Russian Education and National Security

By
Jodi Koehn

Education and human capital are growing national security issues for Russia, remarked Harley Balzer, Director, Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies, Georgetown University, and former Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute at a 10 January 2000 lecture at the Kennan Institute. As a result, the likelihood that Russia will remain a great power forty years from now is becoming increasingly remote, Balzer continued.

Russia is only beginning to understand that economic power and scientific and technical progress are the keys to security in the future. According to Balzer, even if the Russian government fully appreciated this concept, it is questionable whether Russia is capable of devoting the resources needed to address the problems.

Balzer noted that what is happening with Russian education is not too different from what is occurring in the rest of the industrialized world, in that higher education has come to be regarded as a middle class entitlement, but societies can no longer afford it. Balzer discussed what he calls the "technological gap." This idea refers to a gap in knowledge between the first world and the third world as well as a potential gap within nations--a difference between people who have access to technology and those who do not. Unfortunately, Balzer noted, Russia has both types of problems.

According to Balzer, society in the twenty-first century is going focus on information technology and communication. Therefore, the definition of what makes an effective education system has changed. The key to the future is the ability to think critically, conceptualize, and learn on one's own--something which is often lacking in post-communist educational systems, Balzer argued. Students from former communist countries receive high scores on tests of factual knowledge, but perform poorly on tests measuring problem-solving and the ability to learn on the job.

Balzer stated that there have been striking positive developments in Russian education which have produced unprecedented opportunities for a limited number of people--along with serious problems and disturbing tendencies for the majority of the population. There are a number of innovative teachers and pedagogical thinkers in the country, but the application of this new thinking is not widespread. The majority of the population does not share the benefits. This stratification, Balzer argued, threatens the country's long-term development.

In Russia, higher education enrollments are growing, which is both a positive and a negative development. On the negative side, higher education tends to be the most expensive and the most regressive type of publicly financed education, Balzer explained, as public spending on higher education tends to help those who are already well-off.

Another problem with higher education in Russia is that the "serious economic dislocation" prevalent in Russian society has not been used to replace old methods of education with structures better suited to a modern economy. According to Balzer, now that the focus is on stability, it will be even more difficult to make these changes.

The quality of the education system in Russia is a growing concern. Balzer remarked that Russia currently spends less--as a percentage of GDP--on education than any major industrialized country. Balzer cited statistics stating that between 50-80 percent of Russian school age children are classified as having some kind of physical or mental defect. This problem is compounded when you add the number of street children who are not going to school, the orphans, and those children who are too malnourished or hungry to study well. In addition, a growing number of Russian children are out of the education system by the time they are fifteen years old.

On the positive side, there is a growing number of private higher education institutions--predominately specializing in the social sciences, law, and economics. This means there will be interesting developments in education in these fields, but the question remains as to whether these developments will promote the technical base of society, Balzer stated.

According to Balzer, the result of the education stratification is that Russia is becoming a "20-80" society. The education system serves the top 20 percent of the population, the affluent rather than the rest. Or, Balzer postulated, education could be a "20-60-20" situation in which 10 percent are illiterate--although this percentage could be closer to 20 percent in Russia, Balzer argued--10-20 percent (the elite) are very well-educated, and the rest are sorely lacking in the skills which would give Russia a modern economic system.

This does not mean immediate collapse, but it does indicate a development trajectory which would prevent Russia from re-occupying what many people suggest is its natural geostrategic space in the center of Eurasia, Balzer argued. This is a problem, Balzer concluded, which both Russians and Americans have only begun to contemplate.

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