#12 - JRL 7217
June 10, 2003
Education Minister Raises the Standard
By Oksana Yablokova
What is an A worth? A straight-A student during his school days, Education Minister Vladimir Filippov believes an A is now worth very little. He says Russia's entire educational system is flawed and that it lags terribly behind that of most European countries.
None of this is of particular news to those who have been following the loud, near-collapse of the educational system, which has become vulnerable to sloth, corruption and idle thinking. What is of note is Filippov plans to do something about it.
Filippov spent the first three years in his post struggling with wage arrears and other immediate social problems that afflicted the vast roster of teachers and college professors. Now he is concentrating on reforming the entire cash-strapped education machine.
The education minister has announced plans to introduce standardized testing nationwide within two years, an initial step toward bringing Russia's higher educational standards in line with the European model within seven years. These are lofty goals, and Filippov says he faces his toughest challenge from within.
A former math professor and rector of the Russian University of People's Friendship, Filippov said he has encountered considerable resistance from many fellow rectors who are skeptical about switching to a new system that they fear will lead to a slip in quality.
"When we say that we need to integrate into the common European education space, everyone agrees," Filippov said in a recent interview in his office on Lyusinovskaya Ulitsa.
"But their logic leads them to believe that we are above Europe, and that if we switch to European standards, we will slip to their level," he said.
Then Filippov paused. "It is absurd."
Filippov last year first began discussing Russia's intention to join the Bologna Process, an initiative to standardize educational methods and criterion across Europe.
More than 20 European countries signed the convention in Bologna in 1999. Eleven more nations joined in 2001.
As a result, the countries achieved mutual recognition of their university degrees.
The ultimate aim of the Bologna Process is to establish a European higher-education system in which staff and students can move with ease and recognition of their qualifications and achievements.
The allure for Russia is clear, especially considering the difficulty many Russian graduates face when they attempt to work or study abroad.
Filippov believes that Russia has another reason to sign on to the Bologna Process. Many Russian colleges and universities would get a chance to make money by offering foreign students their traditionally high-quality coursework in math and science, mainly by means of distance education.
"If we have our unique system and our unique standards, who would want our training then?" Filippov said.
Earlier this year Filippov announced that Russia was ready to sign the convention.
But in March, the Bologna Process committee suspended admission of new members and promised to toughen the conditions under which they can apply.
Despite Filippov's objective to bring Russia into the Bologna Process as soon as possible, the project appears to be a long-term undertaking.
Dumping the existing system of school finals and individual university admission exams and replacing it with a standardized test is a more tangible immediate goal.
Filippov believes that the test will ultimately undermine the corruption mechanism under which college officials now receive money in return for admitting students.
According to a 2001 Indem think tank survey, education is the third-most corrupt institution in Russia, after medicine and the police.
A recent survey conducted by the Higher School of Public Opinion Foundation found that Russians spend 900 million rubles a year on education, with half of this money coming in bribes.
Filippov believes that these figures are exaggerated, though he agreed that some amount of criticism is warranted. He said, citing police statistics, that about 1,200 professors and education officials are caught red-handed every year receiving or extorting bribes from students.
With the impending introduction of standardized tests, Filippov plans to eradicate these figures to a certain degree.
However, opponents argue that the tests will only water down academic standards, while failing to reflect uniformly the true level of students' knowledge.
Filippov said some academic critics simply fear the loss of a lucrative source of income.
The minister also said schools in the regions are generally more open to changes than prestigious Moscow schools are.
Besides, by its very nature, the unified exam would afford Russian youths from the provinces the same educational opportunities as those from the capital, Filippov said.
Though admitting that he hasn't yet accomplished everything he would like to, Filippov believes that some of the faultfinding of his system has been unfair.
"The criticism is very annoying at times," he said.
"But I guess it is unavoidable in the minister's job."