Russia: when does free education have to be paid for?

Primary and secondary education In Russia is supposed to be free, but parents are being forced to pay for all kinds of necessities — from building repairs to expensive textbooks. However, as Oleg Pavlov reports from Tatarstan, some parents have had enough, and they are finding allies in the legal system.     

Kazan resident Yekaterina Matveyeva was dreading the first parents’ meeting of the new school year. Her two children – born just a year apart – are pupils in Years 3 and 4. Yekaterina found out about the costs associated with education on her little boy’s first day. She put up with it, she says, for two years, but then she’d had enough  – she was having to pay for school security, redecoration and repairs, furniture, equipment, and the worst of all was having to buy most textbooks, which were all very expensive. There was nothing left of the free primary and secondary education trumpeted by the government. In fact, people pay for it twice: first through their taxes, and then through endless contributions to various areas of expenditure. 

To find out if ‘free’ had any meaning, Yekaterina decided to phone the Kazan Legal Rights Centre. The Centre has for several years now had a telephone hotline open in September and October, the start of the school year, through which it collects data on all the payments families have to make to Tatarstan’s schools.  This year they have had calls from 140 parents, and have compiled a ‘blacklist’ of 85 schools and 3 nurseries.  

When is free education not free?

According to Russian law, primary and secondary education in Russia is obligatory and free. Maintenance of school buildings, security, equipment, learning aids and textbooks should all be provided free by the government through local budgets, and these expenses should be earmarked at all levels. If there is no specific allocation of funds to cover them then the budget document is simply illegal. Parents should only have to pay for exercise books; pens and other stationery; clothing (school uniform has been abolished in Russia) and some other aids and equipment that may be needed for specific subjects. Everything else should be provided by the school. After all, most of local government finance comes from income tax, so in fact parents have already shelled out for all these educational expenses. At any rate, this is how hardworking taxpayers look at it. 

'90% of parents’ complaints are about the lack of free textbooks. The Ministry of Education persistently denied that there was a problem, but then it was discovered that the budget allocated for textbooks covered only half their cost.'

Igor Sholokhov, head of the Kazan Legal Rights Centre and a member of the Tatarstan President’s anti-corruption council, confirms that nothing has changed: ‘Despite the fact that this issue has been the subject of heated discussion at the highest level over several years, and despite the public prosecutor’s office checking the facts and initiating measures to combat it, the situation is no better then before.’

Sholokhov, however, talks of some minor charges now being ‘optional’. The chief problem is the lack of free textbooks, the subject of 90% of parents’ complaints. The row over payments in fact broke out in 2011, when parents were asked to being asked to pay for textbooks for almost every subject. The Ministry of Education persistently denied that there was a problem, but then it was discovered that the budget allocated for textbooks covered only half their cost. The Tatarstan government hurriedly made up the balance and the problem was solved for that year. In 2012, however, the situation has been repeated almost exactly: the Ministry insists that schools have been provided with almost 100% of textbooks, but most of the calls to the hotline have been from parents complaining that they are being asked to pay for them.

The laments of Ministry officials about lack of money and being ‘squeezed’ cut no ice with the Legal Rights team. ‘It’s not a question of ‘squeezing’’, says Sholokhov. ‘We are saying that there’s a law and it’s being broken again.’ He does admit that the piggies in the middle in this situation are the school principals, strapped for cash and forced to flout the law by passing the financial burden on to parents. At a time when prices for everything are rising, and salaries in Kazan are a lot lower than the officially published figures, education might end up beyond the reach of someone with a monthly income of 10-15,000 roubles (£200-300), half of which goes on utility bills and other essential costs, and much of the rest on school charges. 

‘Voluntary’ donations  

None of the parents are objecting to voluntary contributions; everyone wants their child to learn in a pleasant setting, and many are happy to make donations towards optional extras or maintenance of school buildings. But parents’ financial circumstances need to be taken into account. Contributions should not be forced and universal. And decisions like this should be taken by parents themselves, not the school management.  

'Voluntary' contributions to supposedly free schooling could put some state schools beyond the reach of the poorest Russians. Photo: Flickr / Misha Maslennikov 

The Legal Rights team have explained what they consider ‘charges’, citing the definitions used by the public prosecutor’s office and the Tatarstan Minister of Education. All payments by parents to schools should be voluntary and made through banks. If they are fixed and paid in cash, then they are charges. But the wily ministry bureaucrats have hit back: parents have to sign a document saying that they are making a voluntary contribution, without coercion and purely out of the goodness of their hearts. The sums demanded and the frequency of demands depend on how prestigious the educational establishment is.

The Legal Rights Centre have handed data gathered from their hotline over to the public prosecutor’s office.  Last year most of their findings were confirmed, and a ruling about the ‘inadmissibility of lawbreaking’ issued.  It seems to have had some result: in 2011, the peak year for the hotline, there were more 200 complaints; this year a third fewer were registered. 

'The wily ministry bureaucrats have hit back: parents have to sign a document saying that they are making a voluntary contribution, purely out of the goodness of their hearts.'

The civil rights activists are nevertheless surprised by the attitude of many parents: ‘”we paid, we reported it to you, but we won’t do anything ourselves, we won’t give our names because we fear for our children.” Then why pay?’ On the other hand, this attitude can be put down to objective reality. The government‘s actions are invariably dictated by the principle of ‘pay first, we’ll sort it out later’. This is how the tax people work: they take your money and then spend years deciding whether to return your overpaid tax, in the hope that you’ll get tired of hassling them. The housing authorities are even worse. In theory, if you don’t receive a service, you don’t have to pay for it. But in practice they’ll cut off your water, gas and electricity and then repossess your property because of ‘debts’. So the public are wary, but they are also coming to the end of their tether. 

The beginnings of resistance – and unlikely allies

Some parents stand up fearlessly for their children’s right to a good education, and Yekaterina Matveeva is one of them. She not only complained loudly about charges at her children’s school, but set up a group on VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, which parents are joining from all over the country. And it seems that the problem exists in every region of Russia. 

'Yekaterina Matveeva not only complained loudly about charges at her children’s school, but set up a group on VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, which parents are joining from all over the country'

Three regions are taking the lead in trying to tackle the issues of school charges and shortages of textbooks: Tatarstan, St. Petersburg and the Zabaykalye Territory. In Kazan it is civil rights activists, in St. Petersburg the public prosecutor’s office, and in Zabaykalye civil rights activists and the public prosecutor’s office are working together, which is an interesting situation. The territory’s public prosecutor’s office, instead of endlessly faffing around and wasting time on ‘the inadmissibility of lawbreaking’, has simply taken the local Ministry of Finance to court. Its grounds are that the ministry ‘has not fulfilled its financial obligation to the ‘Chita City’ district in the matter of allocating it sufficient funds for the provision of school textbooks and other learning aids’. And the court has ruled that that the ministry has to pay 3,318,000 roubles to Chita’s School No.30 to buy the necessary books. Now the courts are considering the cases of the other 132 schools in Zabaykalye. The same thing is happening in St Petersburg, where it is local public prosecutors who are taking the initiative.

Meanwhile, back in Tatarstan, the Minister for Education and Science Albert Gilmutdinov has been relieved of his post and given a job as Rector of one of Kazan’s universities. Igor Sholokhov, head of the city’s Legal Rights Centre, does not believe that this was purely in connection with the textbook and school payments scandal, but he is sure that it played its part in the minister’s downfall. 

About the author

Oleg Pavlov is a journalist based in Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. He is the local correspondent for Radio Liberty's Russian Service.