WENR, October 2008: Russia & CIS


What’s Wrong with the Russian Education System?

Buying university grades and places is just the tip of the iceberg, according to a lengthy report on the state of Russian education by the Moscow Times. The English-language daily states that Russia was “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.”

During this time, the system began allowing private provision, particularly at the university level, where institutions offering in-demand courses in economics and law sprang up. State institutions also began to boost revenues by offering paid courses. Russia now has about 700 state institutions and 650 private ones. The private institutions account for one-fifth of all students. In July, Education and Science Minister Andrei Fursenko stated that he envisioned cutting the number of universities to 50 and the number of other higher education institutions to no more than 200.

Five private universities have opened their doors on the campus of Moscow State University [1]. All offer only paid education. Their founders include corporations such as Russneft and AFK Sistema. Meanwhile, a new business school [2] is going up in Skolkovo, outside Moscow. Wholly privately funded, its backers include Troika Dialog CEO Ruben Vardanyan and billionaire Roman Abramovich.

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. As part of this process Russia joined the Bologna Process [3] and agreed to comply with international education standards. The first step in combating graft has been the introduction of compulsory written admissions tests, or the Single State Exam, which are graded centrally, to replace individual university tests, often conducted orally, and open to widespread bribe taking. From next year, the Single State Exam will be mandatory throughout Russia. As well as tackling graft in admissions, the test also allows students from the regions a fairer shot at getting into high-profile cosmopolitan universities as it allows them to apply to most universities without having to travel to take entrance exams set and graded by the institution. The multiple-choice test has been criticized by its opponents for dumbing-down the admissions process.

Another major problem facing the educations system is that young people are rejecting vocational training in favor of the status symbol of a degree. 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 in and around Europe. 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 Soviet-era degree, the Diploma Specialist, that is still prevalent throughout Russia. Shorter bachelor’s degree courses could train workers for increasingly technological industry jobs once viewed as blue-collar. At the same time, there are fears that universities will simply chop existing programs 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.

The number of foreign students studying in Russia has fallen to 100,000 per year from 500,000 at the peak of Soviet influence around the world, when the number rivaled that of the United States. Reasons for the drop include grim dormitories, racist attacks on students, lack of programs taught in English, poor infrastructure and libraries and “archaic” lecturer-driven teaching methods.

The Moscow Times [4]
September 5, 2008


Officials Look to Raise Education Standards

Kazakh President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has expressed a desire to turn Kazakhstan into one of the world’s top 50 economies, and raising education standards is to be one of the main means of doing so.

One of the first objectives is to realign the system so that it is more in tune with the needs of national economy. The government reform plan has seen education funding rise to approximately US$4.7 billion this year, a seven-fold increase in the last 10 years, according to the Education and Science Ministry. The state now plans to boost spending from 3.6 percent of GDP currently to 7 percent. The reform plan contains a large amount of funding for school construction and renovation, as well as a move in 2010 from an 11- to 12-year program of schooling. There is also money for opening 30 specialized language schools to achieve Nazarbayev’s goal of producing students who are able to speak Kazakh, Russian and English. Another key feature of the reform plan is to raise teacher salaries, which have been notoriously low for years. Teachers got a 30 percent salary increase in 2007, and will enjoy pay hikes of 25 percent in 2009 and 2010, and 30 percent in 2011.

Perhaps the biggest curse of the Kazakh education system, and that of other systems in the region, is corruption, which is commonly perceived to be widespread. The Education Ministry points to its anti-corruption plan, with measures including confidential phone lines and postboxes for reporting bribery, along with computer-based state-controlled testing to eliminate opportunities for graft.

Some observers argue that the Unified National Test (ENT), a standardized exam introduced in 2004, promotes rote learning and makes it more difficult for students to thrive in the Western-style learning environment that Kazakhstan wishes to embrace. The ministry disagrees, saying it provides an objective knowledge assessment and assists decision-making for education managers.

Another measure introduced in recent years to improve the system has been the adoption of the Bolashak grant program that annually sends 3,000 Kazakhstani students abroad to study. Despite controversy over the program, including claims of nepotism and graft in grant allocation, observers say students often return with a sound education and altered mindsets that benefit the country. New quotas this year will give rural students more opportunities to study abroad.

Additional measures introduced at home, include the government’s move to close down poorly performing universities, closing 36 higher education institutions that were deemed not to meet national standards. In addition, Kazakhstan has committed to the Bologna Process, which aims to harmonize European education standards, and is planning to seek international accreditation of higher education institutions.

Eurasianet [5]
September 30, 2008