Russian Education: Filling the Vacuum

The Reform Movement in Russian Higher Education

One of the least talked about aspects of the transition from Communism to a free society in Russia and Eastern Europe is the world of education, yet education is one of the keys to the success of the democratic reform movement. Training young people to understand and appreciate the free market, democratic values and institutions, and the critical importance of human rights and freedom of conscience and religion is a task for educational institutions in countries where these same institutions previously served as ideological instruments for the Communist Party.

“Soviet higher education was expressly designed and structured to prepare specialists for the national economy — individual interests were unimportant,” says Valery Meskov, vice-chairman of the Russian State Committee for Higher Education. “Now the focus is completely different: higher education based on the individual’s role in society. What we’re talking about is a profound change in Russian higher education” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 15, 1995).

The reform drive of the early 1990s culminated in the 1992 higher education law which established the principle of university autonomy. Most state universities are now allowed to add new departments and hire new faculties without the need for approval by the Ministry of Education; they also have the authority to charge tuition for up to a quarter of their students. While this new power has brought significant changes to Russian higher education, the collapse of the reigning Marxist-Leninist ideology has left a vacuum in the universities. What is the mission or purpose of the university in Russian society? Basing higher education “on the individual’s role in society” doesn’t say enough, it doesn’t provide a focus.

The “Brain Drain”

An on-going crisis in Russian education relates to the “brain drain.” Estimates are that nearly a quarter of the lecturers at higher education institutions have given up teaching careers since 1991 for new sales- and business-related jobs offering higher salaries (“Low Salaries Leading to Education ‘Brain Drain,” Moscow Times, October 24, 1994). Others are leaving Russia or quitting their research work in massive numbers. In 1987, 200 Russians employed in scientific fields emigrated from their homeland. By 1990, that number had increased to 2,000 and has continued at this level for the last four years. Estimates are that for every Russian with scientific training who has emigrated from Russia, another 10-15 have abandoned science and found employment elsewhere (“‘Brain Drain’ Continues,” Moscow News, October 28-November 3, 1994).

Only one-half of the graduates of Russia’s prestigious scientific institutions, such as the famed Mendeleev Institute, are going into science; the rest are taking jobs in banks and other businesses. A critical part of this problem relates to the lack of government funding for science. Academy of Science experts in Moscow estimate that the proportion of Russia’s gross domestic funding allocated to science has dropped “to the ludicrously low level of 0.5 percent. . . . This is the level of the most backward, poorly developed countries.” One estimate put Russia’s 1994 spending on science at $1.2 billion, which is 30 times less than in 1990; by comparison, the U. S. Government spent about $11 billion in 1994 on biomedical research alone (“Russian Science in Shambles,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 28, 1995).

Investing in Human Capital

Although historically Russia has made significant strides forward in the field of education, providing basic education to all children and training a literate labor force, the quality of the human capital base in Russia is currently in serious decline. The proportion of Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) allocated to education has declined from 7% in 1970 to 3.4% in 1992. Between 1991 and 1992, real spending for higher education in Russia declined by 9%, according to a World Bank report (“Entering a Higher Grade — Proposals to Reform Russia’s Education System,” Transition, January-February 1995). In 1994 higher education institutions received less than half of their promised allocation of funds from the central government. Government officials instructed university leaders to “be creative” in securing the rest of the funding they needed to survive. On average, approximately 20% of the money received by state universities is now said to come from non-governmental sources, mostly the admission of fee-paying students (“Education and Dogma,” Moscow Times, November 26, 1995).

Overcoming the “Soviet Mentality”

The biggest issue, however, is not a financial one. One major challenge is how to create a climate for reform and a desire for change. At a conference on education in Russia and Eastern Europe held at Columbia University in the fall of 1994, comments by Russian participants were very revealing. One Russian school director asked: “Who should I write to get permission to change my school?” Another post-Soviet school administrator reported being approached by a Russian teacher who said: “Now that you’ve given me freedom, what do you want me to do with it?” As a British scholar noted at the end of the conference, “persuading people that change is possible is the crucial issue in educational reform in Russia” (Columbia University, “Education in Russia, The Independent States and Eastern Europe,” Autumn 1994).

Creating a desire to institute fundamental societal changes is one of the keys to Russia’s future. But persuading people to “change” presupposes that they will know how to change and what to change to. What lies ahead for Russians is the difficult task of determining how they will reshape their nation into a “good society” where the “common good” is indeed “the pursuit of the good in common” by all Russian citizens.