Russians lag on the Western front

November 1, 1996

Russian university academics are lagging behind their east European colleagues in access to Western educational aid projects and the use of modern methods in social sciences teaching, according to preliminary results from a nine-country survey.

Academics from Russia, neighbouring Ukraine and Slovakia were least likely to have studied, attended conferences or travelled in the West. The number of Western visiting lecturers was also lower for Russia. Estonia had more Western contacts, reflecting ties with its Scandinavian neighbours.

Exposure to Western academic practices, through exchanges, conferences, visiting lecturers and resource support, had an overall positive effect on the use of new teaching materials, the study by the Budapest-based Civic Education Project, a George Soros-backed initiative, found.

The survey of economics, law and social sciences departments in 75 universities in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Estonia found marked relationships between the exposure of administrators, teachers and students to Western university methods and the adoption of teaching materials from Europe and the United States.

But foreign exposure seemed to have little effect on changing classroom teaching practices. Those academics who had studied, travelled or attended conferences in the West were less likely to use "active teaching methods" in class than those who had not.

Daniel Calingaert, the project director, said, during a Moscow seminar on the survey, that the adoption of active teaching methods such as classroom debates, role playing, laboratory work and case studies was an important measure of modernisation in social sciences teaching. "The more central and east European teachers went abroad, the more Western methods they would use."

Active teaching methods were used on average about 47 per cent of the time in the faculties, but across 71 of the universities, rising to 55 per cent in Russia and 58 per cent in Slovakia, foreign travel seemed to play a negative role, reducing the inclination of these academics to use such methods.

Explanations included the possibility that academics who travel abroad are more likely to be research-focused or feel it easier to introduce Western teaching materials than spend the time and trouble to change their curriculum and classroom style.

The survey, the first of its kind and funded by three leading American charitable foundations, the Melon, the Ford and the Smith-Richardson, had response rates higher than 78 per cent from 510 teachers, 70 departmental administrators and 1,300 undergraduate students.

It found that since January 1992 more than 60 per cent of respondents had travelled abroad for academic purposes and 1.6 per cent had attended conferences. Overall 17 per cent had studied in the West.

Nearly 37 per cent of the teaching materials used in the departments in 73 of the universities were from the West, with domestic materials accounting for 46 per cent. Estonia, Lithuania and Romania all scored highly on the measure of Western teaching materials, but Russian universities used an average of 20 per cent.

Older, more experienced staff were found to be more likely to adopt changes in their approach and curriculum, confounding notions that staff schooled in Communist-era academia tended to conservativism. The survey results are being presented at seminars throughout the nine countries before representatives from Western donor agencies and the universities meet at the Salzburg Seminar in Austria in January 1997 to discuss policy development in regional aid programmes.

The survey suggests that Russia and the former Soviet states still need greater exposure to Western academic approaches and teaching methods, he added.

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