizenship just because some foreign kid with poor grades wants it.)
Most of our foreign students don't return to their countries before finishing their study, presumably because the universities there don't allow such transfers. However, Bulgarian students enrolled in foreign universities are typically transfered to Bulgarian universities after a year, a semester or even a month or two of study. As I wrote before in my Aug. 4, 2006 post, "Because the above mentioned candidate student exam is very difficult, some bypass it, usually by spending a semester or a whole academic year in a foreign university and then transfering to our Medical University. These students are usually children of renowned doctors, politicians or rich people. They can be recognized because, although they are Bulgarians, they have faculty numbers as if they were foreigners. I don't like this sneaking into the University through the back door, I wouldn't allow it if it depended on me."
It is a paradox that our law doesn't easily allow transfer of students between Bulgarian universities yet allows transfer of students from foreign to Bulgarian universities. So we are "supplied" with Bulgarian students with almost as poor performance as the above mentioned foreign students. Here, the comfortable thought that they will practice (and, hence, damage people) elsewhere is not valid.
Some students in this category can manage the paperwork in such marvellous way that they can be transfered from a university in another country without actually having been in that country. I remember, in particular, some pharmacy students we had years ago. There were some positions reserved for ethnic Bulgarian students from Ukraine and Moldova. Programs designed to encourage ethnic Bulgarians in other countries to "keep and develop their Bulgarian identity" always make me laugh, because at the same time thousands of productive people with unquestioned Bulgarian identity leave the country every year because of lacking perspectives. The curious thing about that particular program was that almost all of its positions were actually occupied by children of privileged Bulgarians who were "transfered" from Ukraine or Moldova without having even visited these countries. The program was later terminated as quietly as it was introduced.
Last, a track used sometimes to enter the university through the back door is disability. Our law allows not only accommodations for disability (e.g. oral instead of written entrance exam) but also lower admission grades for disabled students. This makes some sense but is a double-edged sword. First, we have had students with "disabilities" only at the time of the entrance exam, never before or after it. Second, even if the diagnosis is not forged, can a young person who isn't really qualified to study medicine become qualified by having albinism or diabetes? We have had such students as well. Anyway, the disability track is relatively unimportant, compared to those listed above. It worries me just because it may in the future make it impossible to expell even the most incapable students - after all, intellectual ability below a certain level is also a disability.
Once admitted in bypass or plain violation of the rules, the foreign and quasi-foreign students continue to violate the rules. They are often absent from mandatory classes, sometimes from more than half of the classes. Then they appear and demand from us to certify their attendance. We have to lose our precious time to do with them individually the work they have missed. The above mentioned "Bozhidar" was a good example. Bozhidar is a not too rare Bulgarian male name meaning "God's gift". The Bulgarian-Spanish student in question had another name but we nicknamed him Bozhidar because he was God's gift (irony!) to our Department. And when such students do attend classes, the teaching process is disrupted as it can be disrupted only by the presence of unteachable people in the classroom.
Somebody may ask, well, even if you admit students with very poor academic abilities, why are you so worried? They will receive non-passing grades at later exams and will leave the university. Alas, it is not so easy. These students persevere. They demand new examination dates, fail again and demand still more dates. They sometimes try to bribe or intimidate their teachers. Years ago, I witnessed an absentee female Greek student to demand certification of attendance from her visibly pregnant assistant. The student was accompanied by a boyfriend who told my colleague that she must give the signature or else "will have problems". This case indeed was extreme, but it is a rule that each of the good-for-nothing students has a small NATO behind him. In the most innocent cases, officials from our buraucracy ask the professors to let the foreign students pass the exam because otherwise "they will leave the University and we will lose their much needed tuition fees". Of course this attitude is well known among the students. A Greek absentee student once angrily told me that I must give him what he wanted because he and people like him "pay my wage". And even when an incompetent student gives up on passing our exam, there is an additional stratagem. He moves to a Medical university in another Bulgarian city, passes the problematic exam... and then returns to the Sofia Medical University because our diploma is more prestigious!
Let me now, at the end of this post, turn directly to the young people in question, in case some of them are reading. You will most likely have it your way and receive a diploma. On it, there will not be written how you have entered the university. Using the same money and connections that smuggled you into our University, you will surely be able to start a practice, replacing some more competent doctor. Will this make you happy? Some of your patients will find out too late who you are and will curse you. You will become a subject of hatred and a laughing matter. More importantly, you will know who you are and this will eat you. It will even leave a mark on your face. It is true (and it isn't racial profiling) that a surprising number of our back-door students don't look like students at all. They look like criminals and terrorists because, like criminals and terrorists, they break the rules for their own benefit. Why don't you say farewell to this fate? There is somewhere a field fitted for you, awaiting your realization. You will not starve and will have the people's respect. I don't think cheating has ever made anyone happy. The choice is yours.
UPDATE: On Apr. 6 and 7, 2008, NTV channel reported that a corruption scheme existed to grant medical specialty to medics who actually hadn't really done a residency. The story began with a doctor whom I'll designate only with her initials, L.H. Before her state final certification examination, too many important people phoned to members of the examination commission. As a person from the commission said, "The Holy Synod (of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church) was the only institution from where nobody called us to warn how important was that L.H. does her exam successfully." These too intrusive intercessors eventually made a sad work of it, because the commission members became suspicious and decided to look thoroughly at L.H.'s papers. It turned out that the papers were forged. The scheme was based on allegedly doing the residency in another city (in this case, Varna) and only finishing it in Sofia. L.H., when contacted by reporters on the phone, refused to answer the simple question whether she had done her residency in the city of Varna. In reality, she hadn't done it anywhere.
Commenting the case in NTV studio, an activist for patients' rights asked, "Do you imagine what happens when such untrained, incompetent doctors with made-up residency begin practice? They can literally kill people. Recently, a doctor's "residency" of only 6 months in Ukraine was recognized by our institutions and he was granted the specialty of Anaesthesiology. He began practice and this soon led to the death of a patient."

