WENR, Dec. 2005: Education in the Russian Federation
By Nick Clark, Editor WENR
The education systems of the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union have undergone considerable changes over the past few years — changes that parallel broader shifts in social, economic and political life. The 15-year period since the dissolution of the Soviet Union has been one of extreme turbulence; in education, it has been marked by dramatic reductions in government budgetary allocations, rapidly declining academic standards and for many republics, increasing levels of administrative, institutional and academic corruption.
This article provides a broad overview of some of the key problems facing governments of the region. It also discusses the reform measures they have introduced in their efforts to redress the declining standards of the 1990s and the unwanted vestiges of their shared Soviet past. Among these efforts are the introduction of unified national admissions tests — a measure that many countries in the region are employing to combat corruption — and reforms related to the Bologna Process, a major European educational reform and harmonization initiative that involves 45 signatory countries, of which nine are former Soviet republics.
A Common History
The education systems of all republics share a common history of centralization and state control that was based on a common set of principles believed to define socialist education, i.e., the inclusion of vocational instruction at the secondary level, the eradication of illiteracy, massification of educational opportunities and the incorporation of state ideology and moral education into the curriculum.
Curriculum reform began in the late 1980s as individual republics began to introduce new courses in such disciplines as ethics and religion under the newfound freedoms of perestroika. With the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, new education laws were introduced and independent private schools proliferated. However, institutional inertia and the legacies of the past threaten to curb real educational progress. According to numerous surveys, reports and interviews, the root cause of the problem for many countries lies with widespread, endemic corruption stemming from a decline in public funding for education and rising poverty. With academic salaries falling to anemic levels, the acceptance of bribes by faculty and administrators has, for many, become a matter of survival.
Corruption appears to be worst at the university level, where bribes often are offered to gain higher grades, pass exams or to gain entry to university. Although central governments are often outspoken about reducing corrupt practices within their educational systems, they are as likely to turn a blind eye to the problem as act against it because the additional income bribery provides for faculty and administrators allows governments to keep academic salaries low, thereby reducing state budgetary burdens.
In recent years, many of the newly independent republics have made university admissions the centerpiece of their higher education reform plans. By introducing government scholarships and university admission based on the results of nationwide entrance examinations, government officials are aiming to better ensure that students gain university places based on merit. In addition, competition for the best students and the government scholarships that follow them mean that those institutions best meeting labor-market demands and offering the highest academic standards are most likely to prosper under new post-Soviet market dynamics.
University Admissions Reform
The Soviet model of university admissions required that students take subject-specific written and oral examinations administered and graded separately by individual institutions. Aside from the many avenues for fraudulent behavior inherent in a system based on oral examinations, the process placed a heavy emphasis on rote learning, reproduction of prepared essays and the retelling of memorized texts. Those who were successful tended to be students with a capacity to memorize and reproduce, but not necessarily apply knowledge. Furthermore, because institutional testing centers were generally located only in the institution to which the student was applying, the old Soviet model placed an added travel burden on students from geographically remote regions wishing to apply to prestigious universities in major cities.
To some degree, the Russia Federation has been a leading force in implementing university admissions reform initiatives. In 1999, the Ministry of Education established the National Testing Center under the auspices of Moscow State Pedagogical University, which was charged with developing a system of centralized testing. The objectives of the center are outlined in the “Conception of Centralized Testing in the System of Continuous General and Professional Education,” and include the promotion of democratic conditions for university admissions, the reduction of costs for high school graduates from remote corners of the country wishing to apply to prestigious universities and the timely disclosure of results to the mass media.
The new Unified State Examination is being introduced at a time when some students are paying the equivalent of five years of tuition in bribes (US$35,000 to $40,000) to get into top Moscow universities, according to a report published in 2004 by the Ministry of Education and Science and the Moscow Higher School of Economics. Education and Science Minister Andrei Fursenko announced shortly after the publication of the report that quality standards at institutions across the country must improve, and those failing to meet ministry standards would be closed.
Since 1999, approximately half of the country’s 89 regions have introduced the new admissions test, and in 2004, it was administered to Moscow students for the first time. Ministry officials emphasize that universities are free to base their admissions decisions on centralized testing results or their own tests. While it has been welcomed in the provinces, top universities such as Moscow State University are strongly opposed to the unified test, saying it is not a good enough indicator of a student’s knowledge. However, the next stage of implementation (2006-2010) envisions the full integration of unified testing across the entire system.
Other former Soviet republics have followed Russia’s lead in introducing centralized admissions procedures; however, while Russia is still in the pilot phase of the process, countries with smaller educational systems have been able to implement unified examinations across the board.
