Russia, January 29, 1999
The fun of molding young Russian mindsRussia Today January 29, 1999
The Politics of Education
By Rod Pounsett
Russian politicians know that education and the future of the younger generation will be a key factor in country's next elections -- both parliamentary and presidential. For instance, it will be the first time that many young people, those born the early '80s, will have their chance to pass judgement on the current political regime. It is they and their parents who have suffered most because of the worsening conditions within schools, universities and colleges due to lack of funds for equipment, general education supplies, building maintenance and teachers' pay.
These parents and children have witnessed severe deterioration of the Soviet education system that, apart from the elements of political indoctrination, was admired around the world. It was free for everyone, provided the best conditions for both students and teachers and instilled a universal incentive for high academic achievement. Even including the remote, relatively primitive regions of the former Soviet Union, it was among the top countries in the world for adult literacy.
Now Russia's education system, starved of government funding, is at the sharp end of the worst elements of market economy supply-and-demand conditions. It has become a system where a good education and even fair assessment is mainly reserved for the wealthy. Even choosing a line of study, however bright a student might be, is governed by the amount of cash a family has available to pay the high prices set for study within prestigious institutes, especially those providing skills to match the new Russian economy.
One has only to look on any campus and see where all the cars are parked. There will be no free spaces outside the law, business and computer studies departments while lots near chemistry, physics or biology departments are virtually empty. The less well off can still get into universities, but only for less popular courses and then they have to struggle to survive.
More than 1.5 million young Russians are due to return to their university and college studies on Feb. 8. But a high percentage of these, especially among those in their fourth and fifth years, will not show up on campus. They have already been forced into full-time employment in order to survive or help their parents, and will attempt to scrape through the final examinations with home studies after work. Or they will simply buy their degrees. For enough cash, many low-paid professors are prepared to alter end of studies' assessments and exam results.
Pay levels -- when and if wages get paid -- for school teachers and higher education staff remain appallingly low. This in itself increases the temptation either to opt out of the education system altogether, or bow to near corruption tactics by taking unofficial payments from wealthy parents seeking better opportunities for their offspring or buying time for sons who would otherwise be called up for military service.
Children from low-paid or unemployed families now face severe hardship if they are to complete their education. If they are attending a university or college within their own home town, they get a mere $6 a month from the government and some travel and other concessions. But these are highly dependent on examination results. If they are from out of town and living on campus, they get an extra $7 a month by way of food tokens. Out of these stipends, the students have to buy basic writing materials and any special books they need. Many from poorer families will also have to buy their own clothes and pay any leisure expenses.
We have already seen protests by students and teachers in various regions around Russia and the current worsening general economic situation is bound to provoke more. Politicians who take up their cause could capture large votes at the next election. Those who do not may well be turning a blind eye and ear to the seeds of widespread ferment.
4 February 1999 Johnson's Russia List
Russian Education Today and the Myth of the Soviet Golden Age
By Edwin G. Dolan
Rod Pounsett laments the decline of Russian education and compares the situation today unfavorably with a Soviet Golden Age when (aside from a little forced Marxism) education was free and of high quality. Of course, there is some truth in what he says, for education, like all other institutions in Russia, has suffered from the country's economic decline. Nevertheless, there are some points to which I would like to take exception, based on my own nine years' experience teaching in several undergraduate and graduate programs in Moscow, and occasionally lecturing at universities in other parts of the Former Soviet Union.
The main point I would like to make is that the seeds of most of what is wrong in Russian higher education today were sown in the Soviet period. I believe that the apparent success of Soviet higher education was a result of the same approach--in fact, literally part of the same approach--that produced the mighty Soviet military machine. That approach was the so-called "extensive model" of development in which problems were attacked by throwing vast resources at them with little concern for efficiency, or for the number of defective rocket parts, computer chips, or whatever that had to be thrown away for every working model that was produced.
In the case of Soviet higher education, the basic idea was to channel vast numbers of the brightest kids into science, math, and engineering, so many that some of them were bound to come out with good educations. But a lot of "defective chips" were produced as a result of some characteristic features of the system that are well known to anyone who has been a part of it.
(1) Any visitor from America is immediately struck with the enormous number of hours of lectures, seminars, and laboratories included in a typical Russian university program, regardless of the field of study. If the norm at a US university is 15-18 classroom hours per week, the norm in Russia is 30-36. This creates an obvious problem: when do the students have time to study, that is, to read, do independent research, write papers, and so on?
There are two parts to the answer. One is that Soviet and Russian university education does not put much emphasis on independent study or research. For example, most of the students in our Moscow MBA program, graduates of some of the very best Russian undergraduate institutions, have never written a term paper and have literally no clue as to what things like sources and citations are all about. They are also baffled at first (although they catch on quickly enough) by Harvard-type cases that have no "right" or "wrong" answers but instead just aim to get the student to think. These students' prior education has consisted primarily in learning facts.
