Can education in Russia be reformed?
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Galina Masterova, Special to Russia Now
12:19PM BST 02 Sep 2010
A good grade on the new SAT-style exams in Russia costs about 40,000 roubles. Could reform and crackdowns on corruption bring education back from the brink?
Education was made a national priority by then deputy prime minister Dmitry Medvedev in 2005 as the system was failing to provide the educated workers that Russia needs as well as failing to reward the gifted.
«There is a lingering notion that Russian or rather Soviet education was very good, if not the best in the world,» said Masha Lipman, an expert at the Carnegie Centre.
«The truth [now] is that it lags behind the rest of the world.»
Indeed, HR departments from international firms at a recent Economist conference in Moscow spoke of the huge qualitative differences in education between the generation who received a Soviet education and those coming after them.
But if the quality of the education system in modern Russia is questionable, one thing is certain: Russia definitely leads the educational world in bribery and is in need of dramatic change.
In the town of Morozovsk, in the Rostov region, 30 teachers were caught in May, police allege, preparing to take end-of-school exams for students.
What’s the price of a good exam result in Morozovsk? It’s about 40,000 roubles for a teacher to take the exam. Police arrested and charged a local education official for organising the fake exams.
Paying for good school exam results, for entrance into university, and to pass university courses is a multimillion dollar industry in Russia, according to the Indem think tank in Moscow.
One estimate by Mark Levin, from Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, puts corruption at $1bn a year. A survey last year found that 36pc of Russians had paid money in one form or another to educators.
There is also huge separate industry that provides essays and dissertations for students.
Educational reforms have been introduced by the government to combat this corruption and to improve an educational system seen as failing. Controversial end-of-school exams, similar to SATS, went nationwide last year and in 2011, universities will introduce a more flexible, four-year course replacing the rigid five-year courses where students had little choice in what they studied.
Reform is designed to match the standards set by the Bologna Accords, a treaty that aims to create unified higher education across Europe. Once the reforms are complete, a Russian university education will be accepted in the European Union.
«The fact that the best and the brightest go and study abroad shows the inefficiency of the Russian educational system,» said Lipman.
Only a couple of universities, Moscow State and St Petersburg State, are in the top 100 in world and the country’s low citation index, the number of times Russian works cited in academic works, is slipping, she said.
However, Denis Popov, a student at the Moscow Insitute of Foreign Relations, also studied in Germany but prefers the Russian system.
«The system is freer in Germany but when I interned at the foreign ministry, Russian education provided me with a knowledge I would not have gained abroad,» he said.
«The Europeans can take a lot from the Russian system.»
The most controversial change has been the introduction of national standard tests (EGE) required for entry to university. The multiple-choice tests are taken by all school children and marked by computer and could not be more different from the previous system, which relied on oral tests at the universities.
Another advantage is that it makes it easier for students from the provinces to apply to study in other cities, where previously they would have had to apply in person.
But opponents say it is dumbing down Russian education, with questions such as: «What colour eyes did Anna Karenina have?» The previous system had more ambition, teachers say.
And the question of whether the new system has reduced corruption remains moot.
«EGE has not destroyed corruption but increased the number of corrupt deals in school,» said Oleg Smolin, a Communist deputy who focuses on education policy.
Indeed, the case in Morozovsk involved the EGE tests.
Schools have had improved funding in recent years, with money going into some improvements in infrastructure and equipment, but wages remain low and attracting qualified people to join the profession is tough.
Wages are around 14,000 roubles ($280) a month, «not enough», said Alexander Adamsky from the educational think tank Eureka, but reforms are in place which will reduce the number of teachers and link results to pay which, he said, should help increase pay.
Despite protests against reforms, the education ministry has remained firm except at the top echelon of Russian universities.
Moscow and St Petersburg State University, whose rectors have consistently opposed the reforms, won an opt-out from solely accepting the standard tests and they will be allowed use their own oral exams.
And instead of the four-years-plus-two-year system, they will expand to six-year courses in 2011.