“Russian education is in a transitional phase” – Medvedev

President Dmitry Medvedev focused on the current state of education in Russia during an interview with the national TV Channel Rossiya, saying the annual $57 billion allocated for education should be spent wisely.

The President spoke about both the elementary school and university education systems in Russia, as well as the widely-discussed national final school exam.

He also touched on the conclusions that must be drawn from the recent deadly explosion at the hydro-power plant in Russia’s Republic of Khakassia, which claimed some 70 lives, and the lessons that should be learned from the 20th Century’s greatest catastrophe, World War II, the grim anniversary of which is remembered on September 1.

Below is the full transcript of the interview on TV Channel Rossiya’s “News of the Week” programme with Dmitry Medvedev:

TV Channel Rossiya’s Yevgeny Revenko: Good evening, Mr President.

Dmitry Medvedev: Good evening, Yevgeny.

Yevgeny Revenko: With the new school year about to start on September 1, education is one of the most discussed subjects right now.

But first of all, I cannot but ask you about the disaster at the Sayano-Shushenskaya Hydroelectric Station.

Dmitry Medvedev: Yes, unfortunately, this is a very serious disaster, a tragic event that has taken place at one of our biggest hydroelectric facilities. I have already given an assessment of the situation, but I will summarize my view again now as four general points.

First, and most serious of all, is that people have lost their lives in this disaster. I made a statement specifically on this subject and instructed the Government to ensure that proper compensation is paid to the victims’ families. The necessary decisions have been taken and now must be carried out, although the saddest thing of all, of course, is that we cannot retrieve the lives lost.

Second, but no less important, I think that on the whole, the response in this situation was adequate. I will not jump ahead with conclusions on various technical matters, but I think it is absolutely clear that the rescue workers did a good job. I want to thank them for their good effort, for this difficult work and the, at moments, quite simply selfless spirit that they showed.

Third, we need to draw all the necessary conclusions from these events. First of all, we have to complete the investigation currently underway, including establishing the technical causes of the accident, identifying the main causes and secondary factors. Then, we need to carry out an investigation in accordance with the criminal-procedure laws to establish if there are individuals to be blamed for what happened. This is important for the situation now, and important for the future too.

Finally, my fourth point, we need to draw conclusions from this disaster regarding our present life and future plans. I am referring to our plans for the country’s modernization. I am not talking about the causes of this particular accident now. But we all know that it is the Soviet-era legacy that has kept this country running over these last years. It is this legacy that we have been using to produce electricity and establish new enterprises. This is the key issue we face today, this question of what kind of future we want to build, what shape we want to give our nation, what decisions we want to take so as to draw up the plans for modernizing our country and carrying out a technical overhaul. These four points are the most important, I think, and they are all directly related to this tragic disaster.

Yevgeny Revenko: Let’s turn now to education. First of all, I wanted to ask you how you view the Russian education system today. Many people still remember the Soviet education system, the best in the world, it was said. I, for one, went through the full Soviet school system.

Dmitry Medvedev: Yes, we all remember it well, and many still share the view that the Soviet education was the best in the world. I don’t want to apply any labels or argue for or against any particular points of view. All I will say is that it was quite a decent education system. It had a considerable number of good points and it also had some serious shortcomings. But it is not the education system that we need to prepare for the future. We realize that the Soviet education system had a number of problems, and I am not referring here to the ideological element, which was present of course. I am thinking of the fact that far from all universities were equal, for example. Even today there is still a big difference in education in the big cities and in smaller regional centres. I am not trying to refute that we had a good education system, but I think that our task now is to build a modern education system worthy of twenty-first century Russia.

Yevgeny Revenko: What is your view of the current state of education in our country?

Dmitry Medvedev: I think it is in a transition phase. The situation is better than it was in the 1990s, when teachers were earning practically nothing. I remember when I began teaching in university I had an absolutely laughable salary that worked out at about the equivalent of ten dollars a month. The main teaching programmes in many universities had all but collapsed, or else we were having to put them together again on the go, create something new, especially in the humanities.

