'Day of Learning' cancelled

September 4, 1998

September 1, the "Day of Learning", has for decades marked the opening of the academic year in Russia. But this year 17 regions have decided to defer the return to class until the arrears of lecturer and teacher salaries are paid.

Even where term has started the trade union of educational and scientific workers has called for "warning" strikes on September 3, 4, and 15-17. If these prove unproductive, as seems likely given the political chaos in the wake of the falling rouble, further strikes are planned for October 1 and 2 with a picket of central and local government buildings on October 5.

Postponing the first day of term will undoubtedly have been a further shock to the Russian psyche. In the mid-1980s, the Soviet transport authorities asked if universities could stagger their reopening by a few days to relieve some of the burden on the railways caused by tens of thousands of students in transit simultaneously. The suggestion was rejected out of hand - the tradition of the nationwide "Day of Learning" was considered too important to break.

For decades every main newspaper has carried a picture of proud six-year-olds going off to school for the first time with a bunch of flowers for the teachers and the pages are full of editorials and interviews with education notables.

This year the front pages were dominated by the currency collapse. Education was relegated to the middle pages where articles dwelt on the poverty of the sector along with pledges to keep things going. But can they?

In addition to a bill for back-wages running at almost 13 billion roubles (Pounds 783 million), there are outstanding bills for light, heating, water and urgent repairs. Education is the largest item in the budget, standing at 120 billion roubles this year. Even before the crisis, the money was unavailable.

Nor, until Russia gets an efficient tax-collection system, is the money likely to be there. Furthermore, the apparently generous loans and credits given by the World Bank somehow have little impact on the education system - at best it gets barely 1 per cent of these benefits.

The government tried to improve things in June but there was even greater discontent. Resolution 600 aimed to ensure basic wages by cutting perks and bonuses paid for such "extra" tasks as marking coursework. Education officials opposed it.

It seems likely that many academics and young graduates will be looking to an escape from academe. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and other post-Soviet states have suffered a huge brain drain. This has been of two kinds. Some scholars have sought work abroad, either permanently or until things improve. Others have gone into business, either abandoning university work completely or else working "on the side".

But the currency crisis has left the new business sector in disarray. The only "drain" left open is to go abroad. After seven years of absorbing impoverished Russian scholars, the universities of the United States and western Europe may find it difficult to welcome any more.

US visas, back page

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