Uwe Gartenschlaeger

It is a daring enterprise to give an overview of Russian adult education at the present time. There is too much uncertainty, the different regions of the country vary too widely from each other, and social circumstances and the regulatory framework are unclear and constantly changing. The attempt made here, with the focus on non-governmental organizations in adult education, is based on the author’s four years’ experience of working between 1995 and 1999 as Director of the IIZ/DVV Project Office in St. Petersburg. The aim of the programme, which is sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, is to help Russian sponsoring bodies to manage their transformation and to build up adequate provision and suitable structures. The assessments given here are thus chiefly based on personal experience and only to a lesser degree on the evaluation of research literature, which is sparse in any case. – Since 1999, Uwe Gartenschlaeger has been a staff member of IIZ/DVV working especially on projects in Central and Eastern Europe.

The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations in Russian Adult Education

Notes on the Situation of AE in Russia

The term AE (obrazovaniye vzroslich) is in fact unknown in Russian and is a translation that has been widely adopted from Western languages only in recent years – like so much else in modern Russia. In the Soviet Union, the term that was used to indicate provision for adults was rather "uninterrupted" (neprerivnoye) or "additional" (dopolnitelnoye) education. The teaching content was in these cases closely tied to vocational subjects, while other areas of AE such as cultural or political education were regarded more as belonging to the sphere of propaganda or leisure activities and were offered in the appropriate environment of cultural centres, etc. This absence of a tradition of an overall awareness of all aspects of AE has become apparent today in the drafting of a proposed Continuing Education Act, in which interested pressure groups have been attempting with some success to have vocational AE recognized as the only form of AE that is worthy of support.

Besides this narrowness of view, there are other burdens of history with which Russian AE has to contend:

  • First of all, there is its poor image. In the Soviet Union there were three "motivations" for taking part in AE, and none of the three provided much of a positive incentive. There were, firstly, compulsory lectures on political and social topics, most of which were given to groups of workers who were obliged to listen collectively, or simply to "put up with them". Lectures on topics such as "The Foreign Policy of Costa Rica" at the Norilsk Hairdressers’ Collective, or "The Decisions of the nth Party Conference of the CPSU", are legendary and attendance was of course obligatory. Next, AE was aimed largely at adults who had failed to pass their secondary-school leaving examinations for some reason or other or had not successfully completed vocational training, and this gave it the reputation of being for "failures" and social misfits. The most important feature of most "additional education" provision, however, was that participation was compulsory, a factor that was diametrically opposed to the principle of voluntarism that rightly predominates nowadays and still leads many people to feel a deep revulsion towards any form of AE.
  • One direct consequence of this low esteem was that it was often second and third-rate members of the nomenklatura who were appointed to AE. As a result it is still possible to come across a few non-conformist, creative individuals, but the traditional sponsoring bodies are frequently staffed by somewhat frustrated former Party and Comsomol cadres who look back with nostalgia to the privileged all-round care of the "good old days".
  • One of the other significant legacies of the heavy reliance on state and/or party in the USSR is the strongly marked passivity of the traditional sponsors of AE in relation both to funding and to form and content.
  • Lastly, a further consequence of the Soviet system is a fatal obsession with gaining degrees and certificates. In this "certificated learning", which is familiar also from other sectors of education, the process and content of learning are clearly regarded as less important: what matters is merely to gain a formal qualification.

In the light of these historical burdens it is not surprising that AE is today the poor relation in Russian education, a circumstance which – except among those affected – gives rise to no noticeable protest and is evidently not considered by the wider public as anything to worry about. Since this disregard by the state and policy-makers for the requirements of continuing education was in my view one of the factors leading to the growth of NGOs in this field, some of the major features of the continuing education scene should be mentioned:

  • The number of state AE establishments has fallen dramatically. Many polytechnical secondary schools (PSS), which were important providers of vocational education in the Soviet era, have closed down their evening courses for adults for lack of funds and only offer a small number of retraining courses for the unemployed, with employment service funding. Evening schools, at which it used to be possible belatedly to acquire school-leaving certificates, have concentrated exclusively on young people who are described as "difficult to educate", a task for which the state and local authorities are still providing funding.
  • Much of the system of inservice training for employees that had been based on enterprises broke down with the privatization or bankruptcy of the sponsors. The only nationwide provision that remains is that of inservice training institutes for teachers and medical staff, since education and health services are still largely state-run and have therefore been able to maintain their structures, albeit with difficulty.
  • Establishments of cultural education (palaces of culture and cultural centres, museums and libraries) face grave financial problems; many have already closed, especially in rural areas, and others are being used for quite different purposes, as furniture warehouses or amusement arcades, for example.

