The cost of a Russian education

Source: RIA Novosti

Source: RIA Novosti

A favorite character in “Our Russia,” one of the most popular comedy shows on Russian television, is a provincial school teacher named Snezhanna Denisovna. Throughout the season, she invents new schemes so her pupils can make money for her.

In one episode, she has them dress up in their worst and dirtiest clothes, hold up signs and beg on the high street; in another she catches a pupil smoking and tells him to get his father, 'a distributor of exclusive air conditioners,' to give her a nice present for her new flat or she'll rat him out about his habit. Her antics in each show become more pitched until she finally puts three bottles before the pupils in a chemistry lesson and they have to bet money on which one has acid in it. After losing all their money, the sketch ends with the pupils half naked after betting their clothes too and Denisovna warning 'Remember children, not a word to your parents.'

The comedy, based on the British series “Little Britain,” is an exaggeration but also based on a truth: The Russian education system is rife with corruption and in need of dramatic change.

There seems to be a quite a few Snezhanna Denisovnas in the town of Morozovsk in the Rostov region, where thirty teachers were caught in May, police allege, preparing to take end-of-school exams for students. Despite the sheaf of exam papers found on them, the teachers initially insisted that they were merely attending a library seminar.

What's the price of a good exam result in Morozovsk? It cost about 40,000 rubles for a teacher to take the exam. Police arrested and charged a local education official for organizing the fake exams.

The teachers were caught at a local center, ironically called the Сenter of Children's Creativity. Komsomolskaya Pravda later reported that parents angrily tried to get their money back from the teacher they paid after police foiled the cheating.

Educational reforms have been introduced by the government in recent years to combat this corruption and to improve an educational system seen as failing. Controversial end-of-school exams, similar to the SATS in the United States, 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.

«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 Center, '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.

«It is an uncertain world now and an analogue of the Soviet system will not do. It did not develop individuals,» said Alexander Adamsky from the educational think tank Eureka.

Russia definitely leads the educational world in bribery. Paying for good exam results at school, for entrance into university, and to pass university courses is a multi-million 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 $1 billion a year in the education sphere. A survey last year found that 36 percent 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. Right outside the Plekhanov Institute, an entrepreneurial company has daubed their number on the wall with an ad offering to write essays and diplomas for students.

Educational 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, not only former Soviet and Eastern Block countries.

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.

«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.

«Reform is supposed to give students more freedom. The Soviet higher education system, which remains in place made students study a large set of topics with little freedom of choice,» Lipman added.

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 gotten 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 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.

«The EGE [standardized test] has killed off corruption,» said Adamsky, who broadly supports the reforms taking place, saying there were problems with implementing the EGE but these were being worked out, «If a system of coursework at schools is added to the tests then it will be much better.»

The new system, reformers say, is also more humane.

«It was a nervewracking process for students in front of unfamiliar people who weren't very amiable,» said Lipman, who went through the system as did her children.

Another advantage is that it allows students from the provinces to easier 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 color eyes did Anna Karenina have?» a test only of memory. The previous system had more ambition, teachers say.

«It does not show the ability of the applicant and only how well they were prepared,» said Sergei Smirnov, a teacher at the journalism faculty of Moscow State University.

One Moscow State University teacher said that the oral exam system allows teachers to assess talent and not just knowledge. Even if a student does not get the right answer, the aptitude and knowledge shown when answering is assessed and students can still pass and get high marks, she said.

And the question of whether it 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, and suspiciously high results in southern republics like Dagestan have also raised suspicion of corruption.

Most agree though that it is still too early to say the full result of the EGE experiment although Lipman said initial signs were that corruption had decreased.

The suicide of one Moscow schoolboy, Yevgeny Goloborodko, who threw himself from the balcony of his flat on the seventh floor on June 1 two days after he took an EGE in Russian has also raised issues about the new pressures that children are being put under.

«It is a separate case unconnected to the exam because the boy could not know the results,» said education minister Andrei Fursenko.

Schools have had improved funding in recent years from the starvation diet of the 1990s with money going into some improvements in infrastructure, equipment such as computers — Adamsky complained that schools only had internet speeds of 128 kilobytes per second — but wages remain low and attracting qualified people to join the profession, a valued and respected one in Soviet times, is tough as it is in many countries.

Wages are around 14,000 rubles ($280) a month, 'not enough' said Adamsky 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.

There is no other way but to succeed in the fight against corruption. Ararat Osipian warned in a recent paper «Education Corruption, Reform, and Growth: Case of Post-Soviet Russia» that «corruption in education eats away at social cohesion, because students learn not only their subject matter, but also pervasive ways and practices of corruption.»

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