Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 4

By Aleksandr Buzgalin

Throughout last year the pages of Russia’s newspapers and magazines were filled with innumerable articles on the subject of educational reform, and a great deal of attention has been paid to this issue in the first few months of this year as well. The reasons for this are not fortuitous, and we shall examine them. First, however, it should be noted that all these column inches amounted almost entirely to purely promotional material praising the government’s blueprint for the reform of education and accusing its opponents of having a selfish vested interest in clinging to the old system. Not one media outlet bothered to analyze the alternative proposal (the “national education doctrine”), let alone provide a platform for its authors. In contrast to the writers of all those articles, we shall attempt here to offer serious arguments, without denigrating the position of our opponents, and to deal with the genuine contradictions which form the nub of the debate surrounding the problems of educational reform. What, then, is the crux of the governmental model, and what is the argument about?

POINT 1. “The money follows the student,” but the government’s blueprint is followed by closure of schools and segregation of students according to their means.

Let us begin with secondary schools. The government’s blueprint proposes an attractive principle: The money follows the student. The state finances not the school, as happens now (irrespective of the quality and sometimes the quantity of the services offered), but standard educational services per student. The plan–to make a school dependent on how attractive it is to students–is an appealing one. However, as demonstrated by an analysis carried out by experts from the Duma Education and Science Committee (specifically by the center for the study of the information society under the auspices of the chairman of this committee), this project fails to take into account a number of important considerations.

First, students (and their parents) have very limited freedom of choice when it comes to moving from their local school to another one where the standard of education is higher; freedom of choice depends on parental income–for example, whether they are able to drive their child to school. And in a whole range of cases (in villages and small towns) this choice simply does not exist. This may result–as Duma Education and Science Committee statistics repeatedly demonstrate–in the closure of many rural schools, and given the quality of the roads, the state of the rural budgets and current fuel prices, the hope that students in the Russian countryside will be bussed to school is extremely fanciful.

Second, cutting funding to schools which offer a relatively low-quality education (determined primarily by the quality of the staff) will only mean that the quality of the education provided will fall even further, and predictably the best teachers will leave, entailing the degradation of a considerable number of schools (at least one in three)–and not only rural schools. As a result, up to one-third of students will be denied any sort of quality education. The education budget will face the dilemma of whether to close these failing schools altogether or to incur huge extra costs to rejuvenate them.

Third, how much it costs to ensure that a school functions as a coherent whole (the same applies to colleges of further education) depends on the number of students, but not strictly in direct proportion.

Yet these are not the most serious problems. The government’s blueprint envisages that the state will finance only the provision of educational services in a school within the framework of the compulsory national curriculum. Students (that is, their parents) will have to pay for anything above and beyond that.

The government believes that this will create private investment in education which will go direct to the schools rather than by a circuitous route via private tuition. Yet it is not difficult to imagine the real effect of this putative economic mechanism. It will create a powerful impetus for teachers to earn money by offering extracurricular services. And how can the number of these services be increased? Very simply: By cutting the amount of national curriculum tuition to a minimum–quite possibly to such a minimum that no student will be able to gain the knowledge required under the national curriculum without paying for a lot of “extracurricular” lessons.

The government’s blueprint thus forces schools, by economic necessity, to segregate students according to their parents’ means. It is quite clear that the children of rich parents will congregate in schools with better staff (who will correspondingly be paid more, including the state element of their pay), and less well-off students will be concentrated in inferior schools, which will miss out on state funding.

POINT 2. The national graduation exam: a way of confirming parents’ differing economic circumstances.

The second component of the government’s model for the reform of education is the introduction of a national graduation examination, on the basis of which a student will receive an education voucher large enough (in the government’s view) to secure a free higher education for those who pass with distinction, or partially free for those who pass with merit. This idea has many virtues: A common basis for assessing a student’s level of knowledge, and a departure from the bribing and widespread private tuition involved in applying for university places (because admissions will be on the basis of the results of the school-leaving exams).

But let us examine what will happen as the students make their way towards the final exams. Clearly, students will approach the exam with differing degrees of knowledge depending on how well off their parents are (whether they can afford to hire tutors, pay for extra lessons, get their child a place in an elite school and so on). Tests provide a clear record of this difference in material circumstances. Even lazy and ungifted offspring of rich parents who attend the best schools and are drilled by teams of private tutors will clearly have a better chance at doing well in their final exams than the children from poor families who attend inferior schools and cannot afford to pay for extra lessons.

On top of this, students will essentially become hostages to the principle of the “single chance.” If for one reason or another (anxiety, personal circumstances and so on) you do badly in the exam, you have no chance of getting a good mark: It is only possible to re-sit the graduation examination the following year, and this time at a fee. (What are poor students to do, who cannot pay for their higher education and cannot try their luck a second or third time, as is possible today?)

But what is the situation in higher education?

POINT 3. Those who made their fortunes from voucher privatization propose vouchers for higher education.

The architects of the reform proposals are quite right to say that candidates for the so-called free places at universities today are in fact incurring considerable expense in paying for tuition, direct bribes and indirect bribes under the guise of private tuition. The public cannot afford to pay additional amounts out of their own pockets for higher education. But will the idea, proposed in the government’s blueprint, of the state registered debenture (GIFO), which is supposed to cover the costs of higher education, help deal with these problems?

The first question is, who will receive the GIFO? It will be awarded on the basis of performance in the graduation examinations. As can be seen from the above discussion of the reform of school education, this means that the main contenders for GIFO vouchers (those who will own them after the exams) will be students from better-off families. In addition to this, in each university it is proposed that the top third of the new intake will pay for their education solely with the GIFO, while another third will pay the difference between the GIFO and the price of the university’s tuition.

