Modernization of education - hopes and realities


Dr.Hab., Professor E.F. Orekhov1
Dr.Hab., Professor V.F. Kostyuchenko2
1Ural State University of Physical Culture, Chelyabinsk
2National State University of Physical Culture, Sport and Health named after P.F. Lesgaft, St. Petersburg

Keywords: moderreformirization of education, credit-modular system, Bologna process

Value of education in the modern world is being on the rise with the growing demand for human capital. It is very likely that in the XXI century only those states may hope to stay independent that are capable to lead in the ongoing intellectual and technological competition. Future of the Motherland will largely depend on how successful the present and future graduates of higher education establishments are. There are good reasons to expect that the valuable genetic potential, abundant national resources with the still sound research and engineering base of Russia will help overcome the current disorder and improve the situation in the country to the better to attain reasonably good standards. Key role in this process is expected to be played by the higher education and post-graduate professional education system.

The initiatives to establish new social systems under control of public, private and mixed public-private (PP) agencies are designed, on the one hand, to make the national labour markets more diverse and broad-based. On the other hand, this situation is more challenging for the graduates as it is not unusual for them now to start their professional careers on non-traditional or uncertain terms and conditions. It is natural that Russia, as a part of Europe, could not stay aside of the modern trends in the European higher education system, and it was largely for this reason that since the late 1980ies till now both the general higher education and vocational education systems in Russia have been in the ongoing reform process known as “modernization”.

As things now stand, reigning in Europe is the Anglo-Saxon education format called the Bologna system. In terms of its fundamentals, the Bologna Process requires compatible education methodologies and quality assurance standards; two-level education system and credits (units of learning) system and integrated quality assurance system being developed and implemented by the member countries.

On the whole, the education tradition transition to this Anglo-Saxon education system in our country was imposed in the “top-to-bottom” manner. The research-and-education community (REC) involved in these “perestroika-style campaign”, in our opinion, may be generally split up into the following three groups by their attitudes to the campaign: group number one saying “our education system has always been the best in the world, so leave it alone”; group number two claiming “we vote two hands up for the reforms if the top bosses like them”; and group number three sceptically saying “we don’t care, but nothing good will come out of it anyway”. The first group has tended to totally reject the whole system including a few positive aspects (although the system obviously offers some positive things that deserve being implemented in the national education system). The second group has had little doubts and rushed to discuss the upcoming reforms, canvass every word of wisdom falling down from the top offices, act out their own fantasies and convince sceptics on the firm belief that it is good for the country as long as the grant financing is coming to their pockets and the education business is making profits [1]. The only problem of the both two groups was that nobody of them bothered to make some critical and constructive benchmarking analysis of both of the education systems with special attention given to the long-term indirect after-effects of the Anglo-Saxon education standards being parroted by the national academic community [2, 4, 8, 9]. 

Nevertheless, it has to be confessed that a three-level higher professional education (HPE, with the post-graduate education being rated as level three) has been implemented in the country and technologies for this process have been developed. The national HPE community, however, is still far from supporting the Bologna Accords on an unanimous basis. It is not unusual in fact that the HPE reforms to meet the Bologna standards are ironically dubbed as “bolognization” by educators that sound like “stultifying” in Russian.  

The Bologna Process-based reform initiators argued that the reforms would bring multiple benefits including improvements in the quality of national education standards and recognition of the Russian higher education diplomas and academic degrees by other countries. They further assured that a diploma issued by any Russian university guarantees that the post graduate will be readily employed by a foreign university in any western country due to the facts that the countries has agreed to recognize their education certificates and, hence, jobs are waiting for our specialists on the foreign labour markets [1].

It should be mentioned in this context that the Anglo-Saxon system (and the French system, by the way), in contrast to the Humboldt’s system, requires the everyday workloads of students being strictly documented, and it is these records that are critical for the final assessment of the individual academic success, with the dependence rate estimated at around 60-70%. The newly implemented integrated quality assurance system gives the means to monitor the student’s performance on a permanent basis during the session and precisely rate the quality of the studies. This system is designed to encourage persistent and purposeful individual work and step up the learning activity of the students, and at the same time ensure better balancing of the workloads and improve the quality of knowledge in the student community. Both the students and educators are involved in the education quality assurance activity within the system. It is designed on the assumption that students may be interested to shape up their individual education careers only when they are duly encouraged to work on their own. It is noteworthy that the problem of education activity encouragement has been always rated among the top priorities by educators. It was Y.A. Komenskiy who stated back in 1893 that “It is the alpha and omega of our didactics that we must invent or find the means to help the teachers teach less, and the students learn more on their own”. “It is the active efforts of students to solve the problems they face in the educational process that shall be considered a basis for the methods and institutional forms of an educational process” (Dewey J.,1929). The increased proportion of individual work by the students is associated with a drastic decrease of the lecturing workloads on the academic staff members with the relevant growth of the workloads to develop and improve the curriculum, data-processing and methodological support of the education process. It may be pertinent to remind in this context that the objective to substantiate new approaches to reform the academic staff workloads was ranked high on the list of objectives set forth by the Ministry of Education and Science (MES) of the RF based on the MES Order #215 of July 29, 2005 “On the Innovation Activity to Ensure Transition to the Credit System” in the course of the experiment supported by more than 40 universities.

