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Tough lessons in Transnistria

Poorly-funded state education is common enough in post-Soviet countries. But how do schoolchildren fare in a state that has gone unrecognised for 27 years? RU

Tenth grade in the village of Plot', Rybnitsa district. It's one of the smallest classes in Transnistria this academic year. (c) Victoria Pashentseva. All rights reserved.Transnistria is a self-proclaimed state on a sliver of land between Ukraine and the river Dniester. The territory’s independence is not recognised by any UN member state, who all consider it part of Moldova. Over the last few years, Transnistria’s education system has undergone radical reform with a focus on so-called “optimisation” — in other words, financial efficiency. The territory’s public purse is chronically empty, and this year’s budget has a 51.8% deficit. And unlike prices in the shops, Transnistrians’ incomes are hardly growing.

Transnistria has to import the majority of its goods, and its own industry is losing momentum — political isolation has taken its toll, and after a financial-economic crisis over many years, cash is in short supply. Not only pensions and benefits are affected, but other public institutions, including education.

The need for financial prudence is only one reason for an academic efficiency drive in the PMR: there’s also a shortage of schools and teachers. Every year the number of university graduates willing to work in the territory’s villages drops, whatever incentives they’re offered.

Unrecognised state, unrecognised degree

Transnistria is not like other countries — as a de-facto state, you won’t find it on maps, and its residents are obliged to seek citizenship from the surrounding countries: Ukraine, Moldova and Russia. This has a crucial impact on education — academic and professional qualifications are hard to come by in this breakaway republic, so many school leavers move to these countries for their higher education.

After Transnistria held a referendum on “unification” with Russia in 2006, the Transnistrian authorities have been harmonising some of their laws with Russia’s, hoping to fuse the two education systems. For example, Transnistrian students had to start taking an obligatory unified state university entrance exam (just like in Russia) from 2011 onwards — indeed, PMR simply copied the exam methodology from Russia.

Victoria Platonova and Valentina Platonova are pleased that the authorities of Transnistria decided to refine the optimisation programme in the education system. (c) Victoria Pashentseva. All rights reserved.Other school leavers head not just for Russia but Moldova and Ukraine — from there can move on to western countries thanks to student exchange programmes. But many can’t take up their studies directly in Germany, the UK, Italy, France or the US. Not only are living standards in this unrecognised republic too low for people to pay for education abroad, but Transnistrian school leaving certificates usually have to be specially validated to be recognised in other countries.

The financial “optimisation” policy has also deprived many school students of the chance to pass a leaving certificate exam after 10 years of school (in Transnistria this is considered a complete secondary education) as many village schools have abandoned the last school year for funding reasons.

Farewell to tenth grade

According to official figures, Transnistria has a school population of 44,547 in 160 educational establishments (including residential schools). The average class size is 19. Some schools teach in Russian, others Moldovan or Ukrainian. Distance and external learning and homeschooling are also available: their quality, however, is another matter.

In the 27 years since the collapse of the USSR, only 14 new public facilities have been built here, including five nursery schools, a Moldovan-language school in the village of Tashlyk and a Russian school in the town of Rybnitsa, which is still under construction. These large-scale (by local standards) projects began only four years ago and were only possible thanks to Moscow: all public facilities in Transnistria are financed by Russian cash.

Transnistria’s educational buildings are typical of the Soviet era. Take the school in the village of Plot’, in the Rybnitsa district. This three-story block with one wing and an arcade stands on a hill, surrounded by the school orchard. Nearby stands a stadium of which nothing is left except goalposts and some monkey bars.

In the 27 years since the collapse of the USSR, only 14 new public facilities have been built here

And although the school has seen at least three generations of villagers, it’s not falling apart yet. This isn’t because the local authority provides enough funds for its upkeep, but thanks to financial support from parents. This kind of voluntary support has been the norm here for many years, and is formally recognised: schools have formed official parents’ associations that raise money.

“We’re 35 km away from the district centre,” sighs deputy headteacher Valentina Platonova. “The minibus comes only three times a week — on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Our children can’t possibly go to schools in the town — it’s hard to reach and parents can’t afford to rent a flat in Rybnitsa. The villagers’ main source of income is their land, and they can barely make ends meet. Also, the children can’t go to schools in neighbouring villages, because in our school they’re taught in Moldovan, while nearby schools are Russian-language.”

The school in Plot’ decided not to add a tenth grade in 2014 — there were too few pupils to justify it. “We come out very well in official assessments,” Platonova tells me. “Out of the five students in our last tenth grade cohort, three were awarded gold medals and all five got into university. And three of the ninth graders who left the school last year went on to technical colleges. But another five, including my daughter, would have liked to spend more time in secondary education, so that they could go on to university, especially as the school passed its inspection in 2016 and received a further seven-year accreditation. Parents and staff wrote to anyone who could help resolve the issue: the regional education office, the local authorities, the ministry of education and even the president.”

