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Russia: State Council's Education Reforms Meet With Skepticism

  • Francesca Mereu

A high-level Russian advisory council has given tentative approval to a long-term plan to reform the educational system. The plan aims to give teachers better wages, make higher education more accessible, and fight corrupt practices. But ordinary Russians, who have seen standards slip badly in the 10 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, are now questioning whether the new reform will fit the country's needs.

Moscow, 3 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Soviet Union guaranteed free education for everyone. The quality of the education system had long been a point of pride for Russians; they believed it was one of the best in the world.

But after the 1991 Soviet collapse, education declined as scarce resources were diverted to other sectors of the economy. Schools were deprived of resources and common teaching standards eroded.

These were the problems the high-level State Council was attempting to address last week by giving tentative approval to a long-term education reform plan. The council meeting brought together President Vladimir Putin as well as cabinet members and state governors.

The core of the plan is to raise the amount of money channeled into education and to raise teachers' salaries.

Deputy Prime Minister Valentine Matvyenko said the government would allocate about 56 billion rubles ($1.9 billion) from federal and regional budgets to reform the system in the next five years.

Education Minister Vladimir Filipov said monthly salaries for teachers would be doubled to 1,200 rubles to 2,450 rubles (around $50 to $75) a month. Teachers are among the poorest paid workers in the country.

Angelina Burdena, a schoolteacher from Tyumen in Siberia, tells RFE/RL it's impossible to survive on such low wages. She says she keeps cows at her home to help feed her family. Burdena says after so much work she has little time left to prepare her lessons.

In Moscow the situation is not much better. Svetlana Ryazanova teaches in city school Number 325. She says that in order to earn a more or less decent wage, she has to teach from 26 to 30 hours a week.

"The teachers' wages are so low. A teacher has to work many hours to have more or less a normal wage. A wage can range from 1,500 rubles to 3,000 rubles. It depends on the amount of hours a teacher works. A teacher has to work 26 to 30 hours to have a wage of 3,000 rubles [about $100]."

Ryazanova says she welcomes the proposed 50 percent pay raise, but says it's still not enough.

Olga Leontova, a schoolteacher from Moscow, says because of the low wages, she considers teaching a hobby, not a job. She says she could never afford what she calls a "pleasure" if her husband didn't earn enough money to feed their two children.

Filipov says the low wages have encouraged many students to avoid the profession. He says only about 50 percent of college students who study teaching actually take up the profession.

The reform plan also calls for extending the length of primary and secondary education from 11 years to 12 years and for introducing a system of standardized tests for entering university.

But both proposals face strong opposition and are not likely to be implemented soon.

Our correspondent reports few parents appear enthusiastic about their child spending an additional year in school.

Galina Nazarova is choosing a school uniform for her son Dima in the Dyetski Mir -- the biggest shop for kids in Moscow. She says that, in her opinion, to extend the length of education is useless.

"[This new] system is too long. More subjects will be [introduced]. [Much] more than children need at their age."

Dima, as a male, faces the additional prospect of being conscripted immediately out of school.

Russian children typically enter school at age seven, and the 12-year system would mean that they would finish at 18. Young men at that age are subject to the draft unless they have certain exemptions, for example admission to university.

Concerning the unified entrance exam for universities, the plan's authors believe it would reduce the incidence of bribe-paying in exchange for admitting a student since it would create universal standards.

Under the current system, Russian universities administer their own entrance exams.

That system has encouraged development of a "cottage" industry of so-called tutors who provide lessons to help students gain admission. In reality these lessons are often bribes paid to members of the selection board.

Nastya is a second-year student at the Faculty of Economy. She says her parents paid about $50 an hour to a faculty professor. The professor, a member of the board of examiners, in turn, helped her to pass the entrance exam.

She says at her school it is impossible to pass the exam without paying money. She says her admission cost her parents about $2,500 in "lessons."

Dmitri Sergeev, a father of two, is pessimistic the exams will change anything. He says that with the new unified state exams, corruption will simply move from the universities to the schools where the exams are administered.

"There will be [corruption], I'm sure. If it will disappear from the universities, it will [reappear] at the schools."

Nikita Alekseev of the Russian Academy of Education agrees and says that in Russia it will be possible to falsify the high school graduation exams, and university professors will have to deal with bad students.

"In our country, it is possible to falsify anything. So there will be a lot of good students, with very good marks [but all this will be false]. How can university teachers work with them? This is a problem. [This reform] is not part of our tradition, since [in Russia] universities are used to selecting the students."

On the contrary, Aleksandr Gavrilov, the spokesman with the Moscow Committee of Education, says he likes the unified test. He says that it might reduce corruption among professors involved in admitting students, but he thinks it still needs to be worked out.

"We [the Moscow Committee of Education] are for the unified government exam. We think it might help to eliminate [students] paying bribes to be admitted to an institute or a university. Moscow is not taking part in the experiment, since we believe [that it still needs to be worked out.]"

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