Instead of giving material support to AE, the state and some of its institutions are trying to make money from continuing education. Very many institutes, libraries, museums and universities, and even the employment service, provide fee-paying courses from which they hope to enhance their scanty budgets. A few more details will be given of the last two types of institution mentioned.

In the Russian Federation there can hardly be a higher education institution left which does not run fee-paying courses. It is indeed the modern or fashionable subjects for which substantial fees have to be paid by school-leavers and interested adults wishing to begin a second degree or hoping to improve their chances in the labour market with an appropriate qualification. The not inconsiderable level of fees for such provision can be demonstrated from 1997 figures for St. Petersburg, where the fees for one semester (half-year) in "management" were between $ 1250 and 2500. St. Petersburg State University alone has eleven such "special faculties" which are, unlike the rest of the teaching provision, run as commercial subsidiaries, well equipped and able to offer a superior level of service to students.

Another player in the AE market is the employment service (in Russian: centr zanyatosti), which should actually be concerned with paying unemployment benefit, arranging jobs and funding and referring students to inservice training courses. In many cities, this agency – often set up with appreciable Western aid – has training centres that are well equipped by Russian standards and were originally intended for vocational training courses that were to be free of charge. In the light of the major fall in income from social security contributions in recent years, the employment service has now gone over to turning its good technical facilities into money by providing courses not only for its own clientele but also for the general public, on payment of course of the appropriate fee. It is self-evident that these activities are not viewed kindly by competitors. The director of PSS No. 9 in Smolensk, where the employment service has what is by Russian standards an excellent training centre, the development of which was given considerable support by Swedish and Scottish partners, expresses his anxieties as follows:

"State policy in this field should be uniform, which it is currently not. The PSS system was well-equipped physically and had good teachers, and today the employment service is its competitor. There is talk of a more rational use of state funds. If a PSS is capable of retraining people, it should be given the opportunity to do so. And the employment service can then find the jobs, make up the groups of people needing retraining and monitor their entry into work. Of course, it is financially beneficial for the employment service to provide courses itself. There is a lot of money in it. Marble floors in the centres...while the PSS’s are shutting up shop for want of demand. "

One thing is clear from this statement: if one goes about it the right way, one can make money out of AE in today’s Russia. That is the reason why many state agencies that previously had nothing to do with education are now offering a range of options, and why a huge number of commercial organizations are vying for custom. It is a logical consequence, which need not be discussed here, that the spectrum ranges from serious language and computer schools to charlatans who promise to cure alcoholism in three days or to teach Chinese in ten. What matters is that money can be earned from it – the NGOs working in it are profiting too, unlike most other NGOs operating in Russia, whose income from activities is of far less significance than that from membership fees and funds from domestic and foreign sponsors.

NGOs – An Alien Being in Russian Society

Before we return to the question of this remarkable market orientation, a few words need to be said about the shape and role of NGOs in Russia.

The term NGO comes the Anglo-Saxon world and causes a few problems in describing the situation in Russia. There exists in Russia the formal designation "social organization" (obs?cestvennaja organizacija), and there is even a Russian "Social Associations Act" (zakon ob obs?cestvennich ob’edenenijach) dating from 1995. However, what an organization actually does, and its position in the workings of power, are of greater relevance than its formal designation as "social". The former Soviet "social organizations", which still have quasi-sovereign powers in some fields of activity and belong to the nomenklatura of the city or region, exist alongside small grassroots groups – NGOs – which were founded by influential individuals in order to skim off particular funds, and other NGOs which have been founded on the Western model and are often entirely dependent on their foreign "sponsors".

Another peculiarity of Russian NGOs is their extremely poor image among the population. In a survey of attitudes towards charitable NGOs, conducted by the British Charity Aid Foundation in Moscow in late 1994, respondents gave the following answers to the question "Who do you believe has philanthropic views?":

– Any decent person: 70%

– Anyone who has suffered want himself/herself: 69%

– The church, religious organizations: 55%

– The state: 23% (!)

– Foreign charitable organizations: 11%

– Rich people: 7% (!)

– Businesses and businesspeople: 6%

– Russian charitable organizations: 4%

The hierarchy revealed in this survey is in my view a very accurate reflection of attitudes in post-Soviet Russia. First of all, one relies on oneself and on people one knows to be "good" or "decent", with the state and business a long way behind, and the social sector given hardly a thought.