In the mountainous Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, education professionals are hopeful that the country’s new unified university admissions system, which is already in its fourth year, will help reduce the level of corruption within the Kyrgyz system of higher education, while also promoting greater academic quality. Introduced by the newly created, nongovernmental Center for Educational Assessment and Teaching Methods (CEATM), with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the National Scholarship Test (NST) was administered for the first time in 2002 to just under half (approximately 14,000) of all Kyrgyz high school graduates.
Performance on the NST is used to allocate state scholarships, thereby protecting the awards from corrupt influences. With scholarships and university places allocated according to the choices of the brightest students, institutions that best meet labor market demands and offer the greatest academic quality receive the greatest benefits. Since 2003, the test has been made available to all high-school leavers. A presidential decree issued the same year has increased the transparency of the process by allowing for nongovernmental-organizational monitoring of the enrollment process. In 2005, approximately 32,000 graduating students competed for 5,200 full government scholarships at 41 testing locations across the country.
The NST is a multiple-choice exam that assesses problem-solving skills. Students are tested in mathematics (algebra, geometry and arithmetic) and verbal skills (reading comprehension, analogies and grammar), and are given the option to take the examination in one of three languages: Kyrgyz, Russian or Uzbek.
From the beginning, the Kyrgyz testing initiative was seen as a means of introducing new teaching methods with more relevance to high school and university curriculums. Education officials chose to go with an aptitude testing approach because they believed that testing existing knowledge for such a high-stakes test would have further entrenched outdated curriculum and teaching methods. The new test is designed, therefore, to encourage both teachers and students at the secondary level to welcome new teaching methods and techniques, while embracing updated curriculum content.
In response to the charge from employers that universities are not preparing graduates with skills aligned to the needs of the work place, the ministry and CEATM have worked closely with local business and industry leaders. Curriculum at Kyrgyz universities still is dictated by the ministry, and rural institutions are expected to deliver the same course content as those in the capital city. There is little or no consideration for geography, resources, student competence or faculty qualifications. Civic leaders and businessmen have therefore been given the opportunity to voice their concerns regarding the implementation of testing and other much-needed education reforms as the process has moved forward.
The work of the newly created testing body has been supported by American Councils for International Education (ACTR/ACCELS), with technical support from Educational Testing Services (ETS). In addition to the international support the initiative received, much of its success stems from the high-level political support it has enjoyed. Former President Askar Akaev, an academic himself, was steadfast in ensuring that CEATM develop independently of government influence and was vocal from the outset in his belief that students from rural and remote areas of the country receive the same access to educational opportunities as their peers in the bigger cities. Confronted by stiff opposition from his government in 2003, Akaev was forced to face down members of his cabinet who wanted to “nationalize” the testing NGO.
In the wake of the demonstrations in April 2005 that led to the ouster of Akaev, the future independence of CEATM from government interference is uncertain. As Todd Drummond, Project Director for the National Testing Initiative, points out: “Since the ‘revolution,’ powerful opponents of the testing initiative have been back and aggressively attacking us and the testing center.” After five years of building capacity in CEATM, which is now 80 percent financially self-sufficient, those instrumental in its development are fighting to maintain its autonomy. In assessing the prospects for CEATM’s future independence under the new Kyrgyz government, Drummond says, “I would say our chances of success are 50-50. This is because there are many who would want to ‘take over’ the testing function.”
However, renewed opposition at the governmental level is not necessarily reflected in broader society. Drummond points out, “there is a lot of grassroots support for testing in Kyrgyzstan, despite the post-Akaev attacks. Most of the noise is made by a small (albeit influential) few.”
The incentives for those who might want to return the scholarship tests to individual university or ministry control are many, and deemed by most to be fueled by a desire to return the income-generating mechanisms of high-stakes testing to the institutions and individuals who so strongly opposed the original creation of CEATM. As Drummond explains, “this loss of income by universities of course explains the very strong resistance (death threats, press attacks, intimidation, etc.) that we faced back in 2002.”
Money that used to be collected by universities in the form of bribes and testing fees is now collected as fees by CEATM to maintain its future viability and ability to work on other testing priorities linked to modernizing the education system. Past test results already have provided key data on student performance by region, school type, gender and language group. The production of reliable data of this kind is extraordinarily hard to come by in a country as young, impoverished and geographically dispersed as Kyrgyzstan. The continued collection and analysis of such data are key tools for future educational policy-making and planning decisions.