We have achieved some progress of late, but we have still not yet managed to make a real leap forward. The Education National Project has been a step in the right direction, helping schools, raising teachers’ wages, introducing special scholarships for the best students, making it possible to buy new equipment for classrooms and give our schools a better technical base. As far as higher education goes, the best universities have received fairly considerable allocations from the budget. Overall, we are now spending around 1.8 trillion roubles a year on education. This is taking into account all the different sources of funding for education.

Yevgeny Revenko: This figure is for overall spending?

Dmitry Medvedev: This is the consolidated spending on education. This is an unprecedented level of spending compared to what we had in the 1990s. But this does not mean that we have solved all our problems. The fact remains though, that we now have money in the education system, and we have the desire to spend this money properly. I therefore think that we are in an interim phase. We are no longer at the low point, but we still have a lot of work to do on building a modern education system.

Yevgeny Revenko: Probably the hottest subject of discussion now is the national final school exam [EGE]. To enter university, students first have to pass this exam. The main motive behind its introduction, as I understand it, was to give students equal chances of access to universities, no matter where in the country they come from. Has it worked?

Dmitry Medvedev: I imagined myself just now in the place of those applying for university this year, and I envy them.

Yevgeny Revenko: You envy them?

Dmitry Medvedev: Yes, I envy them. Let me explain why. When I entered university, and it was no doubt the same for you too, it was altogether a very stressful situation. As if it wasn’t enough that we had to sit exams in school, we then had to sit entrance exams in the universities, and there we faced various uncertainties and a whole mass of other factors, not to mention plain old nerves before the exams. And also, let’s not close our eyes to what went on not so long ago, and many years ago, when I entered university. There were people who got in through connections, people who got in by making phone calls and handing over money. They got their places in the universities, and in so doing squeezed out students who had actually made a real effort to prepare.

Now, a lot depends on the individual students themselves. No matter how much the national final school exam is criticized, and it is not ideal, has not been in place for long, and naturally still needs improvement, but the fact remains that it is a system:

a) aimed at fighting corruption;

b) making the whole examination process a lot more transparent, and, as you said, it also gives equal chances to students from the provinces and those from the big cities.

This is already a big step forward.

Of course, there are difficulties too, arising, for example, from the fact that students apply for various universities at once, sometimes making dozens of applications, and so on.

Yevgeny Revenko: There is even a new term now – ‘educational tourism’. Just imagine someone going around dozens of universities, and there were indeed some enormous queues and chaos.

Dmitry Medvedev: These are all the downsides of the system, but I think these issues will sort themselves out. For a start, people did not really quite believe that they would not have to sit university entrance exams, that they would be able to get into university based on their national final school exam results alone, and so they were half-expecting that at some moment the authorities would suddenly change their minds and make them take entrance exams.

Then, students really were seized by this desire to apply to as many universities as possible. I think it should be possible to establish a carefully-chosen maximum in this respect. I have instructed the Education Ministry to decide on the maximum number of universities to which students can apply. Whether it’s five or ten, the matter is simply to set some kind of maximum limit. Even with a limit in place, students will still be motivated to be active in selecting the universities they want to apply for, and I think this is not such a bad thing.

Finally, we know that not everyone who enters university will actually stay there. The biggest test of all, no matter which university you study at, is to stay the distance. Remember what we used to say? You couldn’t count yourself a real student until you’d made it through your first exam session. It is the same today, only on a bigger scale.

Yevgeny Revenko: Another problem is the huge number of students who qualify for preferential entrance. There have been media reports of tens of thousands of fake certificates about preferential status or stating that so and so is an academic competition winner. It’s hard to believe that there are really 13,000 competition winners.

