Modern-Day Russia: Raising the Nation's Intellectual Potential

In the past two decades, the state of Russian science and education has been widely described as catastrophic. The depression in Russia's academic quarters in the '90s led to the loss of a whole generation, which was expected to form the nation's modern intellectual elite. There has been a lot of controversy recently over the problem of effectiveness at Russian universities, the National Academy of Sciences and other academic establishments.

Recently RIA Novosti hosted a news conference with Vyacheslav Nikonov, a high-profile politician and political analyst, who heads the State Duma Committee for Education and also sits on the Valdai Discussion Club panel. The conference focused on Russia's ongoing education reform and on relevant proposed changes to education legislation coming up for the vote in their second reading at parliament's lower house.

Nikonov began by highlighting the significance of education for building up a nation's intellectual potential, which, for its part, defines the nation's prospects for the future. The advancement of education is directly related to a country's politics, as well as its economy, science, arts and culture -- that is, to every aspect of society and to all economic sectors in need of a high-skilled workforce.

In the past two decades, the state of Russian science and education has been widely described as catastrophic. And not without reason, argues Nikonov. Back in the Soviet era, especially in the 1950s and '60s, in many countries Russia's educational system was seen as a role model, and some, including the United States, even tried to replicate it. In the post-Soviet period, however, with much of its once exemplary education system destroyed, the country has been largely relying on foreign practice in education. The depression in Russia's academic quarters in the '90s led to the loss of a whole generation, which was expected to form the nation's modern intellectual elite, Nikonov said. According to statistics he cited at the news conference, circulation numbers for scientific and academic journals shrank by a factor of 15 during the '90s, while attendance at research libraries dropped to one-twentieth of the figure in late-Soviet period.

Over the last few years science and education in Russia have been emerging out of the serious crisis they were in, and their current condition is far from catastrophic, Nikonov said. Going on to speak of the various levels of Russia's education system, he remarked that there has been dramatic progress in preschool education, although several serious problems still remain. According to the analyst, a system of professional standards needs to be set for preschool education so as to bring it up to other levels of schooling. One serious concern is that many of the people currently working in Russia's preschool education have no professional qualifications. Furthermore, there has been a baby boom in the country lately, and unfortunately this has meant that the capacity of existing kindergartens has been falling far short of demand. Nikonov said the issue of allocating funds to finance preschools was a current political priority. He said it had been decided to allocate an additional 50 billion roubles to preschools in 2013, with a likely 100 bln outlay for 2014 and 2015. With this level of funding, hopefully, there will no long be a problem with availability of kindergarten places in 2016.

In terms of school education, Nikonov said that primary education in Russia is still near-exemplary. In this category, the country is among the world's top four, alongside Hong Kong, Singapore and Finland. Middle-school education (5th to 9th grades) also remains at quite a high level, with Russia currently ranking in the top twenty. But as for high school, Russia is lagging behind − primarily because of its newly introduced standardized academic achievement tests − these arguably discourage schoolchildren from studying subjects beyond the scope of their university entrance exams. Nikonov believes this system should be improved by introducing a portfolio scheme and a university entrance score based on the mean of the marks received for all subjects studied for the high-school certificate. This would get high-school students to pay attention to all subjects on the curriculum, Nikonov believes.

As for higher education, Nikonov says Russia has been doing quite well on BA and BSc programmes, and is now ranked among the world's top thirty for the quality of its undergraduate. But it is lagging behind on Master's and Doctor's programs. In the developed world, postgraduate education is the very highest level of education, with all the courses taught by the best professors to the best-performing students. At this level, there is now a wide gap between Russia and other developed countries in terms of training personnel at the highest level. It is only natural therefore that the new law should single out postgraduate programmes separately, as tertiary education.

There has been a lot of controversy recently over the problem of effectiveness -- or lack thereof -- at Russian universities, the National Academy of Sciences and other academic establishments. Nikonov holds that the academics who work there should be treated with utmost respect. Many of them are low-paid, so enthusiasm and the sense of a mission are their only motivation. Ministerial officials tend to have a whole different kind of approach; they are preoccupied with statistics, and usually overlook the human beings behind the figures.

However, the effectiveness of Russian universities is a problem, Nikonov admits. The number of universities and colleges has doubled in the post-Soviet period -- as compared with the entire USSR. So, considering that the Russian Federation accounted for about half of the country's population in the late Soviet era, today's Russia has four times as many universities. It is the world's leader in terms of the percentage of university students per capita and in university admissions with subsidized tuition. And it ranks third, after Japan and South Korea, in the number of university graduates in the 25-35 age group. All this raises new issues, related, in particular, to the structure of the Russian economy and to the provision of employment opportunities for the growing number of graduates. Hence the task of creating 25 million new jobs for graduates.

Another problem is the broadening gap between the increasingly high birth rate and a steady decline in the number of school leavers (by 2015, it may come to 35-40%). But the number of places offered by universities to aspiring students remains more or less the same. So the need to cut the number of universities will become apparent before long. According to Nikonov, pin-point work should be done to sieve out sham colleges and universities that were set up to make money by just selling diplomas.

In Nikonov's view, education and science are largely underfinanced. And there are other alarming tendencies in this area, too. The percentage of GDP spent on education has been decreasing, not increasing. In 2008, it was 4.8%, while now it is 4.3%. According to some estimates, the proportion may drop to 3.5% by the year 2015. This is at odds with the current global tendency toward higher education spending.

After the education draft law was passed in the State Duma in its first reading, work began in earnest to amend a whole number of related federal laws accordingly. Among the most controversial are amendments to the law on science and research, specifically ones dealing with academic certification and the defense of theses. Quite a few proposals have been made to implement the Western model, with a single level PhD awarded by universities themselves. In this regard, some argue that bodies like Russia's Supreme Certification Commission (SCC) are obsolete. The State Duma Committee for Education analyzed all information on this aspect, only to conclude that destroying the existing system would be unfeasible and counter-productive. This applies not only to the SCC's activities and the procedure of defending theses and dissertations, but also to the traditional system of academic titles (Professor, Assistant Professor, etc.), which are also subject to SCC approval. It is clear, however, that Russia's joining of the Bologna Process will inevitably bring up the issue of the Russian system's compatibility with Western educational systems.

Nikonov also touched upon the problem of plagiarism and fake dissertations. In his view, campaigns to expose plagiarism in academic dissertations should be run within a strict regulatory framework so as not to wholly discredit academic degrees and to prevent politically motivated decisions and unfounded suspicions being formed against any person who holds an advanced academic degree. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.