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How Can We Make Russian Education More Prestigious?

With the new academic year about to begin, the Rector of the National Research University HSE, Yaroslav Kuzminov, answered questions from members of the public in an online interview. The questions are about the problems and choices in developing Russian education, about the levels of achievement of school-leavers and university students and about the need for the new law 'On education in the RF'.

Yaroslav Kuzminov
Yaroslav Kuzminov

Yulia: Do you think that the value of education is being eroded now by the huge number of commercial institutes of higher education?

I think we still value education very highly. If you look at surveys of what Russian citizens care about, you’ll find education is almost always near the top of the list. Getting a good education, being an educated person is something many Russian families prize highly. And that’s something that gives Russia a historical advantage. Higher Education suffered a serious set-back in the 1990s when all kinds of terrible things went on – people were cheated – pure and simple. Students didn’t even get the basics. Fraud and education is a disastrous combination because you never get those years back.   

Artur: Could we introduce a tax on studying to pay for repairing academic buildings to get schools back into shape?

Education is important for the whole society. You and I already pay a tax towards it as we pay taxes in general. If, Artur, you want to introduce an additional tax for studying, who are you going to ask to pay it? People who are in education? But they are young people who aren’t yet tax payers. If you want the parents of those young people to pay, then we have to reject the idea that education benefits society as a whole rather than just the individual.   

Ilya: Why do we need to reform education? The Soviet education system was sound and thorough, while the new experiments and innovations have led to a situation where Moscow’s leading universities for years now haven’t made it into the top 100 internationally. Why are we lagging behind the world’s best universities so badly?

Education always needs to be looking to the future. The Soviet education system was one of the best in the world, because it reached beyond the standard of living and the economy of the 1950s and 60s. But education needs constant reform. Education needs to develop faster than society otherwise it won’t serve any purpose. Russian universities are lagging behind their foreign counterparts primarily in research. Throughout the world today universities are centres of academic research, but in Soviet times we had a system that kept teaching and research apart. Moscow State University and a few others were the exception but, generally, institutes were funded either by the Ministry of Education or the Academy of Sciences. So now we are trying to overcome that demarcation. I’m convinced that ten years from now Russian HEIs will be listed among the top 100 universities of the world.    

Alyona: How do you rate the academic level of today’s school-leavers, particularly since the introduction of the EGE ? [– Edinniy Gosudarstvenniy Ekzamen – Unified State Exam – equivalent to SAT or A’Levels – a single exam that serves for school matriculation and university entrance]

At the moment the levels of achievement of school-leavers are quite varied. Compared to how things were 10-15 years ago, school children are doing much better at foreign languages but not so well in Russian, They are doing better in mathematics but worse in physics and chemistry. In many ways our schooling is like it was in the 1970s.If you compare it in structure and curriculum to schools in Finland, South Korea and Singapore, which have the best school education in the world, we see that we are terribly behind in creative subjects like social projects and the arts. In those countries children spend 15-20% of their time on creative subjects whereas our children spend only 1%. Our schooling is based on learning by rote. Russian schools are plagued by low teaching standards. For twenty years they’ve been living on hunger rations. Teachers were only getting paid 50-60% of the average salary in their region, so naturally a large number of really weak candidates who couldn’t get any other job took up posts in schools. Obviously our children didn’t deserve this. Putin’s latest initiative to revive the social status of teachers by guaranteeing at least the average wage in the economy, means that in 10 years time schools will be created anew. Unfortunately it won’t happen sooner as the school system is painfully slow to change. As for the EGE, it hasn’t affected school as such. EGE has improved access to good higher education. Since the EGE was introduced the number of students from other cities coming to study in Moscow and St Petersburg has tripled.                

Yuri: My impression is that since the EGE was introduced, the corruption we used to meet in universities has moved to schools. Is it possible to root out corruption from the education system in today’s circumstances?

Unfortunately corruption is endemic, in Higher education and in schools. We see cases of buying grades, buying favourable treatment, particularly in schools. The cause is the rotten contract with the teacher. Low wages brought people who fell a long way short of professional standards into the system. Those people are the cause of the corruption. If we want to get rid of it, we have to rebuild a community of properly qualified teachers and a community of professional academics in higher education. Without a community of professionals we’ll never overcome corruption.


Sergei: What do you think of the idea that only people who want to get into higher education should take the EGE? 

The EGE is the minimum requirement in testing knowledge. To get an average grade (3 out 5) in the EGE for mathematics you only have to solve four problems using relatively simple arithmetic. Do you think that we should give a qualification in secondary education to someone who cannot solve those problems? The EGE is an exam which shows the level of minimal competence of a school child and I think it would be a strategic error for someone not to take the exam.

Kireyeva: It seems to me that nowadays our society doesn’t understand the role of the pedagogue. Do you agree that the meaning of pedagogue in the highest sense has been replaced by “manager-executive”, that what is happening is not a reform of education but a reform of the economics of education?