The Market as the Dominant Factor for Russian AE Providers...

We now come back to the market orientation of Russian AE and to its consequences. Semyon G. Vershlovskii from the St. Petersburg Institute of Adult Education, part of the Russian Academy of Education, has expressed the situation as follows:

"The market itself and the adult in the market – all this is an extraordinary stimulus for the development of additional provision for the adult population, the vast majority of it in the vocational arena and aiming at increased mobility, training for a second career or the opening up of new opportunities in life...everything is becoming commercialized and purely pragmatic. It sets out to satisfy the specific requirements of the world we live in."

I should like to add a third trend to those mentioned by Vershlovskii, "commercialization" and "pragmatism". This is the "flexibility" needed by organizations working in Russia. Only those which are able to adapt very rapidly to changing needs can survive in the medium and long term. Here, I believe, lies the secret of the significant role played by NGOs in the AE sector. No one can adapt more quickly to the changing needs of paying actors – or "clients", as they are called in Russia. Who are the "clients", with whom NGOs have to work, and what strategies have NGOs developed in order to address these target groups?

  • As already indicated, it is the participants themselves who cover the largest part of the costs of AE in Russia (whether as individuals or as companies buying in training for their employees). From my experience, I would estimate the figure to be around 80% (compared with just over a third in Germany). For the institutions it is therefore vital to adapt quickly to public demand. This can be summarized, with one exception to be mentioned later, chiefly as provision which is thought to promise direct (usually material) benefit in terms of improved living conditions. The greatest demand is therefore for vocational education, primarily in commercial subjects, computing, languages (but only in major cities, unlike Central and Southeast Europe, where languages predominate – which is evidence of Russian isolation[ism]), driving, hairdressing, massage, dacha construction, and so on.
  • The exception referred to is the fee-paying provision already mentioned, an area which has grown in recent years in profusion and confusion. Alongside reputable state and private universities are numerous new foundations of dubious quality, based on institutes and training colleges. The St. Petersburg "Znanie" Association, a Union-wide social organization founded over 50 years ago to propagate knowledge of the natural sciences and state and party propaganda, has for example set up a university with the euphonious title of "Institute of Export Relations, Economics and Law" which sells its courses and qualifications throughout the country via the network of "Znanie" organizations and has become a main source of income for many branches. Such educational businesses may perhaps be drawing on the respect still paid in Russia to higher education qualifications, especially in fashionable subjects such as law, management, etc., and particularly if from "higher education institutions" in Moscow and St. Petersburg. It is only of secondary importance whether these courses meet the needs of the economy and society. People are willing to part with large sums of money in order to attain such a goal.
  • A second "client" of AE institutions is the state, whose importance as a source of funding or "client" is, as has already been pointed out, far inferior to that of the participants "off the street". The market laws of supply and demand, price and quality hardly apply in this case. Rather, it is a question of institutions finding their way around the complex relationships or power between local and federal authorities, "knocking on doors" and softening up servants of the state with favours of varying magnitude. The status of the head of an AE institution within the local nomenklatura naturally plays an important part, and this has to be maintained through a process of give and take. In this context, the major partners for AE are the employment service (see above) and the electoral commission, which regularly has its own budget to allocate in the run-up to elections in order to "enlighten" the population about their rights and duties, which in practice often means supporting the election campaigns of the candidates put up by those in power. Another distinct key function of the state should be mentioned, which leads to heavy dependency on the part of NGOs: the state licensing of institutions and certificates. While the former is a basic requirement for official educational activity, institutions also need licences to issue certificates, since there is almost no competition with state degrees and certificates, which are wrongly regarded as proof of competence.
  • In this overview, cooperation with Western partners and donor organizations only comes third. This is not the place to philosophize about the wisdom or – to borrow a fashionable term – sustainability of Western support for Russian NGOs. Instead, we should concentrate on two aspects that need to be borne in mind in an analysis of the situation of NGOs in the field of AE. The first is something that has already been mentioned, namely that the financial importance to partners of Western support comes in third place, behind student fees and state funding. This naturally does not mean that no individual NGO lives primarily off Western funds. In such cases, the responsibility of the foreign organization is particularly great, and it should constantly ask itself questions about the viability and/or aims of such an arrangement, independently of its Russian partner. However, as has been said, such cases are far from being the rule in AE. As a consequence, the Russian sponsoring bodies are very aware of their roles in relation to Western partners. The second aspect has been described as follows by the head of the NGO support centre in St. Petersburg: "The West is creating a new type of nomenklatura. While it used to be necessary to be a member of the Communist Party in order to have certain privileges, nowadays one has to arrange one’s affairs so that they can be understood by a Western foundation." There are many factors governing membership of this "nomenklatura": location (metropolis or provinces), knowledge of languages, ability to travel and, frequently, chance. Many partners have by now learnt to be experts at handling key words that count in the West, making sure that they include terms such as "community working", "NGO support", "sustainability" or "civil society" in their project proposals.