Dmitry Medvedev: Yes, this is a problem we need to sort out. These fake documents qualify for criminal prosecution, and so what we need to do in this situation is have the law enforcement authorities to establish what fake documents have been presented and by whom, and to punish the wrongdoers. Students guilty of presenting false documents should be expelled, and those who hand out such documents without justification should be made liable for their deeds.

As for the academic competitions, this is a more complicated matter, and the university rectors and regional educational institutions have a big responsibility here. If they organize these competitions they should ensure that a proper standard is met, because it is indeed the case that not all of these competitions are of the highest standard.

But at the same time, the fact that we have a lot of these competitions is not a bad thing in itself. It gives our children the chance to take part in this kind of event. All we need is to establish a clearer set of rules about which competitions give which rights. If we fix this situation all will work fine.

Yevgeny Revenko: But can we really have a situation in which any such competition gives its winners preferential entrance to any university?

Dmitry Medvedev: This is precisely the issue. I think that perhaps not every such competition should give carte-blanche for entrance to any university. But at the same time, there are competitions of a high standard and reputation, participation in which is the guarantee that these really are top students. But as I say, this is a matter of self-regulation. The university rectors need to meet and decide, within the Russian Rectors’ Union, which competitions give entitlement to which rights, and then we can approve this officially with the relevant government orders.

Yevgeny Revenko: What you are saying then is that the national final school exam is still new and will still undergo adjustments.

Dmitry Medvedev: Of course it will undergo adjustments. But overall, coming back to how I view the situation today, I am quite optimistic. I think that the system has demonstrated its best features. If we look at the hard facts, the statistics, even though not everyone believes them, practically all students entering university consider the system good and fair, and this view is shared by 70 percent of their parents. This is not a bad figure. Let’s see how things progress.

Yevgeny Revenko: You think this national final school exam is a justified test for young people to go through?

Dmitry Medvedev: Of course it is justified. I think that everyone has to go through tests in their lives in order to fully develop their personalities and demonstrate their best qualities. This exam, and the other national exams that take place before it, helps to build character, and I think this is right.

Yevgeny Revenko: Mr President, what about the system for professional technical education, the vocational schools? It seems that they have almost been abandoned. Will they live on and somehow develop, or die out and disappear?

Dmitry Medvedev: Professional education is absolutely necessary, because we need highly qualified workers and specialists who chose their careers to develop in some industry. Still, this education needs to be modern, rigorous, and provided by truly good, efficient professional schools or colleges. We should properly finance such schools. We have examined the subject within the Education National Project programme and agreed upon the shared financing of the technical colleges and professional schools with some of it coming from the federal budget and some of it coming from regional budgets. We had some good results, especially as we added a third component – businesses also need to invest in education, because it is most rewarding for companies. I believe it is a positive trend when big businesses acquire professional schools or engage in financing them. For example, there is nothing wrong about a technical college or professional school being owned and fully financed by a large company, as such company is thus making sure it will always have properly trained personnel. I have visited some schools like that and was impressed with the high quality training they provide. Among their students, one may find even university graduates, although I personally do not approve such practice.

Yevgeny Revenko: As I understand, it is impossible to have national modernization which we discussed earlier without high-quality education.

Dmitry Medvedev: That is absolutely true.

We have some good opportunities. There is no point in lamenting about the past and stating that everything collapsed back in the 1990s. Despite past and present financial hardships we have, after all, retained the backbone of our educational system.

When I talk with my foreign colleagues, all of them say, “True, you have a lot of problems, you have strains in your economy, you have outdated industrial machinery and equipment, still, your education system is outstanding and you absolutely must preserve it.”

Yevgeny Revenko: Mr President, now let’s talk about university education. What is your assessment of how things currently stand? I am referring to the number of colleges and universities we have, the quality of education they provide, and commercialization in this area.