It is the project to implement the education credit-modular system that is considered a key tool to ensure academic mobility. Modular system of educational process will give the means to implement one of the pivotal principles of didactics that is the educational process individualization concept. It gives a student the opportunity to design the individual way to success in the education process on his/her own discretion.

Introduction of levels in the higher professional education system (HPE) is considered a key element of the integrated HPE reform. As things now stand, it is no more reasonable to train narrow specialists for five or six years at the universities since the modern technologies and knowledge base are totally renovated in much faster manner. For this reason, general bachelor course followed by specialization through master course is believed to best format to meet the labour market demand [5, 6, 7].

All the above seems quite reasonable and attractive for the Russian education system, on the face of it. This concept seems as good as any other initiative on the first logical apprehension level with every element looking understandable and constructive.

The New State Education Standards (SES) of HPE system are being developed and implemented in practice, and then followed by the newer ones. They claim titanic work to adapt the institutional and methodological provisions of the university curricula to these new standards. Since our university on the whole and our Pedagogical Faculty in particular was ranked among the test sites to adapt the key concepts of the Anglo-Saxon system to our traditions, it is only natural that we were among the developers for the Third-generation Federal SES (FSES) of HPE Draft. The FSES of HPE Draft by National State University named after P.F. Lesgaft was approved by the Ministry of Education and Science of the RF that means that the relevant FSES of HPE are to be implemented in the Physical Culture and Sports (PCS) sector of Russia.

The above initiatives seemed very important, but, as demonstrated by the actual practice, they turned to be virtually meaningless at present for the reason that the country lacks a necessary legal framework to support the new education levels and quality assurance systems. The valid legislation makes virtually no provisions (with a few exclusions, but these provisions are rather neglected than fulfilled) for the official positions, professional responsibilities and labour remunerations being nominated and profiled with due regard to the education levels, despite the fact that it is the leading positions that motivate a specialist to upgrade his/her professional knowledge and skills and expect them to be formally recognized and appreciated,

Therefore, it may be stated that the expectations were much higher than the practical results that could hardly satisfy us considering the efforts and workloads to develop and implement the standards and the relevant harmonization plans. It may be pertinent to acknowledge in this context that the actions of the education system reformers supported by the government without serious considerations and science-based justifications were largely the same as the notorious initiatives of the “young reformers” of the Russian economy back in the 1990ies.

Let us consider why the technologies and incentives that were broadly tested for quite a long time, implemented and positively accepted by other countries make no success in our country.

The credits-based rating system applied for the education quality assurance is considered an efficient incentive for the learning activity of the students on the only condition that this motivation method works as an element of such system that gives valuable preferences based on the ratings. This notion has been tested for three years under standard conditions of the education-and-development process at the foreign universities and National State University named after P.F. Lesgaft [3]. Total credits were important for graduates of the bachelor course for the reason that they gave them chances to qualify for the master course. Furthermore, the Faculty offered special bonuses to the stipends payable to students of every year in the amounts equivalent to +3 stipends to the top three, +2 to the second three and +1 to the third three students on the rating list. As a result, the attendance of the lessons increased and the students were obviously more interested and active in the classes as indicated by the overall growth of the knowledge quality registered by the final yearly tests.

In some of the western countries, a variety of important social, positional and financial incentives is offered to the best university graduates. It motivates the students compete in the educational process and, for instance, they never use crib sheets for the simple reason that it is considered a serious violation of the rules and a basis for immediate dismissal from the university. No such incentives are offered by the Russian education system and, hence, there is no competition. Moreover, students quite often hold to the rule “cribbing something, share it with your friend in need”. Therefore, it may be stated with confidence that the credit rating system as basis of quality assurance system within the national HPE sector is still nothing but a new term having no practical meaning in fact. It is only natural that fragmentary and inconsistent implementation of even quite reasonable concepts – when they are isolated and non-systemic – can never make them viable.

