Free tuition to lure students out of cities

February 27, 2004

Russia is to offer free tuition to aspiring teachers, doctors, engineers and agricultural experts in a bid to tackle an acute shortage of essential workers in rural regions.

A 5.4 million rouble (£100,000) pilot scheme will be launched in five state universities in central Russia and the Volga river region later this year. It aims to attract up to 5,000 students willing to sign contracts agreeing to work for three years in essential industries after graduation in return for a free education.

Education ministry officials hope the scheme will begin to address Russia's lack of young, qualified key professionals in the regions.

"Heads of rural schools cannot fill half their teaching posts, and the shortage of doctors for clinics and hospitals in these areas is almost as bad," said Oleg Vishnevsky, deputy director for economics and social development in the Russian Federation education ministry.

The pilot scheme, which will be monitored and assessed over the next two or three years, is similar to the old Soviet system of raspredeleniye - distribution or allocation - under which graduates were assigned to particular jobs. But in the new scheme there is no element of compulsion.

Mr Vishnevsky said: "Students sign a contract with the university and employer, but if, for any reason, they do not honour it, they simply must pay back the cost of their tuition and have up to ten years to do so."

In such cases no interest would be charged on the sum owed.

Partners for the scheme, which include provincial universities with close ties to hospitals, schools, agricultural concerns and industry in their regions, will be finalised next month.

It will run alongside another scheme designed to prevent technicians and specialists from heading for large cities, where graduates hope to earn better salaries.

Under that scheme, factories, industrial plants and large state farms drew up agreements with regional universities and vocational colleges to "order" a specified number of skilled graduates each year, Mr Vishnevsky said.

The scheme, managed but not funded by the education ministry, will operate in a similar way, with industrial concerns paying universities to cover fees and tuition.

Mr Vishnevsky said the schemes recognised that although about half of all Russia's students were eligible for tuition-free university places, in practice most paid considerable amounts each year. "Students from poor families who cannot afford education can get a free education under these schemes," he said.

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