Dmitry Medvedev: I can tell you my view on this matter, which is not only my view as the President, but also my view as a man who spent quite a long time studying, and then teaching. I think that we have a system of university education that is currently evolving. In the 1960s, we had about 500 institutions of higher learning, but today, we have significantly more – nearly two thousand. This signifies that we now have new private schools and that we have not yet created an optimal education system, although we do hope to create one within the next several decades.

Furthermore, our various colleges and universities do not all provide high quality education. While many of our traditional state universities are quite sound, despite various never-ending difficulties, I am much less certain about some of Russia’s private institutions of higher learning. In the 1990s, it was sufficient for employers just to see diplomas of candidates. They would see the subjects studied by, say, a graduate of a law department. If they saw the candidate had all top grades, a degree with honours, they did not think long and hired such a person.

Yevgeny Revenko: Indeed, they were obligated to hire.

Dmitry Medvedev: Not only were they obligated to hire such people, but they were confident they got what they wanted as they were sure those days that if an educational institution called itself a university, it was a guarantee of some reasonable fundamental education. But now, everyone understands: it doesn’t matter what a diploma says; what matters is what a person really learned at the university. I don’t believe that we should put more stress on this situation by forcing schools to close if they are not fully prepared to provide a thorough education. But there should be some adjustment, and the less rigorous schools must merge with reputed universities, which would be a normal, positive process. By the way, we have used this kind of approach in creating new educational centres, with smaller, struggling colleges being joined with better universities.

There is a widespread view that we have the highest ratio of university students in the world. That is not quite true. Many other nations have a significantly higher concentration of university students than we do, although we are ahead of some of the others. For example, the United States of America has fewer university students than we do, if we compare the ratio of students per 10,000 inhabitants.

Yevgeny Revenko: What about universities of the Federal Districts? While you were in the Cabinet, you supervised this project. How do things stand now? Is construction progressing? Are the universities furnished with equipment? Are professors hired?

Dmitry Medvedev: Yes, we have been able to make some progress, and this really was part of the Education National Project. We created two large universities, in the Siberian Federal District and in the Southern Federal District. They are currently hiring lecturers. Despite some difficulties, they are already accomplishing a lot. We allotted a significant funding toward these universities. Currently, they are striving to create the configuration of these schools, of the campuses where students can study and relax. But most importantly, we are really trying to improve the level of education. After all, what is most essential? Clearly, the reputation of the university is essential, but the reputation of the teachers is even more essential. Thus, we have tried to bring together the best professors, trying to form conditions conducive to mobility in education, with educators coming to give lectures from other Russian universities, and even from abroad. And in this respect, I believe we are making progress. This is a good example, and we are now trying to expand it. In addition to such universities in the Federal Districts, we are creating national research universities, which are first and foremost aimed toward developing innovation, in order to create new technology, inventions, and discoveries. We have funds in our budget allocated toward these purposes.

Yevgeny Revenko: I have another question about funding and education. Just recently, a law on establishing small businesses within universities was passed based on your initiative. What expectations do you have of this programme? Will universities be able to generate their own revenue?

Dmitry Medvedev: I hope so. This law was passed after a lot of work. I even had to use my authority for it to be approved quickly. Thus, I hope that in the fall, universities will start launching special small businesses on their campuses as they now have a legal framework for that.

I estimate that overall, such small businesses could provide jobs for up to 30,000 recent graduates – those who get university degrees. This may not happen immediately, but what’s important is that these companies will have opportunities to earn money. At the same time, their employees are able to stay at the university and continue their careers in science as well. We will need to monitor the process, but I think this idea is a very good one. Let’s see how it works out.

Yevgeny Revenko: Mr President, in your first Presidential Address, you said that the education system not only shapes individuals, but also forms the very way of life in a society, passing a nation’s values on to the next generation. It seems to me that in this case, teaching and researching history is of particular importance. And as everyone knows, official views on history in Russia change frequently. What is currently happening in our nation with regard to history?