The other part of the schedule puzzle is that attendance at lectures is low, so that the students really don't spend those 36 hours in class after all. For example, I once taught a course in the economics department at MSU (by reputation one of the strongest such departments in the country) where average attendance at my lectures was 20 students. Yet 119 students were officially enrolled, and they all showed up for the final exam. Not only was this a required course, but the novelty of an American lecturing in Russian on the hot topic of banking probably drew a larger than usual attendance.
(2) Any visiting teacher soon also learns that, although some departments in some schools are very hard to get into, they are even harder to flunk out of. There is a tradition that everyone must move "lockstep" through the program with his or her group. No retaking a course next year if you fail it the first time. To ensure this, you need to have everyone pass every exam. What if the student has never come to class or studied? The solution is to allow the exam to be repeated as many times as needed until it is passed.
I well remember my own induction to this system. During my second year of teaching here (this time not at MSU or our own school), the rector and the business school dean invited me to lunch just before my final exam. After softening me up with some excellent Armenian cognac, they dropped a hint that one of my students was the son of the then-speaker of the Russian parliament, and that it would be nice for everyone concerned if he passed the exam. Well, even I could understand that such a situation might make the rector nervous, so I promised to see what I could do. In fact, the student in question was quite capable of getting a passing grade without special help, and did so. However, another student, whose name meant nothing to me, not only cheated, but was dumb enough to cheat from someone who had the wrong answers, so I gave him a failing "dvoika." Oops. That one turned out to be the son of the Russian ambassador to a major Western European country! Another conference with the rector followed, at which it was suggested that I give the exam over again. I protested that I had a ticket back to the States the next day, so that I not only could not administer such an exam, I couldn't even put one together. Gotcha! In the blink of an eye, the rector kindly offered to find another faculty member to compose and administer a make-up exam, and everyone was once again all smiles.
(3) This leads into the endemic problem of cheating on exams and other work. Yes, I know there is cheating at American colleges. For example, once when I was teaching at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, an anonymous survey was conducted to examine the school's honor code. It found that about half of students had cheated on an exam at least once in their college career, and 5 to 10 percent cheated every time they thought they could get away with it. But in Russia the numbers are higher, so high, in fact, that copying on exams is the norm, not the exception. Our students report that professors at their undergraduate institutes, far from discouraging cheating, encouraged it to make sure everyone got through with the group. Our students are often the bright ones who were cheated from in their undergraduate days, and report being asked by their professor to leave room beside them for Vanya, because poor Vanya would never pass unless he had a good paper to copy from.
In my above-mentioned class at MSU, when the 119 students showed up for the final I handed out 4 variants of the exam in a checkerboard pattern to discourage copying. The students quickly discovered this and began quite openly forming little committees to work on each variant. "Hey, Stas, do you have Number 4?" That kind of thing. When I became upset at this, the students were amazed. "You have to understand, this is the Russian way of doing it," they told me.
(4) While cheating involves nearly all students in the copying or the copied-from mode, I want to make clear that this next problem applies only to a minority. This is the problem of the corrupt professor who sells grades. Such behavior is not really accepted or condoned, yet it is reported to be frequent enough that it can make a difference for a student who really needs to get through some tough point in the program. I have even been told of professors who extort bribes by systematically refusing to give a "5" (or A) unless they are paid for it.
When all of these elements are combined, the result, even in the Soviet golden age, was a system that did not prevent a bright, motivated student from getting a good education, but one which also did not prevent a dull, lazy student from getting an identical diploma in the same field of study from the same school.
For example, our MBA entrance exam attracts many absolutely brilliant candidates, but every year it also attracts kids with diplomas in math and engineering from perfectly reputable schools who cannot solve even the most elementary problems in calculus or statistics. Perhaps our entrance exam is the first exam they have ever taken that is given under conditions where copying is not only not permitted, but is not physically possible.
Now that the Russian educational system is under strain, it is harder than ever for even the self-starters to learn as much as they would like to, and easier than ever for the weak students to pass on through. Physical facilities are crumbling. The best faculty members are leaving for commercial work. Low pay, or late pay, increases temptations for corruption are grade selling. With stipends nearly nonexistent, there is great pressure on students to take jobs that reduce class attendance and study time even more than in the past. And, with application rates down for many programs, the average quality of students passing through the system is lower, so standards have to be reduced even more than in the past to keep the throughput rate at an acceptable level. However, it needs to be stressed that all of these serious problems are not unique to the "New Russia," but rather, have roots in the structure of a system that was formed in Soviet times.
It is an exaggeration to say that Russian higher education today is in a state of complete collapse. For example, many talented teachers are sticking to their dilapidated lecture halls despite low pay. A number of new schools are starting up to fill the demand for education in needed fields like finance and economics, which were weak points in the Soviet curriculum. These new schools are not entirely free of some of the old vices (such as unrealistic schedules and the pressure to stay with the group), but they have greater freedom to pick quality instructors and a greater degree of financial independence.
Most important of all, students do still seem to understand the value of a good education. Given a program that repays their effort, they will spend their own hard-earned money on tuition even if Papa isn't a banker, and even if it means riding the Metro to class instead of buying a BMW. They will also work hard and successfully on their independent study and research if it is demanded of them.
