Most observers agree that the Soviet education system was one of the finest in the world, and its degradation and infestation by corruption has been one of the greater of the many tragedies that have afflicted Russia in the past decade.
That something needs to be done to improve the situation appears beyond dispute. But a State Council session devoted to education reform Wednesday only served to highlight the yawning gap between the parties responsible for the school system.
Simply put, the government wants to see radical reform, including, among other changes, a 12-year school education and a single state exam (via written test) for entry to establishments of higher education. The regional governors, for their part, insist on keeping the current system intact, though they concede there is a need for modernization.
The governors are assembling their proposals for reform through the State Council education working group, headed by Karelia Gov. Sergei Katanandov. Their hand has been strengthened somewhat through the support of leading academics.
System very good'
"We don't need reform. Our system is very good and we've inherited a quality that we now have to preserve," said Viktor Sadovnichy, rector of Moscow State University. "But we must, of course, also modernize the system in line with new economic conditions and the new society in which we live."
However, the education reform proposals that Economic Development Minister German Gref and his team formulated 18 months ago in their strategic development program call for serious reform. Gref's idea is to harmonize the system and put it on a commercial footing, while putting an end to the current situation of de facto fee-paying education where teachers take bribes and unofficial payments are made. The plan will be used as a basis for reform and developed and amended as discussions take place.
President Vladimir Putin's introductory remarks at the State Council meeting offered some hope to the opponents of radical reform. Putin spoke of the need to modernize the system and set out the basic objectives as "an ability to meet today's demands, accessibility and quality." Putin also warned of being too hasty with introducing radical changes.
But not everything Putin said found favor with the governors. One of the key issues facing the education sector is a lack of money, and all participants in the discussion pointed to this as a major problem. "What is there to talk about if education today is getting only half the amount it got in Soviet times?", Dmitry Ayatskov, governor of Saratov Oblast and one of the working group's members, told The Russia Journal. "Back then, education got 7 percent of GDP, while now it gets only 3.5 percent, and even then not always in full."
Effective use of money
Putin took a firm line on this issue, saying that the first thing to do was to effectively use the money allocated to education at all levels.
This doesn't mean the authorities don't see the need to increase financing. Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko said that in 2002 financing for education would increase by 64 percent over last year.
Most of this money will go on doubling teachers' wages. But though a 100 percent wage increase sounds impressive, it won't go far in improving the lot of teachers. Gov. Ayatskov pointed out that currently a young teacher starting out in a school earn a base salary of little more than 400 rubles ($15) a month.
Clearly, doubling a pittance of a wage like this won't do anything to make teaching a more attractive profession. Indeed, the saddest thing is that teachers themselves appear to have little optimism about the future.
"None of this will change anything," said Galina Frolova, a Moscow schoolteacher. "There have already been so many attempts and promises to raise our wages, but they'll just add something here, take something away there, and in the end, we'll be right back where we started."
Most observers agree that so long as teachers remain stuck in their current miserable conditions, talk of improving the education system won't achieve anything. Sverdlovsk Oblast Gov. Eduard Rossel said that teachers' wages should be increased to at least $100 a month. "This is the minimum level we must ensure," he said.
Separately, the working group placed the question of private education on the back burner, though Putin said that the state needed to clearly define its obligations to provide free education, to guarantee education for all in line with a single state standard, and, at the same time, to give those with the means the opportunity to receive additional services a vague conception that he has yet to define. Putin said the main guiding principles should be openness and legality.
Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, one of the staunchest defenders of the current system, gave a pessimistic assessment of the prospects of the governors' proposals being implemented.
"I'm worried that this tremendous work done by Katanandov's group might go to waste, like the Kress group's work on electricity sector reform," Luzhkov said. "We spent a long time in discussion [on electricity reform], but in the end, the government restructuring program for UES went through practically unchanged."