One of the most pressing problems Russia faces today is that of enhancing the role in the economy of its "human capital" persons with the skills necessary to drive an advanced economy and society, such as scientists, programmers and specialists in the humanities.
Science, which used to be Russia's national pride, is now on the rocks, with many professionals leaving for greener financial pastures abroad, and fewer people than ever choosing this field of study.
It was against this background that the Russian government met with regional governors at a State Council meeting Wednesday to discuss the issue of educational reform. That the system desperately needs to be improved is hardly controversial. What is controversial, though, is the nature of education reform and its implementation.
The Soviet Union for all of its other terrible flaws operated one of the world's finest education systems. The system produced near-universal literacy and more physicists and engineers per capita than any other country. Moreover, it was free and open to everyone, creating an opportunity for upward mobility among those willing to work hard.
Unfortunately, any blessings brought about by the Soviet collapse did not include benefits to the education system. Education now receives only half the share of GDP it had during the late Soviet period and, considering that GDP itself is about half what it was at that time, this is a precipitous decline.
That young teachers are now earning as little as $15 a month nowhere near subsistence level is perhaps the most shocking example of how far the system has fallen. When the speaker of the upper house of parliament, Yegor Stroyev, said that "a teacher reduced to being a beggar is the shame of the nation," he was speaking the truth.
Not only does such a low salary level discourage young people from entering this extraordinarily important profession, it also provides fertile ground for the spread of corruption in the educational establishment. The result is that supposedly free education has been transformed into a de facto pay-as-you-go system, where students bribe first institutions to accept them and then teachers to improve their grades.
This cannot continue. Not only does a lack of access to education limit a person's ability to develop, it is especially detrimental to the economy. In the contemporary world, a nation's place in the global hierarchy is determined by its ability to participate in scientific and technological development something that requires a strong educational system.
If Russia wishes to return to its status as a technological and industrial power, the drop in educational quality and availability must be arrested and reversed. Achieving this is going to take a lot of money and a balanced and sensible approach to reform, not one formulated solely by economic ideologues like Minister for Economic Development German Gref or narrow-minded apparatchiks like Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov.
For instance, there are strong arguments for introducing a universal set of written exams at the end of school to ensure entrance to university is open to all and transparent. The current system of "special tutorials" from lecturers, costing $70 an hour, to prepare for an oral exam one of the more absurd aspects of the Soviet system needs to be scrapped. But increasing fairness and ending corruption need to be supported by massive increases in salaries. Otherwise it will only lead to an exodus from the universities of all but the most devoted academics.
Further, the positive elements of the Soviet education system that remain, such as the requirement that children study a combination of science, math, humanities and other disciplines rather than the increasingly business-oriented system in the West should not be touched. A broad education is a key to a successful and happy life.
If Russia is to keep from becoming Europe's Nigeria a country that does nothing but ship raw materials abroad for the benefit of a small oligarchy education reform must be accomplished. Human capital has the potential to generate far more wealth and distribute it to a far broader section of the population than any oil well or nickel mine.