The role of pedagogue is being misunderstood, not because of the educational reforms but because we lost our high quality teachers who were a genuine authority for pupils and their parents. Teachers are not seen as truth-bearers any more. The idea of reforming the economy of education is to create a community of normal, talented pedagogues who really care about their work. We need to optimise the structure of education and get rid of the holes in the system where state funding has been leaking away. Everybody knows that up to half of the pupils in years 9-11 are not attending half of their lessons. We still haven’t made the transition to having good schools where pupils can study the things they are interested in. Almost a half of vocational colleges have huge problems with standards, they cannot provide even the basics for professional training. 25-30% of students entering HEIs on state-funded places haven’t achieved more than average grades in key subjects. The problem of the economics of education is very simple – we need to find the resources to pay decent teachers a decent wage. That’s an absolute basic. Once we’ve done that, it makes sense to talk about reforming the content and structure, etc., of education itself.   

Yelena: This law on Education that everyone has been talking about, who is it for? Is it so that bureaucrats can keep a check on the education system, or will it take the interests of teachers into account?

The idea of the law “On Education” is to increase the freedom of people who are being educated. The law is concerned with regulating specific processes and to allow for certain things. For example, it will allow for an applied baccalaureate. So when someone has spent two years in higher education and realises that it’s not for them, the government will pay for them to get training for a professional qualification. These days 64% of state-funded students are working 24 hours a week and have effectively given up studying. Maybe introducing the applied baccalaureate will bring half of those students back into education.   

Ivan: What do you think about dividing the school curriculum into compulsory and additional subjects? How can a pupil choose subjects at the age of 11 or 12 when at 17 many youngsters still have no idea what or where they want to study?

I think lots of pupils don’t know which HEI they should apply to simply because they haven’t been taught how to choose. Our schools are not only failing to provide creative subjects and acceptable levels of foreign language teaching, they also do not teach children about making choices. School should teach children how to plan their time, their career, their future, and the children should understand that they are responsible for making their own choices. I am in favour of children making choices about some of their subjects as early as possible, which will pre-determine the further trajectory of their development. If we teach people to make choices, the number of those who are blissfully clueless about what to do with themselves when they finish school should diminish significantly. And of course, we must get rid of conscription. The consequences of military service are terribly destructive for education, creating a mass of inadequacies in the education system at great cost to society.

Vladimir: What do you think should be done to improve the standing of skilled work? These days everyone is trying to get a degree but no one actually knows how to do anything! Just try to find a good builder or metal-worker - you’ll have a hard time because there aren’t any...

We need to tear away the veil of social failure that mars the reputation of skilled labour. If we look at countries that have achieved economic success – Germany, France and others, there we find that a person who works with his or her hands is held in no less regard than someone who works with his or her head. In the modern world the line dividing the engineer and the skilled-worker is disappearing, a worker is no less a valued specialist than an engineer, he simply has had a different education. We need a system of applied professional qualifications like the categories we had in Soviet times. We need to create a strict system of independent professional assessment so individuals can re-affirm their qualifications twice a year.    

Mikhail: Should a modern school be comprehensive? Will we stick to the universal compulsory model or should there be other kinds of schools as well?

We must have full secondary education for everybody but it could take on different forms. By the age of 14-15 a person should already want to study some specific subjects. The scale of knowledge and skills accumulated by humans is so vast now that it is impossible for us to cover them all in twenty, let alone ten years. So it’s important that people should fall in love with some branch of knowledge and get really stuck into it. The earlier this happens, the better. Russia has got closer than other countries to achieving universal higher education. We gravitate towards higher education as towards a normal level of socialisation.

Valentina: Where do you get staff for your university? Do you grow your own or do you steal them away from other HEIs?

Russia as a country doesn’t have a single academic community. In western countries universities very rarely recruit teachers from among their own students. Our tendency to cultivate our own post-graduates and assistants leads to a rather small-town atmosphere among academics. In the last 3-4 years we have been trying to recruit more staff on the international market. Of course we still do have to take our own graduates, knowing that as they have chosen an academic path and want to stay in Russia, there aren’t that many places they can find a job. At the HSE the average wage for teaching staff and researchers is 80,000 roubles (£2,000) a month. I sincerely hope that the plans our president has announced to finance a programme of fundamental research and a programme to integrate teaching and research in higher education will be brought into being during this government. Then our graduates will have a choice of 5-7 jobs and we will be free to invite strong, young talented graduates from other universities to come and work at the HSE.


Irina: What do you think? If a child gets 100 marks in the EGE does that mean he is gifted? What if a child does badly at the EGE but well at the Olympiads, what do you think then?

We’ve done a lot of research into how Olympiad winners do in the EGE. At our university, we have 2 marks between EGE results and the Olympiads. It just doesn’t happen that someone who wins at a history Olympiad does poorly in the EGE history paper. 50-60% of the EGE is testing subject based knowledge. Incidentally, I’m in favour of school children being allowed to retake the EGE several times to reduce the psychological pressure. Knowing that your whole future or at least the next year of your life depends on one exam is piling it on too much for school-leavers.

Semyon: A lot of your graduates go into the government bureaucracy. What do you think about the possible ban on Russian bureaucrats sending their children to schools abroad?

I think that a ban like that has nothing to do with patriotism or the battle against corruption. It just shows our lack of self-confidence. There is a very simple way to deal with corruption – an independent and fair judiciary. We need to create the proper institutions, indispensable to a law-abiding country.


Source: http://er.ru/interview/2012/8/27/yaroslav-kuzminov/

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