In neighboring Kazakhstan, a nationwide university entrance examination also was recently introduced to reduce academic corruption. As in Kyrgyzstan, the new Kazakh test eliminates the oral examination in favor of multiple-choice questions, but differs in that it tests knowledge and facts rather than aptitude. Another key factor that distinguishes the Kazakh initiative from the Kyrgyz one is that the body charged with preparing and administering the examination — the National Testing Center — is directly controlled by the state, which may leave it open to allegations, right or wrong, of corruption and nepotism.
According to testing center officials interviewed by Radio Free Europe, great care has been taken to ensure the credibility of the test and to make sure students have no way of gaining access to the questions before the test date. After a series of pilot tests in the larger cities of Kazakhstan in 2003, the government introduced the test across the country in 2004. As an extra measure to prevent cheating, 800 different versions of the test, all of equal difficulty, were produced and administered.
The Republic of Georgia
The demonstrations that led to the ouster of former President Eduard Shevardnadze were a response to widespread accusations of vote rigging in the republic’s 2003 parliamentary elections. In January 2004, the interim administration, spearheaded by Mikhail Saakashvili, sailed to landslide electoral success on promises of eradicating corruption. Of the anticorruption measures that already have been undertaken, education reform has been one of the fastest moving, most visible and, for many, most controversial.
In July, students in Georgia sat for the country’s first standardized national university admissions examinations after a successful pilot in May. Administered by the National Assessment and Examinations Center — recently established by the Georgian Ministry of Education as part of the World Bank’s Georgia Education System Realignment and Strengthening Program, with technical support from American Councils and ETS — the new examination replaces other university entrance examinations. It is hoped the exam will help “democratize” admissions and eradicate corruption.
The effectiveness of the new admissions examination in reducing corruption is still unclear, but the need is evident. According to a report conducted by Georgian scholars with the support of American University’s Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the International Exchange and Research Board (IREX), “Georgians can easily obtain a diploma without undergoing rigorous preparation from any state or private higher education institutes (with a few well-known exceptions).” The report explains that students frequently bribe their way through the admissions process and their academic career by buying grades or credentials. This culture of corruption extends to the job market, where unprepared graduates often find positions of employment through further graft. It is at this point that the incredible expense of bribing one’s way to a career pays off, as the bribe giver assumes the role of bribe taker and begins the process of paying off the costs of his or her “education.”
The tradition of hiring private tutors to prepare for entrance examinations has further heightened corrupt practices. The TraCCC report describes private tuition as “one of the most profitable businesses in Georgia, which has become a basic source of corruption. This corruption involves the conflict of interest that arises when those who administer the exams also tutor students for a fee to prepare them for this exam.” Students applying to State Technical University often are confronted with annual fees of US$800 to $1,500 (depending on the seniority of the professor) for the preparation classes. The costs of an outright bribe to pass the entrance examination without preparation are much higher. Admission to popular faculties such as journalism and law at Tbilisi State University range from US$8,000 to $15,000, according to the report.
The cyclical process of academic corruption centers on the university entrance examination process — now the target of the Georgian Ministry of Education’s recent reforms. The new admissions examination, modeled on the American Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), comprises three parts: general ability (numeracy and verbal reasoning), foreign-language skills (English, German or French) and Georgian language. A separate advanced mathematics test was administered for students applying to math and science faculties. Testing authorities hope to add science and history examinations to their repertoire in 2006.
Massive publicity and outreach efforts were employed in the 10-month run up to the two-week examination period. A ministry hotline was established for students, and state-subsidized study guides were available for purchase across the country. An estimated 36,000 students took the test at 14 sites across the country. The top 17,000 scorers received scholarships in the form of a voucher to cover the full costs of their studies at one of five state institutions or accredited private institutions chosen by the student prior to the examination process.
To increase transparency and public trust in the new admission test, security cameras were used in testing halls, and parents outside the testing centers were able to monitor their children as they completed their examination.
The admissions tests are a component of a larger process designed to increase institutional selectivity, central to which is the recent introduction of a new ministry accreditation process. The number of accredited, or state-recognized, institutions of higher education was cut in half in 2005. Of the approximately 220 institutions operating in the country prior to the start of the Georgian Education Decentralization and Accreditation project, only 110 received an official state-operating license. Those institutions failing the inspection carried out by the Academy for Educational Development (AED), which focused largely on physical infrastructure and faculty credentials, were given a three-year probationary period to address their shortcomings.
With funding from USAID, the Ministry of Education and AED are moving forward to build Georgia’s quality-assurance infrastructure to meet internationally recognized accreditation standards. Future plans envisage the introduction of an institutional self-assessment process and comprehensive site visits by external evaluation teams. The long-term goal is to better harmonize the Georgian education system with international norms. It is for this reason that the Georgian Ministry of Education signed onto the Bologna Process in May.
