Annals of Neo-Soviet “Education”

Here’s another brilliant bit of reporting from the mighty Moscow Times, exposing the fundamental fraud and horror that lies under the rock known as Russia’s “education” system. Hopelessly corrupt, impoverished and insular, Russia is churning out a generation of hackneyed, robotic morons incapable of doing anything to challenge the quagmire that is the Putin regime — which, of course, is exactly how the regime wants it.

When economics student Mikhail Popov struggled with a final exam at a regional university, he was offered an alternative — pay $200 and get a good grade. “I wasn’t sure of how well I would do, so I agreed in order to avoid any problems,” Popov said.  It is a common practice at his university, he said: “A lot of people do it — the majority.”

Once the pride of the Soviet system, the education system helped unite the population, giving millions a similar start in life. Its strengths included science and mathematics.  During the 1990s, however, inadequate state financing shook the system to its core, encouraging the growth of now-rampant corruption. At the same time, the market opened up to private education, particularly at the university level, where institutions offering in-demand courses in economics and law sprang up. State institutions also began to fill their coffers by offering paid courses.

The education system is now going through major reforms aimed at bringing it closer to international norms and the needs of employers, but not without sparking protests from teachers and students. Fighting corruption is seen as a way to lift education standards, and a first step in that struggle is replacing traditional final exams — which are mainly oral and graded by the students’ own teachers — with compulsory written tests, or the Single State Exam, which are graded centrally. From next year, the Single State Exam will be mandatory throughout Russia. The exam met a storm of protest for its banal questions, particularly in the multiple-choice sections. However, it has clear advantages as well. In addition to cutting down on favoritism, the Single State Exam allows students in the regions to apply to most universities without traveling to take entrance exams set and graded by the institution — another key area of corruption. “The Single State Exam has minuses, the so-called dumbing-down, but it has its pluses too, particularly the possibility to fight corruption,” then-President Vladimir Putin said at a news conference in February.

Certainly, the face of corruption has changed. The scams of past years, when fraudsters set up “regional branches” of well-known universities, collected the fees and then disappeared, seem to have died down.  “This is very rare — it’s very dangerous. People have become better informed. Now there is more order in the country,” said Vladimir Zernov, rector of Russian New University, a private university, and the head of a lobbying group for private universities.

But many dubious practices remain in the university application process, including tutors who offer to help students prepare for their entrance exams for a fee. “You pay for a tutor, and the tutor has access to the exam committee and guarantees you’ll get in,” said Vadim Radayev, first deputy rector at the Higher School of Economics. “The whole process is organized so that no one can get in.”

The Higher School of Economics has launched a high-profile campaign against cheating. It uses computer technology to prevent the leaking of exam questions and to check written work for plagiarism. It has introduced disciplinary measures, including the withholding of diploma.  “We wanted to give the right signal — that we have rules and they must be observed and we are ready to resort to harsh measures,” Radayev said.

Solving the problem of plagiarism is as much about changing attitudes among teachers as among students, he said. “There are those who consider plagiarism to be bad, but you can’t fight it. They think we are wasting our time and fundamentally nothing will change,” he said. Radayev pointed to a recent scandal at Moscow State University, when teachers in the sociology department were found to have plagiarized passages in textbooks. “What can they teach students? Can they punish them for plagiarism? Of course not,” he said. “You always need to start with yourself.”  A spokesman for the sociology faculty, Vladimir Minkevich, declined to comment for this report.

Survival of the Fittest

The higher education system has grown rapidly in the past decade, with private institutions sprouting up across the country. Russia now has about 700 state institutions and 650 private ones. The private institutions account for one-fifth of all students.  “No country in the world has such a number of universities,” President Dmitry Medvedev said last spring. “It’s shameful to enter some universities, and it’s shameful to show their diplomas.”

In July, Education and Science Minister Andrei Fursenko said at a meeting with Medvedev that he envisioned cutting the number of universities to 50 and the number of other higher education institutions to no more than 200. His ministry is also creating larger universities, amalgamating existing institutions. Two have already opened, in Rostov-on-Don and Krasnoyarsk. All state institutions, regardless of their quality, receive state funding that covers tuition for at least some students, while many accept students for fees. Private institutions receive no state funding.  As a result, the government ends up propping up weak institutions while providing no support for talented students who want to apply to private institutions. The system is widely criticized. “There isn’t equal access to state resources. This can lead to the stagnation of our higher schools,” Zernov said.