Finally, we are encouraged that graduates of our own MBA program, after landing the jobs they want, have contributed thousands of dollars to an alumni financial aid fund so that students whose families are not wealthy can attend our program. So even in these difficult times, not quite everything has descended to the level of "Upper Volta with blackboards."
04 February 1999, Johnson's Russia List
By Mark Scheuer
I was very interested to read Mr. Edwin Dolan's discussion of Russian eduction (JRL 3042). As I was reading his article, I began remembering my brief encounter w/ the Russian academic culture while teaching English in Moscow. Albeit, the classes I taught were supplementary and did not count on anyone's academic record, I was exasperated by the degree of cheating that took place at all levels and in all age groups. I thought one or two incidents from the poorest students was expected, but it seemed that those who knew the lessons had no problems helping others who did not.
I know that cheating occurs in the US, but it seemed to me to decline the older Americans get and the farther along they are in their education. I expected such in my Moscow English classes, but I was wrong. I found myself coming up w/ seating schemes to combat this ritual and it became a source of amusement for my students. They went out of their way to continue cheating and defended the practice with a dismissive "this is Russia" (eta zhe Rossiya).
07 February 1999 Johnson's Russia List
Teaching in Russia
By Adrian Helleman
Edwin Dolan's remarks in JRL #3042/7 deserve a few comments. My experience teaching at Moscow State University and some other schools both in Moscow and St. Petersburg is similar to his. This is now my fourth year here. My wife teaches in the same faculty. Our experience may be limited in terms of schools and time here, but we can empathize with what he narrates.
Allow me to share some of our own experiences. In our relatively short time here we have noticed many improvements. For example, the philosophy faculty at MGU is better organized than when we first arrived. Some changes predate the arrival of the new dean, but they have accelerated since then. Yet there is much that causes us to shake our heads in wonder. The condition of the university buildings is the most immediately apparent. Anyone who has had to use the washrooms at MGU comes away shocked, unless they have also taught in third world countries, as we have. Yet even in this area, there have been noticeable improvements. It is indeed remarkable what a little paint and several new toilets can accomplish. And our classrooms have recently received new desks.
Dolan's remarks about the legacy of the Soviet period is apropos. While our very best students are as good as students anywhere, we have also had students who should never have been admitted. Aside from those who get in because of their connections, there are commercial students who pay for the privilege. Once they are in, the students know that they will probably graduate. The failure rate is only 1-2%. As a result some work very hard and other don't. But in this respect they are no different than students in all the other countries where we have taught, including Canada.
At MGU we have occassionally failed students, but this was always done in consultation with our colleagues. We have also reexamined a few students until they passed. And we have examined students whom we had never met before. If they are able to pass our exams, however, we pass them. Typically about half our students turn up regularly for class, which is apparently a high ratio. Both teachers and students are overworked. Our colleagues not only teach many classes, but they hold down one or two other jobs to make ends meet. A full-time professor at MGU earned no more than $200 before the crisis startedin August. At the current exchange rate they are now earning about 30% of that. Students cannot survive on their small stipends, and many are forced to work. This helps to explain the absence rate in most classrooms.
While certain faculties are more prestigious and harder to get into, all the faculties experience the same problem. Philosophy may have lost some of its glamor, but our students still want to get a good education. Some are not very hopeful about their own future nor that of their country, but they do come to class regularly. They are often not very satisfied with the teaching in our faculty, in particular by professors who use outdated teaching methods and should have been forced out long ago (which happens occassionally), but they are still eager to learn.
About cheating, we have experienced little such overt behavior during our exams. We would be naive to suppose that it does not happen in our courses. We take measures to prevent it, but we realize that these are not fool-proof. Students will always find a way! On examination day typically the best students come first, early in the morning, while the worst come last, just before we are ready to go home. The bright students help the others, of course, by telling them of what sort of questions we ask, but since we prepare a long series of questions, and they must pick one randomly, no one knows what question they will get. Since our exams are oral, we can supplement these questions in order to check. We warn our students before the exams that we will not tolerate any cheating. We know that it happens anyway, but we do try to minimize it.
As far a professors taking payments from students in order to give better grades, that happens, no doubt, but we have never heard of it happening among our immediate colleagues. Our biggest disappointment, perhaps, is that our students are largely incapable of doing research and writing a paper. Until recently, they got no instruction and little experience in this, until they finally have to write the thesis for their diploma. Our faculty now requires the students to write one paper per year, and some faculties require a paper in every course. We encourage them to write short papers for us, as well as helping us in our research. This is a new experience for most of them.
For your information, we are currently preparing an anthology of recent Russian philosophy, which we hope to have published in English. A brief comment yet on Sarah Busse's article and the ensuing debate. I believe that she is right on regarding the need for teaching morality. We see this need especially in our students. I will not even attempt to refute Mark Ames, who does not agree with her. He lives in an amoral universe and seems to be incapable of understanding what she means.
Adrian A. Helleman, Ph.D. Moscow State University Faculty of Philosophy