Credit system implementation must be supported by the projects to develop the economic resources of the national universities. One of the relevant incentive systems widely applied in Europe, for instance, offers extra financial and other benefits to the universities that cover around 50% of students by mobility programs. It is their way to encourage mobility of the university students for the reason that the target labour markets are available across the whole Europe. No such system of economic motivation has been introduced in Russia so far. It may be due to the fact that the national environment for mobility differs from the European one. The Russian and local regional labour markets appear to offer much less mobility opportunities than in Europe for the reason, among other things, that the national housing market is very different from the European markets.

Furthermore, any initiative to improve the academic mobility of the Russian students (and it might be good that they are not enthusiastic about it as yet) is complicated by the fact that the Russian universities are staffed – in contrast to the countries with the fully-fledged academic mobility systems – by permanent teams of professors and educators. Now let us imagine that this year course of some education discipline is in high demand by groups B and C and many students have registered to attend it. This means that the university has to recruit professors in this discipline from outside to meet the demand and keep up the educational process; while teachers of other discipline(s), less popular among the students, risk being largely idle. But the things may change in the next year, and the once popular discipline will be no more in demand. So what can be done in this situation? Does it make sense to keep a core team of professors and educators for the A-group disciplines and cover the shortage of academic staff by recruitment of outsiders on a contractual basis, the contracts being valid for one session or academic year, as if these people are actors for special roles in a theatrical enterprise? It is time for the decision-makers to collect their thoughts about that.

Furthermore, it is only logical and reasonable that universities will be financed depending on the headcounts of students. On the other hand, a loss of above 20% of student population on the way to graduation is considered by the university authorities a failure to fulfil the state order and, as a result, the reference admission figures are cut down the next year with the relevant reduction of the university finance by the government. Nobody cares that the 20-30% loss in numbers of students on the way from the first year to graduation is quite normal for a variety of objective reasons other than poor academic progress – including health or family problems, resettlement, transfers to other universities, force majeure situations etc. No wonder that the university management strives to keep students at the university by right or wrong means regardless of their academic progress and quality of graduates, otherwise the university may suffer financial punishment. What kind of competition similar to the one maintained by the Anglo-Saxon HPE system may exist in such situation in our country?

It is the educators that are the key drivers of any university (to detract nothing from students), but many people in the education community are deeply frustrated now. The old project to prudently manage the academic workload is no longer on the agenda and has fallen into oblivion in fact. The average academic workload of the present staff professors and educators has reached a ridiculous level of 900 hours per year and still on the rise, compared to 180 hours per year for a western professor and 230 hours per year for a western assistant professor. It should be emphasized that this workload comes on top of colossal volumes of written jobs to provide methodological bases for the university curricula, with the humiliatingly low salaries being paid for all these jobs. The usual advice to try and lure grant financing as addition to the academic salaries is nothing but the attempt to drown the problem in empty talks. It should be noted, first of all, that such workloads give no chance to the educators to do the both things equally good at the same time; and, second, it is no secret that grant financing has virtually degraded nowadays to the business of vested interests to share budgetary allocations, whilst outsiders are no more welcomed in it. Moreover, average age of the academic staff members for most of the physical culture universities in Russia is fairly close to the pension age, with people of above 50 years of age making up around 50% of the PCS university staff. As far as we know, the situation in other sectors is much the same as in the Ministry of Education and Science system. Young people are generally reluctant to stay at the universities on academic positions; even when they acquire academic degrees, they would rather move to much better paid jobs of high-skilled workers. 

Arguments of our bureaucrats on the equivalence and recognition of the Russian higher education diplomas and academic degrees by foreign universities are not supported by any multilateral legal covenants in fact. This is nothing but wishful thinking and fantasies of the high-ranking managers of the national higher education system. We are trying to copy only a few formal elements of the system in fact. It might be for this reason that many people are sceptical about the national system modernization process that is reduced to a few elements being automatically copied for application in Russia, while the western methodologies are poorly tested and not quite harmonized with the national education traditions and practices. As a result, the copying process benefits are normally nothing better than mechanic replicas of the foreign innovations. This kind of parroting inevitably leads to the pivotal principles of the copied system being distorted and, therefore, the whole initiative is limited to new terminology in the best case whilst the old education traditions and practices are left intact.

In view of the above, it would be logical to ask whether or not the project to implement the competency-building approach and the credit-modular system in the national HPE system (now reduced to HE in fact) is feasible and reasonable; and, if so, to what degree?


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