Anna Tikhonova's Blog

Education in Russia

July 23, 2016
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  A well-known British documentary “Age 7 in the USSR” portrays the children living in various locations of the country as very articulate, familiar with history and well educated. However, today, interpreting a famous saying of Aristotle, it is difficult to “show somebody the man” by “giving them a child before the age of seven.” Since the Soviet times, the one-time intense education system (later adopted by China) has been constantly deteriorating. And even though the statistics shows relatively high levels of higher education in Russia, the output divulges the following trend: while the number of people with education and various certificates continues to grow, the level of knowledge (which can be traced in the results of academic exams and competitions) is way behind that of other developed countries.



            In 2006, education became a domain of one of the four National Programs and started being referred to as an issue of national security. However, despite being proclaimed important, educational programs did not experience an influx of funding. As a result, it became easier for those willing to study to receive foreign rather than national funding to pursue their goals. Current World Bank statistics demonstrates that 40% of these people are considering leaving for abroad. At the same time, Russia is experiencing a demographic downfall, in which the fertile youth, who constitutes 38% of the Russian population, becomes a pivotal actor. Such demographic patterns give grounds to presuppose that Russia is likely to repeatedly become a victim of Brezhnev’s gerontocracy pattern, which will empower old regime-loyal elite and will significantly hamper any progressive change. The lack in human resources by 2035 is estimated to produce a deficit of 17mln people, i.e. the number high enough to humper Russia’s ambitions.



             It is clear that the current hope of Russia is vested in the youth. However, young people do not feel confident that they will receive due reward upon graduation. There is an upward trend to prefer getting a job instead of pursuing a degree what makes Russia short on specialized and highly skilled labor with the majority of people working in tertiary sector. Thus, the lack of education causes such problems as information asymmetry (thus, people are reluctant to vote and participate in social movements), corruption (due to the low levels of competition) and the loss of expected economic gain (those with fewer years of education account for lesser share in the GDP input).



            Sometimes it seems that the most common goal which makes people go to the university is to obtain a job allowing for stable income and the opportunity to be promoted. Following simple logical pattern- the better education, the bigger the income. Consequently, the more people obtain degrees, the lower the rate of poverty. Of course, this is an over-simplified logical chain. However, beyond the so-called ‘Golden Ring’ area of large Russian cities this pattern does make sense. Putting children to school will decrease the sense of disillusionment which usually accounts for notorious problem of drug-addiction and alcoholism of the young people living in remote locations. There is also around 2 million illiterate teenagers who are forced to engage in criminal activities (such as theft, pornography and prostitution) in order to make the ends meet. Apart from seeing a school or a university as a means to intellectually enrich these people, these institutions will become a life safer for those who are in search of support, social interactions and even moral guidance. Offering education as an alternative to counter-productive social activities is expected to shift current demographic trends in a positive direction. Psychological (and, thus, physical) health of population will have an impact on reproduction, helping Russia reach the threshold of 2.1 children per family which is necessary to make the annual rate of birth outnumber the that of death.



            Apart from helping overcome the problem linked to demographics, education is an important factor which can free Russia from excessive reliance on oil and gas. These resources (even though in abundance) are finite and Russia needs to follow the example of other countries seeking new ways to sustain or, rather, resume its economic growth. As was said earlier, today’s economy is the economy of ideas. If Russia wants to present itself as a decent rival to existing global powers, it needs to prove it has something to offer to the international community. Science and technology which were very well developed in the Soviet Union are currently Russia’s great weakness. Due to turmoil of the 90s, the ‘cream’ of the natural sciences left for abroad. Today, the education in these domains (other, however, as well) is led not by practitioners but theorists who lack hands-on experience with application of such knowledge.



            Educational system in Russia is ‘closed’ and needs to be internationalized in order to attract bright minds. While the USA was able to give birth to the “city of knowledge” embodied by the Silicon Valley, Russian attempts to adopt the golden standard of American experience have been largely unsuccessful. The reason for such a failure lies in the approach. It is impossible to create proper educational institutions in the atmosphere of academic vacuum. Given that development of science and technology is essential for the well-being of the Russian society, it is imperative to make universities responsive to current economic rather than political demands. Instead of providing education which solely aims at enabling people to earn a living (what makes the majority of students study finance, law and politics, which are seen as elitist and high-level domains), Russian education needs to be diversified. Booming economy of China, for instance, to a considerable extent came into being due to liberalization in the educational sphere. Many Chinese students went abroad and brought back the acquired knowledge and experience, while the companies supported new specialists by providing them with various internship opportunities.



            As we see, education can allow Russia overcome not only demographic problems, creating conditions for a better quality of life, but can put in motion the mechanism for long-term economic development. However, formal approach (i.e. education for the sake of education) will not bring any significant change. Opportunity to learn something should be exciting, students must be motivated to be the best in their field- that is the best they can currently do for Russia. What Russia needs today is a vibrant and active civil society who will be able to critically assess information and take independent decisions. Given that the majority of people born prior to 80s see themselves as a ‘lost decade’, Russia’s present situation (political, economic and social) is very unclear, while its future is fully in the hands of the youth. The only way to make institutions work and make governmental officials accountable to those who elected them is to fill offices with representatives of the new generation who are willing to escape the fetters of inherently socialist and rigid mindset. Thus, by educating its citizens Russia will gain the relevant tool to affect its domestic and foreign policy and, while acquiring the power and recognition it so acutely needs to rebuild.


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