4 comments:

sammy said...

Well I'm sure you meant no harm but calling a student a terrorist will get you fired in any civilized country.

sammy said...

"allowing the presence of foreign students with very poor academic records is also a threat to national security" I'm sorry to dissapoint you but bulgaria doesnt figure much in the international political stage, hell it doesnt figure much even in european politics. If a terrorist goes to this much trouble to enter bulgaria then he must be a stupid terrorist indeed and you dont have anything to fear.
"Most of our foreign students don't return to their countries before finishing their study, presumably because the universities there don't allow such transfers." I wonder why. Maybe its because the quality of bulgarian universities are so poor?.
Anyway, I agree with your main points and comletely sympathize with you, but what these students are doing is not criminal, illegal or cheating as you say. The problem lies with the bulgarian universities for allowing massive loophoes in the system.

Maya M said...

Not as much the universities as the legislature: the Foreigners in Bulgaria Act, the University Education Act and the Scientific Degrees Act.
Of course universities do what they can to make the situation worse, but until the above laws stay unchanged, no major improvements can be done at university level.
The students themselves deserve the least of the blame. As we say, it is not he who eats the cake who is crazy but he who gives him the cake.
They don't do anything criminal or illegal.
However, I think they ARE cheating. And most of them are intelligent enough to realize they can never become good doctors.
Should we use the legal system as a 100% substitute for personal ethics and lay no blame on the individual, as long as he doesn't violate any laws?
I don't think so. Still, you are right that our System has created the situation.

Maya M said...

I agree that the quality of Bulgarian university education needs improvement (though, unfortunately, market forces are more likely to further deteriorate it).
However, this isn't the reason for other countries not to allow transfer of students from Bulgarian universities, because those same countries allow graduates of Bulgarian universities to practice. So the only benefit of not allowing the transfer is not having the incompetent person disrupt the teaching process at a local university.
It is good that some countries finally realize that "something is rotten in Bulgaria". As far as I know, Greece used to recognize MD diplomas for Bulgarian universities but now forces the graduates to pass examinations in Greece before being allowed to practice.
I think that only problems with recognition of Bulgarian diplomas abroad could (possibly) force our authorities to take the necessary actions.