The importance of honest skills: Russian education

Visiting Moscow, I was interested and surprised to see some local journalists describing British schools as a positive benchmark. When it comes to the use of new technologies for teaching, apparently we have one of the world’s more advanced systems. One report, for example, noted that while fewer than 17% of Russian classrooms were equipped with interactive whiteboards, 75% had this particular bit of kit in Britain.

This was refreshing for me, coming from an island where moaning about ourselves could well become the next Olympic sport. Of course, what matters is not whether the technology is in place, but also how we use it. But my interest was sparked off in quite another direction, which is the economic pathway being followed by Russian capitalism. While most countries are looking to education and research as central to economic innovation and sustainability, Russia appears to be relying on a combination of access to natural resources and hospitable regulatory frameworks for trade.

By all the conventional indicators, this approach is proving remarkably successful. The IMF calculates that output per head – once at laughably low levels compared with Western Europe – has already overtaken Portugal, and will shortly overtake Spain. Public debt is low. The public signs of affluence and growth are all too visible – if anything, the Moscow city-region may well be over-heating, with workers increasingly unable to live within commuting distance of their jobs.

What is less clear is whether this pattern of high growth is sustainable. Very visibly, it is leaving a lot of people behind. The elderly, and pensioners in particular, are largely excluded from the new wealth. Furthermore, the growth is largely a product of high energy prices. Once oil and gas production start to decline, this factor will perforce become less important.

Third, government and business transactions often proceed through networks of corruption. Even a casual visitor can spot the exchanges of bribes that are needed for people to bend the rules and make things happen. When it comes to international business transactions, though, corruption is a problem. I am not so naive as to suppose that western bankers and manufacturers will not offer a ‘bung’ – it is more that a culture of corruption introduces new levels of uncertainty and risk, and undermines long term confidence and trust.

And impressive Russian growth has not yet been accompanied by increased investment in education and skills, or in research, at the levels achieved in recent years by other fast-growing economies like China.  Just 3.8% of GDP is allocated to education, compared with 5.3% in the UK and over 8% in Malaysia and Denmark.

Things are not too bad in the sprawling higher education sector. Teaching standards enjoy a relatively high reputation, and Russia joined the Bologna process in 2003. It has amended its degree structures in line with the bachelors/masters system common across the whole of Europe. Nevertheless, even though public funding has risen, it has done so from a low base and under-funding is causing problems.

Some of the best Russian scholars now work in western universities, while the remaining academics are often isolated from the rest of the world. The country’s universities come nowhere in the international league tables. The system has expanded partly by creating new institutions, often privately funded, and this is raising questions about quality and effectiveness. And of course, Russian graduates enter a labour market where key decisions can be made on the basis of connections and corruption, not ability, conditions that hardly favour meritocracy.

So far as lifelong learning is concerned, Russia has a fragmented scatter of institutions, many of them left over from – and more or less damaged by – the past. Understandably, it is mainly oriented towards vocational adult education, with a smaller provision of more general types of education. Russia faces a general process of social aging, but is currently tackling skills shortages by attracting young immigrant workers, mostly from the former member states of the USSR.

So if education generally is neglected, adult education is in a dire position. A recent report from the European Association for Adult Education describes the state-directed institutes for vocational adult education as ‘conservative’ and highly institutional. And while there are organisations who campaign for a more civic and socially purposeful approach to lifelong learning, their influence is limited. They could probably benefit from our support.

EAEA’s report on Russian adult education is available at: http://www.eaea.org/doc/pub/Country-Report-on-Adult-Education-in-Russia.pdf

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