Supporting the Reform of Russian Education

Anticipating the new administrations in both Russia and the United States, the staff of the Russian and Eurasian Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace issued a report entitled “An Agenda for Renewal: U.S.–Russian Relations.” The authors of this report argued that U.S.–Russian relations are moving into a new period, and that the leadership transition in both countries “represents a potentially critical juncture in what is arguably still the most important bilateral relationship in international politics.”

After a discussion of “core security issues” such as nuclear security, nonproliferation, and missile defense, the report focuses on Russia’s transformation. The authors emphasize the need for more aggressive foreign aid to bolster the growth of democracy in Russia, giving special emphasis to channeling democracy aid to the nongovernmental sector. They include proposals for updating the “economic agenda” in Russia and assisting Russia in the development of the rule of law – all basic building blocks needed in Russia’s post-communist transition.

“Education Is the Key”

Unlike many other policy agendas proposed by Washington “think tanks,” which focus largely on military security issues, economic reforms related to tax issues and trade, and the development of political parties and a free press, the Carnegie Endowment report adds another important dimension, highlighted by the subtitle “Education is the Key.” The authors claim that the era for influencing the design of Russian political institutions is over, but the era for propagating democratic ideas within Russian society has just begun. In their judgment, “this part of the American strategy needs much more attention.”

The best tools for assisting the development of Russian civil society are information and education, so the authors build a strong case for supporting higher education and research in Russia, stating that such support “offers the United States and the West an opportunity to leverage relatively modest investments today into significant long-term payoffs.” After noting the creative initiatives by a number of private foundations, the authors recommend Western support for partner relationships between Russian and American universities and colleges, in order to overcome the decades of isolation of Soviet educators during Communist rule. They also argue for funding to train Russian social scientists in the West in graduate programs and postdoctoral residencies.

The authors also build a strong case for increasing educational and professional exchanges between the two countries. They point out that educational programs from young Russians must be expanded so that one day as many Russians as Chinese will study in American universities. It is surprising to realize that in 1998, for instance, the U.S. government funded only 70 Russian undergraduates and 77 Russian graduate students to study in the United States. The Carnegie report calls for a tenfold increase in support for educational exchanges.

Investing in Russia’s “Human Capital”

U.S. foreign aid directed at helping the Russians reform their educational system should be a priority. It has not been to date. Private foundations have recognized the need and stepped in, but this private investment now needs to be augmented by a significant investment of public funds if we truly want to promote the growth of democracy and civil society in Russia.

But this, of course, is only one part of the equation. The other missing piece involves the expenditure of Russian governmental resources. Education in Russia currently receives only half the share of GDP it had during the late Soviet period; considering that the GDP itself is about half of what it was at that time, this is a significant decline. Young teachers in Russia are now earning as little as $15 per month, substantially below a subsistence-level salary. As one Russian political leader noted, “a teacher reduced to being a beggar is the shame of the nation.” He was right!

One consequence of this drastic decline in funding for education in Russia has been the spread of corruption in the educational establishment. As noted in The Russia Journal, “supposedly free education has been transformed into a de facto pay-as-you-go system, where students first bribe institutions to accept them and then teachers to improve their grades.”

Russia is a country with considerable natural resources, but perhaps its greatest resource is its educated population – its “human capital.” During the Soviet era, Russia’s educational system produced near-universal literacy and more physicists and engineers per capita than any other country. Education was free and available to everyone, creating an opportunity for upward mobility for anyone willing to work hard.

It has been painful to watch the deterioration of Russian education over the last eleven years. Radical reductions in federal support for education took place throughout the 1990s. Although President Yeltsin’s first presidential decree declared education his “highest priority,” he did not deliver on his promise. Under his watch, Russian education rapidly declined.

It would be a striking and welcome surprise if the Presidents of the Russian Federation and the United States added education to their list of agenda items. Sharing ideas about improving the quality of education, encouraging bilateral working groups of educators, and supporting bold initiatives involving joint cooperation in teaching the basic principles of democracy and the moral underpinnings required to make it work would be a good beginning point. This is the kind of assistance, in fact, that both countries need.