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Unequal Access Codes

What helps and what hinders access to good education in Russian regions

Researchers at the HSE Institute of Education have used regional data to describe, for the first time in Russia, how inequality in access to education affects different parts of the Russian Federation. The research findings reveal that the key determining factors are the local economy and the proportion of people with a university degree: urbanised regions with well-developed economies and educated inhabitants are more likely to have good-quality schools, with a large proportion of students scoring highly in the Unified State Exam and going on to university. In contrast, poorer regions with low human capital see many of their school students drop out after the 9th grade, limiting their chances of further education.

Factors Determining Differences

Multiple factors determine whether or not young people have access to good education. Their own abilities and motivation certainly play a role, as well as family background. Indeed, parents' educational, financial and occupational status and cultural capital have all been found to 'program' their children's academic success.

According to a recent study, children raised in families with a high occupational and educational status have double the chances of enrolling in a prestigious university compared to their peers from low-resource families. Teens from more advantaged families are often in a better position, since their parents tend to value good education and invest in their children's schooling. In contrast, students from less educated families, although they may perform fairly well academically, often make no attempt to enter a prestigious university, because they lack parental support and tend to underestimate their own capabilities.

In addition to this, teachers' skills and school characteristics certainly play a role. Many students attending ordinary general schools switch to vocational colleges after the 9th grade. In contrast, students in higher-status schools such as gymnasiums, lyceums and schools offering advanced courses in certain subjects are much more likely to continue through to the 11th grade and then go on to university.

Andrey Zakharov and Kseniya Adamovich examined regional socioeconomic differences for their role in either enhancing or limiting access to educational resources, determining students' choice between the academic track (i.e. eleven grades of general school plus university) and the vocational track (i.e. nine grades of general school plus vocational college/technical school), and attaining certain learning outcomes (reflected in USE scores in Russian and mathematics).

The research is based on Rosstat's 2013–2015 regional statistics and on data available from federal and regional departments of education.

Baseline Imbalances

The main reason why some regional educational systems perform better than others is the broader disparity across Russian regions in terms of economic development (measured by per capita GRP, gross regional product), urbanisation (percentage of urban population), human capital, and other indicators.

Thus, in Moscow, 48% of inhabitants have completed higher education, compared to 22% in Chechnya. In terms of economic development, the inequalities across Russian regions are even greater, with the GRPs of Russia's richest 10% exceeding those of the poorest 10% by nearly 4.5 times.

Similarly, the financing of education varies from 40,400 to 114,000 roubles per student per year depending on whether a region is rich or poor.

There is little difference across regions in terms of student coverage by lyceums, gymnasiums and schools offering advanced courses in certain subjects, which is 10% or less for each type of such elite schools. It is common, however, for ordinary schools to have classes with advanced curricula in certain subjects, and as many as 25% of school students attend such classes in some parts of Russia, such as Ivanovo, Murmansk and Kemerovo regions. 

However, the proportion of students who drop out after the 9th grade varies from more than 60% in Chechnya and Orenburg and Astrakhan Regions to less than 40% in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kalmykia and Tuva.

Access to quality education is linked to the state of regional economies. Having analysed regional per capita funding of schools, teacher expertise and availability of advanced schooling options, the authors found that schools in highly urbanised regions with well-developed local economies and better educated populations tend to be more generously financed and to employ better qualified teachers – i.e. those having a high qualification category and work experience of five and more years; such regions also tend to have plenty of elite schools and courses available. 

'These regions include Moscow, St. Petersburg and Tatarstan and, to a lesser extent, Novgorod and Nizhny Novgorod regions', according to Adamovich.

In contrast, the education prospects are not so good for young people in depressed regions with a less educated population, due to the limited number of advanced school courses and highly qualified teachers, resulting in fewer students staying in school for the 10th and 11th grades. 

According to the researchers, these 'outsider regions' include the republics of Altai and Tuva and certain parts of the North Caucasus.

Adults' Education Affects Children's Prospects

The proportion of residents with higher education appears to be the single most important characteristic positively associated with the proportion of students attending elite schools such as lyceums, gymnasiums and those with a strong focus on humanities. The availability of highly qualified teachers also tends to be greater in regions with higher overall human capital.

According to the researchers, this association between human capital and access to quality schooling may be due to the fact that educated families are more likely to value higher education as a way 'to maintain and perhaps enhance the family's socioeconomic status'. On the other hand, well-educated and affluent parents can afford to hire private tutors and pay for university preparation courses for their child. 'By doing so, they create a demand for quality education and advanced curricula', Adamovich notes.

Accordingly, regions with more developed economies tend to have a higher proportion of students attending elite schools which offer advanced courses in humanities and mathematics – or attending advanced classes in ordinary schools.

The choice of educational path is also largely determined by factors such as human capital and urbanisation: the larger a region's urban and university-educated population groups, the greater the proportion of school students likely to choose the academic track and go on to university.

The researchers found that regional economies, in particular the per capita financing of schools, have direct implications for the average Unified State Exam (USE) score in mathematics (but no statistically significant correlation was found for USE results in Russian).

In addition to this, the USE results both in mathematics and Russian were found to be positively associated with the proportion of students attending lyceums and gymnasiums, while the results in mathematics were better in regions with more schools offering advanced courses in science and engineering, and the results in Russian were positively associated with the proportion of schools focusing on the humanities.

The average USE score in the Russian language was also found to be higher in regions with more school dropouts after the 9th grade, explained by the fact that only well-performing students in such regions choose to go to the 10th and 11th grades.

Double Advantage – Double Deficit

The researchers note that socioeconomic differences, as well as regional disparities in access to education, tend to exacerbate already existing inequalities.

As a result, young people in more affluent regions enjoy a double advantage created by their parents' human capital and higher income leading to investment in children's education and by better institutional access to elite education resources.

In contrast, young people in depressed regions face the double disadvantage of having lower-income, less educated parents and limited opportunities of high-quality schooling.

Stratification and Sorting

'Greater access to advanced education resources in regions with higher human capital confirms the validity of the effectively maintained inequality theory', the researchers argue, 'while the high school dropout rate after the 9th grade in regions with lower human capital is consistent with the maximally maintained inequality theory'.

According to the latter theory, differences in access to a certain level of education are maintained as long as there is competition for this type of education, and children from higher socioeconomic status backgrounds are more likely to win this competition. If, however, access to a certain level of education is universal, inequalities are transferred to the next level of the education system, e.g. to higher education.

Read more

Why Russian children rarely switch schools

As a manifestation of effectively maintained inequality, the formally universal access to education comes with  substantial differences , e.g. in school curricula, for different social strata. It is no accident that some researchers describe schools as 'sorting machines' which divide students into categories based not only on their academic performance but also on their parents' socioeconomic status. Resource-rich families tend to choose more prestigious schools for their children, a choice which is likely to result in better education and successful careers. In contrast, children of poorer parents are less likely to benefit from schooling as a social elevator.

The resulting situation 'cannot be accepted as natural from the education policy perspective', according to Zakharov and Adamovich, who emphasise the importance of equal access to resources for creating a universal education space and conclude that a country as big as Russia 'needs to find ways to smooth out the regional imbalances in access to education'.

Study authors:
Andrey Zakharov, Leading Research Fellow, HSE Institute of Education
Kseniya Adamovich, Research Assistant, International Laboratory for Evaluation of Practices and Innovations in Education, HSE Institute of Education
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, March 19, 2020