The government assumes that this price–“with the exception of twenty or thirty colleges in Moscow and St. Petersburg”–cannot be significantly higher than the value of the GIFO. But if there is to be a market for educational services, then the price set by colleges for their tuition will exceed the value of the GIFO by as much as students, their parents and the commercial structures which send their present and future employees to college are able to pay for them. Thus all the money that is now spent on private tuition and bribes will continue to come to the universities, but in the form of the difference between the GIFO and the tuition fees.

The desire to receive the GIFO, incidentally, will be another incentive for well-to-do parents to pay for extra lessons for their children at school, to hire tutors for the final exams, and even to give petty bribes to members of the examining bodies assessing the exam answers. Whereas bribes are now paid in order to get into college, the reforms will simply shift these bribes away from the university entrance exams and onto the school-leaving exams–that’s all there is to it.

On top of this, bribery will become even more widespread and harder to control. In the first place, universities will introduce additional “interviews” one way or another. Second, today students can receive free tuition in special preparatory schools attached to state universities (for example, the economics faculty of Moscow State University has a school of economics and mathematics working free of charge with 15- to 18-year-old students); these schools will be useless for passing the national school-leaving exam. Third, even if universities have some interest in selecting genuinely able students, this will clearly be low on the agenda of school teachers who are barely making a living, and who are spread out over hundreds of thousands of schools. Thus, neither private tuition nor bribes to get into university will disappear, while the official cost of tuition will rise. Who will win? The rich, not the talented.

On top of this, it is the better-off who will get the GIFO, and it is they who will have better prospects of securing the free university places–again by paying for extra lessons. This is nothing so much as another step towards achieving the principle of segregation of students according to their means, now raised to the level of state policy. If radical liberalism is based on the idea that the rich should not have to face any obstacles in utilizing the advantages offered by their wealth, then Russian state liberalism should probably be understood as follows: Not only should the rich be able to utilize all the advantages of their wealth, but they should also receive privileged state support.

POINT 4. The economic and sociopolitical context

But why should there be such a keen debate about models for the reform of education, when Russia is half-starved and shaken by disasters? Despite the profound socioeconomic crisis, Russia remains a highly educated country, and education issues are of concern to the majority of the population. Furthermore, the years of reform have made some branches of education a highly lucrative business, though fortunately still more under society’s control than other types of business are. And, last, the privatization process has left this sector practically untouched (as a rule commercial educational organizations have been created alongside state ones, rather than in their place). Thus education remains a highly attractive piece of the old state pie (and one of the last pieces yet to be shared out). In this respect it is quite clear why the Union of Right Forces (SPS) and other progovernmental parties, analysts and officials working for them (either for money or for ideological reasons) are promoting their model for the commercialization of education so actively.

Turning to the question of who is planning to implement the reform of education, one cannot ignore the fact that up until now the government has stoically resisted any suggestion that the level of state support for education should be increased. Most of the attempts by the opposition to implement these proposals have been successfully scuppered in the State Duma by the votes (or abstentions) of progovernment and propresidential parties (SPS, Yabloko, Unity and their predecessors)–the same people who are now backing the current governmental blueprint for reform. And the increase in funding for education incorporated into the budget for 2001 should really be seen as a concession that the opposition has finally managed to wrest from the authorities. It is also telling that the government reform plan is supported most zealously by SPS (and personally by the deputy speaker of the Duma, Irina Khakamada), while the alternative model was drawn up and is supported by broad public bodies (the Academy of Education, the Public Education Council, most university rectors, education-sector trade unions and so on), under the aegis of the Duma Education and Science Committee–an institution generally geared towards democratic social policy in the field of education.

The conclusion to be drawn from this analysis of the government’s reform proposals is a far from comforting one. The blueprint was drawn up by supporters of further radical liberal reforms, who rightly point out that education as yet remains untouched by mass privatization and commercialization. The proposed reform is supposed to correct this “oversight”, but it certainly does not correspond to the aim formally declared by its architects: To make the development of education one of the driving forces for economic progress in the country.

In order to achieve that, educational reform should have been radically egalitarian–that is, it should have provided the entire younger generation with a high quality education, creating genuinely equal opportunities despite the deep social stratification which has overtaken Russian society. Even the most highly developed countries allow themselves to consign no more than one third of the younger generation from the least well-off families to the educational ghetto.

Of course, the government blueprint does not neglect to mention support for students from poorer families. But how will this support work? By turning them into humble supplicants who have to regularly prove their poverty to civil servants. Furthermore, nothing is said about the scale or the level of this support. From the perspective of pedagogical psychology (which is completely ignored by the authors of the blueprint), this method will only serve to emphasize social segregation, not smooth it over.

For Russia to give herself a genuine competitive edge in education in today’s knowledge-intensive world economy, and to realize her greatest potential–the high level of public education (which has as yet been least affected by crisis)–she must take full advantage of the intellectual potential of the nation. To impose educational segregation along wealth lines under these circumstances is to throw up an insuperable barrier to the rebirth of Russia. In post-industrial society, intellectual resources are the leading resources in the country, and the effective development of society depends on how efficiently they are mobilized. Education is the very sphere where these intellectual resources are created. We cannot afford to throw these resources around, discarding them on the basis of means testing.

Aleksandr Buzgalin is a doctor of economics and a professor at Moscow State University. He is a leader of Russia’s Democratic Socialist Movement.