Russia has implemented reforms aimed at giving pupils an equal shot at a good education. But the introduction of centralized university entrance exams has so far failed to end corruption in the school system.
Russia's educational system in the post-Soviet era was largely rooted in patterns from the second half of the 20th century. Just a few subjects were withdrawn from the curriculum at the beginning of the 1990s. Whether children got a good education depended heavily on their individual teachers and on how wealthy their families were.
University education was mainly reserved for the offspring of urban, high-income families. Russians from rural areas had to get by with the equivalent of a high school diploma or vocational training.
In the middle of the 1990s, reforms were introduced, and many schools changed course. Specialized educational institutions sprang up. College degrees, which had lost some attractiveness due to the financial difficulties of the 1990s, regained their luster. But the university admissions process got more and more difficult. Citing corruption in the admissions committees, the government put an end in the early 2000s to the existing system of university entrance exams.
Unified state examinations
In place of the old exam system came the unified university exams, which are now administered by a central body to each graduate of the 11th grade in all 83 of Russia's regions. The centralized exam tests each of the most important school subjects, like Russian language and literature, math, foreign languages and natural science.
Those who want to attend university submit their scores to their desired colleges. Only select institutions like the public universities in Moscow and St. Petersburg are allowed to require additional tests.
"The idea was good, but the result has been sobering," said Oleg Sergeyev of the Russian Educational Foundation, adding that as soon as the new national exam was introduced, problems came up. An enormous number of high school graduates crowded into the large universities in the capital, where the infrastructure was not in place to accommodate them.
"There isn't even enough room in the dorms," Sergeyev said.
But deeper and more serious problems in the educational system remain. Sergeyev notes that corruption is still prevalent, shifting away from the university admissions process but settling instead in secondary schools.
"Students' grades in the official university exam have also become a criterion for the success of local educational bodies," Sergeyev said. That leads to a system in which regional governments as well as school principals and teachers want to beat one another out when it comes to exam scores. Entire curricula are now built around getting good grades on the centralized exam, while actual learning and knowledge fades more and more into the background, in Sergeyev's estimation.
"The educational system is in a critical position," he said. One result: universities have to make up for the gaps in students' secondary education once they get to college. That cuts into the time needed for advanced learning, leading to inadequately trained graduates leaving university.
The emerging system is one reason that many young Russians attempt to study abroad.
Courses in ethics, religion
Russia's schools also get bad marks when it comes to social concerns - with serious consequences. The country has the highest suicide rate among young people.
"The role of the teacher has been completely devalued in the last 20 years, and this development begins to emerge as early as pre-school. Everything is oriented around the computer and not around the teacher," said Sergeyev.
An international study showed that Finland's elementary teachers earn much higher salaries than teachers in grades with older students. The rationale is that elementary school teachers do not primarily convey knowledge, but rather promote the ability to think critically, which demands a high degree of pedagogical skill. However, the opposite holds true in Russia. Elementary teachers earn too little and are not sufficiently trained, Sergeyev says.
As is often the case, Russia's response to the situation is to issue an official decree. In a few schools, a new subject has been introduced: foundations of religious cultures and secular ethics.
Parents can decide what their children should learn: the basics of Islam, Buddhism, Judaism or more general topics like worldwide religious cultures or secular ethics. But a number of experts think little of the new courses.
"Research has shown that parents do not approve of the curriculum, and the teachers are not really prepared to give instruction in these areas," said Tatyana Sharkovskaya of the Russian Academy for Education.
Sharkovskaya believes that education in questions of faith and ethics should be integrated into other subjects rather than being treated in a single course, handed down from the government. Schools and parents should also have more room to decide what their children learn, she said.
After all, the Russian population is gradually coming to assert more autonomy when it comes to education, although there have not yet been official and pointed protests against the problems in the school system.
Author: Evlalia Samedova, Markian Ostaptschuk / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen
Evlalia Samedova is a Moscow-based journalist, who works as a correspondent for DW's Russian service.