Scottish expertise in vocational education and training is helping colleges in a remote Siberian city face the challenge of Russia's fast changing economy. The Scottish Vocational Education Council is working with college principals and education authorities in Omsk, a sprawling industrial city of 1.3 million people straddling the Trans-Siberian Railway, 42 hours east of Moscow.
The #163;100,000 project, jointly funded by the British Council and the Russian authorities, is designed to review selected courses in three Omsk colleges and help curriculum bosses reshape them to ensure graduates are equipped with the skills and knowledge necessary in the region's emerging market-lead employment market.
Since Scotvec began working with lecturers and students in the institutions - the Vocational Oil-Chemical College, College of Trade, and College of Automobile and Road Construction - more than 40 targeted course units in ecology, economics, accountancy, marketing and management have been designed.
The course units, based on Scotvec's outcome-based, competency approach, where students are credited for each incremental advance in demonstrating competence at performing practical skills, have been designed by working groups which include students, college and university lecturers and local employers, a revolutionary approach in a region still lagging behind the market reforms of Russia's more central cities such as Moscow, St Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod.
The first new courses were introduced into the college curriculum in September last year and the difference the new approach has made is already evident, says Maida Grant, Scotvec's overseas projects manager, who was in Omsk earlier this month.
"When I first went into classrooms in Omsk last year, all the students were sitting in rows. They were beautifully behaved and all stood up as I entered the room. But they were passive learners.
"This time, they were all clustered in small groups, involved in their practical work. There was much more of a buzz about it."
The enthusiasm and application of the college participants overcame early difficulties, such as the extra workload creating new, unitary courses, loaded onto lecturers and administrators, Ms Grant says, such that now students tend to concentrate on the new elements of their studies almost to the exclusion of the remaining traditional theory-based areas.
Scotvec's involvement in the project reflects the international reputation it has gained the world over since Scotland began reforming its post-16 vocational curriculum and approach in the mid 1980s. Scotvec, which from April merges into the Scottish Qualifications Authority, a unitary body responsible for post-16 education, is working on similar projects in some of the newly independent former Soviet states, such as Khazakstan and elsewhere in the world, including South Africa, Mexico, Palestine and Bulgaria.
Similarities between Scotland's industrial base and that of the Omsk region, an area heavily reliant on oil and chemical processing, have also served to cement the Siberian project. An expert in oil industry ecology from Falkirk College, which has close links with BP's oil and chemical industries, is among the team of four working on the Omsk project.
The key element which made Scotvec's approach appropriate for Omsk was the flexibility it introduced to a college system which had traditionally been run by bureaucrats as part of the command economy, Ms Grant said.
"The courses we're designing with the colleges in Omsk are not time served, students don't need to go through, for example, a two year course if they can demonstrate they have the required skills and knowledge required for industry in a shorter time. "
In the Scotvec system, credits are given for each unit of a course, allowing students to gain certificates step by step, building a qualification portfolio which can be updated throughout their working lives.
Although a full version of this model may be a long way off in Omsk, the colleges were already using the unitary approach to attract adult learners and unemployed, but skilled, people, to take short courses to upgrade their vocational knowledge.
Vladimir Gam, principal of the Vocational Oil-Chemical College in Omsk, said: "Teaching students through Scotvec's modular system, adapted to our Russian requirements, will lead to greater professional mobility for our graduates, a higher level of professionalism, better analytical skills and more responsibility. As a result, they will be able to play a more active role in developing a market economy in the Omsk region."
Scotvec hopes to secure further funding to extend the project to other parts of Russia which have expressed interest, such as Nizhny Novogorod, a city north-east of Moscow where the regional governor has been given a free hand in introducing accelerated market economy and land reforms.
Long-term development in Omsk, where the Scotvec project formally concludes in June, will be facilitated through a British Council resource centre, set up in the city to support the initiative.