|Education and Production in the Russian Federation: What are the Lessons? (IIEP, 1997, 76 p.)|
|Chapter II. The Russian experience of education cum production|
In secondary schools, production is a somewhat artificial appendage, forcing students to perform tasks which are not at all in line with what they expect to do later or with the core subjects taught. When the school emphasis may be on mathematics or science, they engage in repetitive woodwork or electrical assemblies, as a matter of pedagogical doctrine, without a full sense of commitment.
In contrast, these manual activities are the very essence of what graduates of vocational and technical schools do. Therefore, these schools go deeper than any others into training cum production activities. And just about all of them engage in production, in contrast to the ineffectual situation within academic secondary schools. In them, production is no longer a side activity but the central core of the programme, engaging the students in longer hours and in more complex production which tends to be related to the trades offered by the school. In fact, most students master the entire productive cycle of their trades. They become real workers. To Western observers, the quality of the work is disappointing, but that is another issue.
Textile schools have spinning machines and looms which produce fabric that is sold on the market. Car-mechanic schools repair vehicles for outside clients. Agricultural schools produce grain or cattle for the market at large - in fact, some of them end up being major agricultural enterprises with a school appended.
Mechanical schools receive orders to machine parts and assemblies from the enterprise with which they are associated.
The typical vocational or technical school was built in order to prepare trained personnel for a given enterprise. It was located very near the enterprise and depended on this enterprise for equipment, instructors for the practical activities, internships and jobs for the graduates. In line with this symbiotic relationship, the factories used to subcontract with the school for the manufacturing or assembly of the parts it needed in its own production lines. For instance, a school in Minsk, across the street from a tractor factory, had its students busy machining wheels and other parts for the tractors. This was considered a suitable arrangement for the schools, as it provided practical experience to students and some extra revenue that was always welcome.
In addition, there used to be an elaborate central system for the production of training and pedagogical equipment. Each individual school was put in charge of a set of items and a central agency of the Ministry of Education produced an illustrated catalogue listing all the equipment available. This agency also sold the equipment to the other schools in the country. Together, these schools produced 3,500 different items, some of them quite complex and sophisticated. Russian schools, both vocational and academic, always relied heavily on practical and laboratory classes. Practically all the physics, biology and chemistry school laboratories used equipment produced by the technical and vocational schools. For instance, many schools in Moscow have in their laboratories a very large programmable calculator - bigger than an attaché case - used to teach students how to use and programme their hand-held counterparts.
These instruments were one of the main production items of vocational and technical schools. In the period of the Soviet Union, there were 7,000 technical and vocational schools. This is the size of the demand from these schools alone. When we add the 60,000 or more academic schools (primary and secondary), we can gauge the size of the market for this equipment.
Hence, production at technical and vocational schools is taken far more seriously than production in academic schools. Compared to the amateurish and somewhat precarious production processes of academic schools, vocational and technical institutions can be quite competent. After all, the skills involved are their main concern.
Most vocational schools also had elaborate schemes to produce consumer goods or subcontract the fabrication of parts from local factories. The number of hours spent in production workshops is considerable (it used to be one day per week, but present patterns are more varied) and by the time they graduate, students have a very good idea - one way or another - of what factory production is about.
However, the financial crisis has completely destroyed these lines of production. Schools no longer buy classroom equipment. They do not have the resources, even though their equipment is obsolete, worn out or both. They lack resources to buy equipment because they no longer can find customers to buy the equipment that used to provide them with the revenues. They have entered the classical vicious circle of poverty.
In addition, factories do not need the help - or the competition - of schools with their own production lines. Most of them can barely produce enough to keep their workers busy. It makes no sense to subcontract to schools when they have idle capacity in their own workshops.
Quite clearly, the picture of production inside technical schools has changed considerably. The statistics predating the collapse of the Soviet Union are of no use in understanding the present situation.
To obtain a better picture of what has happened recently with regard to production in schools, 25 vocational school principals from Pyatigorsk (Stavropol krai) were given a questionnaire to fill in. The results gave some indications of the situation, even if they cannot be considered as representative of the country. Unfortunately, it is highly improbable that better data covering a broader sample can have been collected on the subject.
Five of the principals stated that their workshops were used for at least five years to produce directly for the market. Two indicated that this has happened in the last two to three years, and five, 'very recently'. Nine are planning to sell their output in the market. Only five schools are not interested in marketing their products. In other words, only one fifth of the sample is not turning to the production of goods for the market as a means of increasing revenues.
These are very telling data. Stavropol is a poor southern province of the Russian Federation, quite removed from the effervescence of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Anything that happens in Stavropol must also be common to other parts of Russia.
What this survey tells us is that schools are moving at a high speed towards finding direct markets for their production. The collapse of the school equipment network and the lack of demand from their parent factories meant that vocational and technical schools were left on their own. This survey also means that schools are reacting. If nobody comes in to tell them what to produce and to buy it, they have to go out and find out what it is that the market wants.
From passive managers of goods contracted by other institutions, they have to become aggressive salesmen of whatever they think the market might buy from them.
Ministers of training discuss with school principals how to sell apricot marmalade and how much to charge per kilo. Schools envisage their transformation into tourist hotels, if they happen to be located in attractive areas. Apparel formerly sold through the parent enterprises now has to be sold in stores that are being improvised or to the new retailers that are mushrooming around the country. This means that the school has to make critical decisions concerning design, fashion and pricing. To sum up, schools were collective enterprises, working through the web of public networks and receiving contracts from their direct sponsors. Now they are becoming capitalist enterprises, selling in an open market, like everybody else.
In many ways, production in Russian schools is becoming more like production in the schools of the developing world. Instead of a centrally programmed activity, supplying the parent enterprise or a central buying agency, it is now left to the initiative of the individual schools. There are, however, two main differences. First, they have had time to learn, when things were easier and automatic. Second, they are forced to do it, due to the financial crisis which has had a profound effect on them, as will be discussed later.