Dmitry Medvedev: As far as the teaching of history is concerned, it is true that we have had a lot of gripes, especially in the 1990s, but we still have questions even today. Why is that? For entirely objective reasons. There was a time when we studied history using textbooks that were approved in a particular way, undergoing strict ideological editing and validation by top officials. These books provided certain holistic descriptions of what had happened in the past, what had transpired in the history of Russia and the rest of the world. Nowadays, there are many textbooks, and at a certain point, they can make your head spin, giving you the impression that history is viewed entirely differently. This part of the situation is objective.

The subjective part is that the various new history textbooks that have been published are far from being equal in terms of their quality. They were written by different people with different opportunities, different abilities, and different ideas. Some of these textbooks have a spiteful approach: “Many people accepted this view of history, but the reality was quite different, and I will describe it to you here.”

This is not good, because as a result, history is completely muddled in the minds of schoolchildren. I think that we need to bring some order to this process and a decision to do so has pretty much been passed. Currently, textbooks of this kind are undergoing expert assessment. And by this, I do not mean the expert opinion of one scholar, even if he or she is a star in the field, but rather, the expertise of major scientific centres, such as the Academy of Sciences. Only following this process can a textbook be recommended for use in school classrooms. As for the fact that schools can use different textbooks, I think that ultimately, that is a good thing, and it gives history teachers a special responsibility – the responsibility of selecting the textbook that he or she will recommend to our youngest citizens, our children.

The real issue is to ensure that certain clear moments in history are presented in the same way in all of these textbooks. We cannot define key events in completely opposing ways. We cannot label a country as an aggressor if it was merely defending itself or protecting its interests.

Yevgeny Revenko: You and I are talking today on the eve of an important historic date: September 1, the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War Two. Now, in Europe, there is an unbelievably wide range of assessments as to why this horrible tragedy was started. What are your thoughts on this matter?

Dmitry Medvedev: These events were the greatest tragedy of the 20th Century. It was a tragedy that took the lives of about 70 million people, according to various estimates, as this figure has never been fully determined. Thus, there can be no other view of those events. Of course, there is also the issue of how these events are interpreted in different nations. And here, unfortunately, there are some clear setbacks. Just 20 or 30 years ago, even within the so-called political and ideological blocs that stood in opposition to each other – by which I mean the West and the East, the Warsaw Treaty and NATO – everyone agreed that Nazism had been rightfully condemned by history and that Nazi criminals who were judged in the Nuremberg trials were serving out a just punishment. This was the case, even despite our differences in ideological approaches, which is why I specifically brought it up.

Now, we share relatively common values, and we no longer argue about what we see as the most important values in our societies, the values that should serve as the foundation for our nations, and how we should build our economies. Nevertheless, we are seeing some astounding trends. Governments in the Baltic States and even Ukraine are now essentially pronouncing former Nazi accomplices to be their national heroes who fought for the liberation of their nations. Of course, everyone knows what really happened, but everyone looks down in shame, so as to avoid souring relations.

There is another situation: the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly just recently grouped together Germany and the Soviet Union, pronouncing them to be equally responsible for World War Two. Now this, quite frankly, is a flat-out lie. One can have different attitudes toward the Soviet Union; one can be critical of the Soviet Union’s political regime and the leaders of what was then our country, but this is the very issue I was just talking about – the issue of who started the war, which country killed people and which country saved people, millions of people, and which country ultimately saved Europe.

I have one final thought regarding this matter. We really must treat our history with a lot of care, especially concerning those issues that were assessed in the same way throughout the world. We cannot destroy the institutions that were formed as a result of those tragic events. We cannot disregard all those things in order to favour some states that are currently developing and are in the process of forming their national identity. We must think about the future. And this, I think, is one of the most important lessons that can be learned from the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the 20th Century’s greatest catastrophe – the beginning of World War II.

Yevgeny Revenko: Thank you, Mr President, for the conversation.

Dmitry Medvedev: Thank you.