...and the Consequences for the NGOs

The market orientation has a considerable effect on NGOs’ self-image. The values they aim for are flexibility, professionalism and efficiency. The concern with material resources, market position (with all the radical changes which the term "market" implies in Russia) and competition takes priority over what they actually do. They will provide whatever anyone wants, for whatever reason. Hence, AE institutions are turning into branches of commercial universities targeting young people, or are offering extra coaching in school subjects for the children of parents who are able to pay. This market orientation is, however, somewhat forced among those involved. The prevailing opinion is in fact that the state should be responsible for all these activities but cannot fulfil its obligations for the time being. The hope that it will recover nonetheless remains alive.

There is another distinguishing feature of NGOs in the AE sector, and very probably of most Russian NGOs: the fixation with the figure of a leader. The institution stands or falls with him or her (AE is predominantly a female preserve, even at management level), and all lines of communication and decision-making converge on this one person. This effect is perhaps not to be wondered at even in newly founded organizations. I was aware throughout my four years as head of the Project Office of this thoroughly traditional pattern of a structure rooted in personal relationships, even in the regional "Znanie" organizations. Only a few bodies have succeeded in changing their structures so that they function reliably with clearly delegated areas of responsibility.

As already indicated, the almost exclusive market orientation of Russian sponsoring bodies has led to neglect of important sectors of AE. The reasons for this are not solely a matter of material advantage, as will be demonstrated by a comparison of the "political education" and "senior citizens’ education" sectors. In my experience, there is limited interest in topics related to what is modestly called in Russia "civic education". There are some enthusiasts who pursue the subject, but they are either looking back fondly to the political propaganda system, unlike the majority of the population, or struggling against the tide as "lone warriors", and this essentially reflects the lack of interest shown even by adult educators in new, democratic political education. The picture is quite different in senior citizens’ education. Given the social circumstances of older people in Russia, there is hardly any money to be made in this field either; rather, it is likely that a fair proportion of the costs will not be covered. The reaction to an initiative launched by the Project Office, in which we invited our partners to submit ideas for this topic, was therefore all the more surprising. In addition to an exceptionally large response, it was revealed that some establishments were already providing such activities at their own expense, a unique phenomenon in my experience, and quite unthinkable in other areas of education. One partner explained the situation by the thought, which he attributed to Pushkin, that one can recognise the moral condition of a society by how it treats its old people. As is evident, the market is thus not always and everywhere the determining factor, but the exceptions are few and far between, and do not always coincide with Western expectations.

Lack of Lobby Groups for AE

The final aspect I shall raise is a phenomenon which causes a number of difficulties and affects NGOs generally, not only in the field of AE. This is the inability, and often the unwillingness, to establish or maintain nationwide structures, umbrella organizations or interest groups. Newly founded NGOs generally have no interest in banding together in associations with like aims or setting up networks to exchange experience and information. Rather, they regard their own contacts and the background knowledge they have acquired as their own capital to be hidden as far as possible from groups which they see as competitors. While there are extremely few networks operating at regional level, nationwide bodies face far greater problems. Mistrust of any form of centralism is compounded by Moscow’s weakness and loss of importance at all political levels, so that the members of the umbrella organizations that do exist do not think it a priority to seek effective representation among federal ministries and agencies. In the case of the traditional organizations, and in relation to AE in the case of the frequently cited "Znanie" Association, the position is complicated by the inability of the management committees to adapt to the organization’s new role of providing effective services and advocacy for the regions. As a consequence, there is now no central point of contact for matters concerning Russian AE, which is not the case in other countries in transition.

However, despite all the difficulties described above, it is certainly no longer possible to imagine Russian AE without NGOs, a fact that is unique throughout the education sector and, given the disastrous traditional Russian fixation with the state, is a small step towards the creation of a civil society in that vast land stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific.