Student intake up in Siberia

August 2, 1996

Something is stirring in one remote region of Russia. Nick Holdsworth investigates the post-perestroika search for skills. Studying is back in style in Siberia where applications to universities are beginning to rise after a decade of sharp decline. Many academics believe student numbers are remarkably accurate barometers of social change.

"Perestroika had an immediate effect on student numbers, especially in those faculties not connected with economics or business," Viktor Dyaflev, a senior lecturer in the history department of Irkutsk State University, recalls.

"The first thing young people understood at that time was the need to earn money, and to do so, being educated was practically irrelevant.

"But now those days of easy money, when all you needed to do was to go out and start buying and selling, are over, young people are beginning to realise that gaining skills are the key to a successful future."

Dr Dyaflev, an expert on the history of minority trading cultures in Africa and Asia, has informally studied the ebb and flow of student applications to his university - one of nine state and three private institutions in this city of 700,000 where the term-time student population reaches 65,000 - to compare the pattern of student applications with the state of Russian society and economy.

Before former president Mikhail Gorbachev began his experiment in glasnost - or openness - heralding the end of the Soviet Union, the ratio of applications to places was 12:1.

The history department was particularly popular among students who were looking for an opportunity to carve out a career in politically neutral territory, such as ancient civilisations or Dr Dyaflev's own specialism, Africa and Asia. More political subjects demanded Communist party membership and activity if one wanted to prosper.

The effects of perestroika rapidly whittled the ratio down to barely 2:1. The worst years were between 1991 and 1993, a period also marked by economic and political tensions in Russia, culminating in President Boris Yeltsin's armed assault on the federal administration's White House in Moscow when he asserted his authority over parliament.

"These years were particularly difficult for my faculty and universities in general, we had a very poor choice of students and virtually no postgraduates at all," Dr Dyaflev says.

The most popular courses and faculties in Siberia, as in the rest of Russia today, are those which offer diplomas directly relevant to the marketplace: economics, law, business, foreign languages.

But even less popular scientific and engineering subjects are beginning to recover from the impact of socioeconomic collapse in the region, according to Viktor Schepin, dean of the physics, maths and chemistry laboratory at the Irkutsk Technology Institute. "Engineering and physics are still not considered prestigious by many young people, but those courses which are oriented towards computing, transport or aviation are becoming more popular as students see the career opportunities training in such skills can offer.

"We've seen real increases in the last couple of years despite the continuing difficulty in finding well-paid jobs in this sector."

Students and teachers also say there is another reason for the rise in popularity of university education, especially among those wealthy, but academically poor, students who buy their way into private colleges.

Studying postpones military service - an important consideration in a country raging a costly civil war in Chechnya.

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