There is hope that Vladimir Putin will turn around years of decline in Russian education, writes Pieta Monks.
Along the road leading to Moscow from the international airport, young, well-dressed, girls stand maybe 20 or 30 abreast. Cars slow down, some stop and prices are agreed. Prostitution is illegal, but these girls stand there openly, in the bright sunshine. "It was never like this in the old days," growls the driver of my car. "Putin will soon clear these up," says the co-driver. "They look like my students," says my friend, a university lecturer. "Perhaps they are," I say.
In a lecture room of the prestigious Moscow State University Moscow's gilded youth talk about the differences between Russian and British students. "In Britain the vast majority of students work part or full-time while studying," I say. The students look puzzled. Their heavy workload - lectures seven hours a day, plus home assignments five days a week would leave no time to work. And anyway, what would they do?
"In Britain, students do anything," I explain, "work in shops, in restaurants." The students look even more puzzled. In Russia these jobs, with access to food and merchandise, are heavily sought-after, huge bribes are paid to secure them. In fact, there is very little legal unskilled work available. These students do not need to work. The grant they get may only pay for a one-month season ticket on the metro, but if they pass the entrance exams to university, education is still free. They are all Muscovites and all still live at home. And their parents can support them.
For those less fortunate there are few options. The disastrous "reforms" of the 1980s and 1990s - when the government withdrew much of its financial support from higher education in an attempt to make it self-financing - led, in the words of Victor Sadovnichy, vice-chancellor of Moscow State University, "to a catastrophic financial situation in academic establishments, which led to a sharp deterioration in the social and economic position of the whole range of pedagogical personnel with tangible results on the quality of life of young people".
The reforms led to an increasing divide - not only between rich and poor, but between town and country too. In those secondary schools with close university links, only a third of the sixth-formers come from working-class families. In rural Russia there are four times fewer university opportunities than there are for town dwellers.
In universities such as Moscow State, 40 per cent of revenue is now from commercial activities. Fee-paying students narrow opportunities for the non-fee-payers. Private universities mushroom. Standards have declined as the best teachers have left the state sector to work in the private sphere because of low pay. Drop-out rates among school children have escalated with dramatic increases in underage crime.
Against the background of falling production and changing requirements for the economy and industry, out-of-date educational values and qualifications are seen by many as irrelevant.
But Professor Sadovnichy believes the Putin government will initiate new cooperation between government and education. The honeymoon with unfettered capitalism is over and it is time for the state to pick up its responsibilities and the education purse and to curb the private sector.
Putin has said that he will close the private "externals" - crammers, which cream off the more affluent and ambitious for the last two years of their school life to coach them for university entrance. With applications to universities nationwide down by more than a third, there has been talk of abandoning entrance exams to all universities - insisting only on the school-leavers' exam.
The universities are diversifying, modernising and introducing new courses and western degrees, BAs and MAs, alongside the traditional five-year Russian degree. The Russian government has decided to expand the school programme from ten to 12 years. Children will start one year earlier, at six and finish one year later, at 18. Critics point out that if the private schools are closed this will cause more hardship for teachers who try to combine teaching in the state sector (at 33 pence per hour) and private sector (at Pounds 12 per hour). They will be forced to leave the profession completely. And it will do nothing to combat drop-out rates in schools. A complete revision of the school programme is needed, making it more relevant to changing economic circumstances in Russia.
Many educationalists, however, support Vladimir Putin. In Moscow, street cleaners, in numbers unseen since before 1991, are indulging in a frenzy of activity, sweeping the streets clean of years of grime and litter. It is hoped that Putin will also sweep away the years of decline and demoralisation in education.
The new draught proposal "Doctrine on the Development of Education in Russia" spells out the need for government support and involvement in higher education as a vital factor in regenerating the country's economy and initiating technological innovation. Written by Professor Sadovnichy, the president of the Union of Vice-Chancellors, it has the support of his colleagues and many government ministers and of Putin himself. Professor Sadovnichy believes it will mean the end of years of decline in the Russian education system. "We have reached a turning point," he says. "The worst is behind us." Let us hope so.
Pieta Monks is Russian coordinator of the open language programme at the University of North London.