Georgia has been actively and unabashedly realigning itself with the West since the ouster of Shevardnadze in 2003. According to Jeanne-Marie Duval, vice president of the Higher Education Department of American Councils, “European flags were everywhere during the examination process,” which occurred just two months after the Ministry of Education signed onto the Bologna Process. The Georgian system of higher education will be restructured in coming years to conform to the new European model of three to four years of undergraduate study, followed by one to two years of graduate study. According to the Law on Higher Education passed in December 2004, “establishing [a] sound and responsive higher education system that meets European standards has become a top priority.” The law states explicitly that all higher education institutions should move to the three-cycle system (bachelor/master/doctorate). As evidence of the ministry’s desire to move forward on these reforms, Duval points to a three-year funding commitment from USAID to prepare students for Graduate Record Examination (GRE) tests, which will be administered with the introduction of new master’s degree programs.
Across the Black Sea to the northwest, a university admissions reform initiative similar to the new Georgian project recently was proposed by President Viktor Yuschenko, who, like his Georgian counterpart, rose to power after mass public demonstrations against alleged electoral fraud.
In July, Yuschenko asked state universities to act against corruption in the admissions process, stating at a news conference that “knowledge and perseverance will decide the fate of applicants, and not the fat wallets of parents,” adding that equality of access to university places should be the goal of all institutions.
Not unlike Saakashvili, Yuschenko has made the eradication of corruption a central goal of his administration. Somewhat hastily, the Ministry of Education and Science announced it would roll out its new centralized university admissions examinations for the 2006 admissions season. To date, no central organizational body has been created or contracted to introduce the new examination. According to Duval, however, the Testing Technology Center, which prepares university admissions examinations for individual universities, is “well connected with European psychometric testing centers,” and seems a logical choice.
In a country that graduates 900,000 high school students annually, challenges to introducing the new test systemwide will be considerable when compared to Georgia’s graduating cohort of 36,000 students. Duval believes a more realistic goal for Ukraine would be the introduction of pilot tests administered in a select number of regions or cities in 2006.
Bologna to Drive Reforms?
In May of this year, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine all signed onto the Bologna Process. With the addition of its newest members, the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) now includes among its 45 signatories all former Soviet republics, with the exception of Belarus and the five nations of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. All three Baltic republics — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — were original signatories, and Russia joined the process in 2003. Belarus, however, has made it explicitly clear it is not interested in joining the process. In January 2005, legislation that would have introduced a two-tier (bachelor’s and master’s) system was vetoed by President Alaksandr Lukashenka, who stated that the European structure is “a Western invention,” He said Belarus should build on the “very efficient Soviet system” it inherited.
Education ministers from the 29 countries who originally signed the Bologna Declaration in 1999 envisioned a system in which universities across the EHEA would offer comparable degrees with two distinct cycles (bachelor and master). The system also would provide for the integration of transfer and accumulation credits to promote student and faculty mobility, and promote cooperation in ensuring quality standards.
Across the new eastern frontier of the EHEA, reforms are progressing. Even before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, central authorities had approved a two-tier award structure, which was to be gradually implemented across the union. Nearly every post-Soviet republic has maintained and built upon new degree structures, which currently exists in parallel with the traditional five-year diplom. By and large, the two-tier structure follows the Russian model, which consists of a three- to four-year first degree ( bakalavr ), followed by a two-year program leading to the magistr or a one- to two-year program leading to the diplom specialista.
Russia, Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia have announced plans to tailor their systems to the new two-tier Bologna structure. In Russia, for example, the Ministry of Education and Science plans to reduce the number of undergraduate majors, or specialties, from the current 700 to approximately 50. Magiser degrees would be offered in 200 specialties. The ministry also has announced plans to reorganize state universities into three different categories: Up to 20 would form an elite core of national research universities, between 200 and 400 mainly teaching universities would offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and the remainder would offer just undergraduate degrees.
However, while structural reform is one of the main goals of the Bologna Process, little progress has been made with regard to curriculum reform, which is a central aspect of the harmonization process. The post-Soviet republics already face a gamut of issues subsidiary to the reforms required by Bologna, many outlined above (equal access, funding, increased autonomy, corruption, salaries), which may delay some of the more advanced demands of those to the west driving the Bologna reforms.
While funding for European academic mobility programs — including Erasmus and Socrates — will aid this process, it seems the signatory countries will have to address their existing priorities before many of the technical details of Bologna can be incorporated into the reform agendas of the various ministries.