Siberian lessons;Further Education

5th November 1999 at 00:00
PEOPLE always laugh when I say that I am going to Siberia. Since their perceptions are salt mines, gulags and 40 below, it's not easy to see what's so funny about the place.

In fact, I go quite regularly now, and before anybody shouts "junket" let me make clear that it's not the college that pays, but the British government through the Know-How fund, which was set up to provide support for the former Soviet Union countries in their efforts to modernise their economies.

In any case junket is not an adequate description of tepid sausages of uncertain ancestry, eaten in a motionless queue in a low-tech airport, in the expectation of an all-night flight to a destination with a poor nuclear-safety record.

The purpose of my most recent visit, and of the Know How project, is to assist the Polytechnic University of Tomsk to put together units of a degree in environmental management.

The issue is not about the content, the Russians know perfectly well what they need to cover to address the deeply serious matter of systematic pollution going back decades. The whole country would make an excellent site for our Health and Safety Executive, who would have a wonderful time closing everything down.

The intention is that the degree will have outcomes expressed in behavioural competencies and key skills. So, a good debate on the nature of curriculum, whose features are familiar to anyone working in a British college, and one which might usefully be repeated in a few groves of academe over here.

The Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU) is one of the best in Russia, and in the old pre-perestroika days had research departments whose sole client was the ministry of defence. Some of the nastier bits of weaponry which used to be pointed at us were developed in its laboratories and workshops.

Nowadays it's different. The government contracts have dried up, and the researchers are looking for new applications for their discoveries, and new markets for their products. They are finding them in Europe and the USA. Matching skills to the needs of a changed market is not a new concept for British further education colleges, nor is the attempt to replace government money with other sources.

But the TPU, along with other Siberian post-compulsory institutions, is not just attempting the painful transition from political and educational isolation to membership of an open, worldwide network. It is finding out at first hand that when an economy gets into trouble, people turn to education as the best hope of escape from unemployment and poverty.

Not that only the unemployed are short of the readies: many of those who work in the public sector in Russia, including schools and colleges, are paid only intermittently and partially. It crossed my mind more than once to wonder why they continue to show up for work, and also how our public employees would react if they were not paid.

In that context of economic malfunction, people who have seen their thrifty investments wiped out twice in the space of five years by the collapse of the currency, are still prepared to invest in their children by paying for education. In ever increasing numbers.

All the faculties at the TPU were reporting full and overflowing enrolment, and the university was actively planning for major expansion of its English language teaching programme. Parents are taking second or third jobs to pay the fees. No need for a government-led campaign to widen participation, it is happening by spontaneous resolve.

In fact most Russians appear to view their government with disdain, and would prefer to manage their lives with as little interference as possible, especially in Siberia from where Moscow looks like a malign parasite.

In some ways Russia, and this is equally true of the Soviet period, has long been the kind of learning society which we now aspire to become. Not only has there been a widespread respect for teachers, at all levels, but reading is a national pastime.

During our visit, a collection of books donated by the British Council was officially opened. The young audience fell upon the English translations of major European writers as well as English and American works of literature, whooping with joy. Taxi drivers quote Pushkin, lay people reel off scientific chapter and verse about the space progra-mme. They don't yet have the pattern of night school and evening classes which is one of the glories of the British system, but I am sure that they soon will.

The Know-How fund is meant to support the transfer of our expertise to others. I think the Siberians will have the last laugh.

The author is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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