His Russian New University is located in a drab multicorridored building. Inside are signs of a vibrant student life, such as posters for a Miss Russian New University contest and stacks of school newspapers containing jokes from a student comedy team. Zernov estimated that a third of private universities are on the same level as good state universities, while some state universities are just openly weak. “There is no reason to discriminate against private universities,” said Konstantin Sonin, a professor at the New Economic School, another private university. “If a good student thinks it is better to study in a private university, the state should be helping him the same way as if he chose a state university.”  All the same, Sonin conceded, the money could be spread too thin. “Concentrating the main part of the state educational budget on a few target universities might be a good idea,” he said.

Plans are in the pipeline for students to get educational vouchers that they could spend on education at any institution.

Private Schools Fill Gap

Five private universities have opened their doors on the campus of Moscow State University. All offer only paid education. Their founders include Russneft and AFK Sistema.  Meanwhile, a new business school is going up in Skolkovo, outside Moscow. Wholly privately funded, its backers include Troika Dialog CEO Ruben Vardanyan and billionaire Roman Abramovich.  Despite the mushrooming of higher education institutes, business leaders have given a vote of no confidence by starting their own courses. “We’re not satisfied with the quality of education, the teaching,” said Andrei Volkov, one of the two rectors of the Skolkovo Business School. He said the school’s backers include Medvedev and Sberbank CEO German Gref, who sit on its advisory board. “The government is very supportive of developing an absolutely new model, like a role model,” Volkov said.

The school’s spotless administration building has soft leather sofas and glass partitions. Volkov is smiling and infectiously enthusiastic. He drops into the conversation that he once climbed Mount Everest. The school already offers short courses for executives. It plans to start offering an Executive MBA program next year. The project is ambitious, aiming to provide Western-style business education but with a focus on fast-growing markets such as Russia, India and China. The school will train a new generation of executives and government officials, Volkov said, estimating that 10 to 20 percent of the students for the Executive MBA program will come from the government. Skolkovo is needed to lift the level of existing business schools in Russia, Volkov said. “If we create a high standard, other business schools will follow,” he said. He believes that Russia needs at least 10 times more business schools.

Andrei Kortunov, president of New Eurasia Fund, a Russian nongovernmental organization that carries out programs to support higher education, expressed concerns that corporate universities open “to the expense and detriment” of existing universities. Companies should outsource at least some of their training to state universities or the whole system will crumble, he said. Another headache for businesses is that young people are rejecting vocational training in favor of the status symbol of a degree.  Vocational training colleges are “decaying” and attracting fewer students, Kortunov said. “The system of higher education is basically sucking out the system of vocational training. Everyone wants a higher education,” he said.

A possible solution is an education reform under which Russia from next year will be bound by the Bologna Process, an agreement on a common education system shared by more than 40 countries. This means that Russia must bring its system in line with the other countries and offer bachelor’s and master’s degree courses rather than the single five- or six-year degree that is standard at the moment. Shorter bachelor’s degree courses could train workers for increasingly technological industry jobs that once were seen as blue-collar, Kortunov said. “It depends how you define blue-collar,” he said. At the same time, there are fears that universities will simply chop existing courses in half to create a worthless bachelor’s degree program.

The idea behind adopting the Bologna Process is to allow Russians to study abroad for academic credit and foreigners to study here. The reform promises to provide an opportunity for Russian schools to attract more foreign students, but they face many hurdles.

Foreign Students

The number of foreign students studying in Russia has fallen to 100,000 per year from 500,000 in the heyday of the Soviet Union, when the number rivaled that of the United States.  Kortunov listed a host of problems for the drop, including grim dormitories, racist attacks on students, lack of courses taught in English, poorly stocked libraries and “archaic” teaching methods based around lectures. Statistics provide some measure of how far economics education, at least, has slipped behind, said Sonin of the New Economic School. “In terms of research in economics departments in Russia, the New Economic School is in the top 100 in Europe, the Higher School of Economics is in the top 1,000, and there is no other Russian department among the top 1,000 departments in Europe,” he said. Volkov said he has visited 54 business schools around the world to promote the Skolkovo Business School. He wants 30 percent of MBA students to come from outside the countries of the former Soviet Union. “Especially in business education, we are not No. 1 on the list of countries in comparison with Britain, Spain or France,” he said.

At present, Russia has a share of about 1 percent of the global education market, he said, and it could realistically grow to as much as 5 percent. If the government does not act soon, it will lose students even within its borders as foreign institutions open branches here or offer correspondence courses on the Internet, Kortunov said. “It’s not clear that Russian education institutions will be victorious in that competition,” he said. Volkov hopes that ultimately Russian students will choose the Skolkovo school over foreign options. “We dream of competing with other business schools for people who are thinking of going to Wharton or Chicago. Maybe sooner or later they will stay in Skolkovo.”

Even as Russian students look to study abroad, universities here face another time bomb: Today’s university students were born about the time the Soviet Union collapsed and the national birthrate began to drop. “Every year the number of schoolchildren who are graduating and can enter higher education falls by about 10 percent. That’s a substantial number,” said Radayev of the Higher School of Economics.  By 2012, the drop is expected to reach 40 percent, before climbing up again gradually.

Whether Russian education measures up to international standards has been the subject of much debate. A survey last year by the American Institute for Research found that eighth-graders in Russia were at a level in math and science similar to that of children in the United States but lagged significantly behind Asian countries such as China and Singapore. Also last year, the OECD Program for International Student Assessment published findings that 15-year-old Russian students performed worse in science than their U.S. or British peers.

This year, the results for the Single State Exam in math — a compulsory subject for the first time — caused shock waves when it turned out that almost a quarter of students received only 2 out of 5, with 5 being the highest grade. By comparison, 19 percent of British students taking math A-level, a noncompulsory exam, got D or lower in 2007, making Russia’s results look not so bad.

Russian teachers, however, traditionally give students passing grades of 3 or higher in their final exams.

Recruiting Teachers

The government, meanwhile, is pumping money into elementary schools under the national project on education. More than 33 billion rubles ($1.4 billion) has been paid or allocated to boosting school teachers’ pay from 2006, when the project started, through this year. As a result, compensation packages for many elementary school teachers have become more attractive than those for professors at universities.

“Already an interesting process has started,” said Alexander Adamsky, rector of Evrika Institute of Educational Policy. “University teachers have started coming to work in schools, because in schools they earn more.” Adamsky works on a program as part of the national project on education that allows teachers in 31 regions to earn up to 30,000 rubles ($1,235) per month by taking on extra activities such as running clubs, carrying out research and giving extra tutoring to weak or gifted students. Teachers are paid from regional budgets. Teachers who only do the bare minimum in the classroom receive as little as 7,000 rubles. The city of Moscow in among the 31 regions that offer teachers extra money on top of the basic salary. It also provides the chance to buy new apartments at cost. “This allows young teachers to live quite decently.” said Yevgeny Markelov, principal of Intellektual School, a city-funded pilot school for gifted children.

With teachers at his school earning better money than at universities, Markelov has 18 staff members with doctorate degrees. Once regions have adopted the new pay program, they cannot go back legally to the old system, Adamsky said. He has visited 32 regions, including Chechnya, to attend discussions on the program. “It’s not just increasing pay but changing the system of pay,” he said. Previously teachers were only paid per lesson, while the new system aims to encourage motivated teachers.  Salary levels are determined in part by boards of governors, which Adamsky said would wield more real power than previous parents’ committees.

The top salary is enough money to encourage young people to go into teaching, he said. “They will come to schools now.”

4 responses to “Annals of Neo-Soviet “Education”

  1. Russian education system is fake, the same as the Soviet one. Starting from 1970 until 1989 (year I left the Evil Empire) I had my private business – making projects for technical college students. During these years, I made about 180-200 projects, 15 diplomas, 2 dissertations for Candidate of Science Degree, and at least 800 small projects (kontrolnaja rabota). One of my clients later became a Prime Minister of the Republic of Belarus.

  2. To mikhail: no offence, but any proof for what you are saying? I’m an astronaut you know!

  3. aaa – can you clarify, the proof of what you are asking? Maybe, the label of private business (in normal, not Moscow or Chicago sense :) doesn’t apply here, but nothing that Mikhail says strikes me as overly incredulous.
    No offense…

  4. Felix, I think you know what my implication is here. I find it “overly incredulous” that such a busy guy who has produced what would seem to be an abdundance of academic work and so happens to have left the “Evil Empire” quite be coincidence (?) appears and (rather anecdotally) confirms Larussophobes claims to such an uncanny extend.

    By the way, I could also by analogy describe a flee market in Turkey in a way that would nothing would strike you as overly incredulous if you have not actually been there. Yet I may never have been to Turkey or if I have know that what I have described is more so a stereotype than truth.

    No offense taken, although I can hardly see what might have offended me….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s