IN THE half-light of an early November morning, frost in the air and ice on the ground, a lot of places would have some claim to beauty. Tomsk, in Siberia, looks good at any time. The main street is lined with the elegant buildings of its three universities, and, with its trees and parks, it recalls the better end of Cambridge.
People come from all over Russia and the now independent republics to study in a town which developed its reputation as a centre of culture in Tsarist days. It was used as a dumping ground for dissident intellectuals, who were exiled there but then allowed to do much as they pleased. It pleased them to establish libraries, debating groups, theatres and publishing houses, and, eventually, institutes of higher education.
Like their equivalents in other countries, these benefactors were stronger on the arts and sciences than on metal-bashing, and they omitted to found any technical colleges, which had to wait for the less enlightened and altogether more utilitarian Stalinist era.
As in many other Russian towns, the pattern of vocational education in Tomsk has been a scatter of monotechnic institutions, taking youngsters at 14 and preparing them for a lifetime of employment in one of the vast state-run industrial complexes that were the main features of the command economy. Consulting their five-year plans, factory managers would commission from their affiliated college so many millers, grinders or welders with the required skills at a pre-determined level, to be delivered at a given date.
Most of that has gone now and the colleges are trying to find new curricula, new markets, and a new role in the economy. A KnowHow funded project aims to assist them to take on some of the features of United Kingdom colleges, notably our alleged responsiveness and our internationally recognised qualifications system. Indeed, staff and students in two Tomsk colleges have been awarded British qualifications in English, business studies and computer-aided design.
All is, however, not well in the college system. Still funded by the tax-payers, the colleges are suffering badly from the fact that people are not paying their taxes. The national tax yield has been only 30 per cent of the planned figure, and key groups of state employees, including the armed forces, nurses and teachers have simply not been paid. In the case of those working in the colleges, no salaries have been paid for four months and the expectation is that the lost months will never be made up.
It is hard to keep up your enthusiasm for institutional and curriculum change when your thoughts are on whether you have enough potatoes to see you through the winter. During our visit there was a polite little strike in protest at not being paid, leaving the principals of the colleges with the tricky problem of how much money to deduct from the brown envelopes of staff who are not receiving any in the first place.
The other part of the two-tone economy is in better shape. Money is revolving at a brisk pace round the markets, the small shops and the providers of personal services. The local television channel has a permanently running subtitle of advertisements for transport services, computer installation and repair, and candle-lit restaurants. Lamp-posts in the town act as noticeboards for banks, insurance companies and solicitors.
So there is money about, and some of it is being spent in the colleges. We saw a class of fee-paying mature students doing a management course in a college which three years ago offered only craft-level mechanical engineering. They were delighted with the course, and would use their new skills and knowledge in their jobs.
There are whole parts of the vocational education system in Russia gasping for rationalisation. Tomsk, not dissimilar in size to Liverpool, has a dozen colleges. Liverpool has just the one. Each Tomsk college is tiny by UK standards and, the example given above notwithstanding, mainly monotechnic. Students are overtaught, classes are small, and the student/staff ratio comfortably in single figures. Although the planning process has ground to an embarrassed halt, the vigour of the full market-driven model has not yet replaced it. There is still precious little part-time provision, income generation is unsystematic, and the colleges are left twisting in the uncertain air currents of the new political climate.
As in the UK, more thinking time is given to schools and universities than to colleges, and the only long-term guidance they have received lately was that they should plan for receiving no money at all from the state within two or three years. Closures loom, and the survivors will be those colleges which have found their niche and developed it like mad. Hence the interest of our Tomsk partner colleges in being accredited to offer British qualifications, which are to the Russian ones what the pound is to the collapsing rouble.
A year ago the more energetic colleges were dallying with higher education, hoping to conclude franchise or validation arrangements. Now they have had the brush-off, as the temperature drops and the universities turn in on themselves.
It is no good looking to Moscow, an alien capital of a foreign land as far as Siberia is concerned. The solution will have to be a local and regional one, and that is part of the problem: there is no logical reason for Tomsk to be as big as it is. Swollen in wartime by the inward transfer of wartime industry from those parts of Russia in the range of Luftwaffe bombers, maintained thereafter by political patronage and lucrative defence contracts, it has had a bitter dividend from perestroika.
The town will have to grow new employment fast, or shrink to the size which can be supported by its rural and forest hinterland. Cambridge, where the wind also whips off the Urals, managed it. Tomsk is optimistic about its own chances.
Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College.