Eventually, the school was able to add a tenth grade, with just five pupils. But not all village schools have been given this “privilege”. Transnistria’s authorities are gradually introducing per pupil funding for schools, with the likely consequence of lower teacher pay and the closure of schools with too few pupils.

Back to the USSR

The large-scale optimisation of schools here on the left bank of the Dniester began in 2012 with new regulations on the number of children in a class or nursery school group. The authorities decided that lyceums and gymnasiums (advanced secondary schools) could have classes of up to 35 pupils, and ordinary schools should have not less than 25 pupils to a class. Smaller classes could exist only “in exceptional circumstances and with the agreement of the ministry of education”. In primary schools, if a class had 12 or fewer pupils, schools were recommended to amalgamate it with another. In village secondary schools, senior classes were restricted to a maximum of 15 students.

This innovation meant, for example, that Rybnitsa was able to reorganise its “social welfare school”, the only establishment of its kind in the whole of Transnistria. Its pupils were “difficult” teenagers who, for various reasons, couldn’t fit in in ordinary schools. Many village schools also closed down their senior classes, for want of enough students.

Many village schools have closed down their senior classes, for want of students

This academic year, the Transnistrian government nevertheless decided to slow down the optimisation juggernaut. Tenth grade classes were re-opened in other village schools where parents and teaching staff had written letters similar to those written by the management of the school in Plot’. This doesn’t mean that “optimisation” is a thing of the past. This year, the Plot’ school has an amalgamated class of six pupils — four fifth graders and two eighth graders.

“Until this year, we only had amalgamated classes in our primary department,” says Russian language and literature teacher Liliya Ostapova. “But now the idea has been extended to the middle grades, and also teaches the pupils how to become independent learners. Working in an amalgamated class isn’t easy, of course.”

But does being taught in an amalgamated class affect the quality of the education? The Transnistrian authorities don’t believe so, citing the Soviet past when the practice was not uncommon. Now it’s even more necessary because there are so many small villages in the region with ageing populations and, consequently, fewer children.

lead Liliya Ostapova, teacher of Russian language and literature, Plot'. (c) Victoria Pashentseva. All rights reserved. Teachers don’t agree. They state that the Soviet system tried to get rid of amalgamated classe — in those days, a class of 14 pupils was perfectly normal for a village school. And if a year group was too small, the government would provide free transport to and from the surrounding villages so that children could learn in a normal class with their peers.

Natalya Morozko, mother of fourth grader Karina, agrees with the teachers: “You can’t give 30 pupils a proper lesson in 45 minutes. You end up with each child having a minute and a half of the teacher’s attention. It’s obvious that the children will learn more if you reduce the number of pupils in a class, rather than increasing it.”

Most parents agree, as do the bureaucrats. Everyone I spoke to admitted in private that that wanted their children (or grandchildren) to be taught in a small class.

Teacher trouble

Where young people should go after school is another sensitive issue. Transnistria’s economy is in dire need of more manual workers and clerical staff. Among the republic’s largest employers are 80 manufacturing facilities which need a workforce, as do smaller firms. The construction industry, for example, employs about 1,000 workers. Light industry at least 3,500 (in clothes and tailoring manufacture) and transport facilities - 200 people. But as local employers can’t pay decent wages and salaries, secondary school students are understandably more interested in higher education.

Transnistria’s highest salaries are earned by people working in the electronic and telecommunication sectors: a monthly average of 9,057 roubles ($843 at PMR official bank rates). Bank employees and people in the insurance and utilities industries also earn quite well by local standards, as do computer programmers, but there are hardly any well-paid jobs in the manufacturing sector.

The government attempts to regulate training facilities to match the needs of the job market. The Slobodzeysky technical college, for example, has closed down courses in a range of once popular subjects, as has Tiraspol’s construction college.

The government, when planning its expenditure, works on the basis what it sees as the needs of the state, but takes no account of real incomes in the republic

Transnistria’s economic crisis is structural, and faces recurring problems with foreign markets, not to mention political factors. In a situation like this, it will never be able to balance its books. When planning its expenditure, the government takes into account what it sees as the needs of the state, but not real incomes in the republic. The territory’s population is ageing, yet for every 100 pensioners, only 101 people in employment. Furthermore, 47% of the working population consists of people in public sector jobs. Meanwhile, small business accounts for just over 10% of the economy.

Transnistria has for many years included Russian financial support in its accounts, under the heading of “extra budgetary income”. This includes, for example, the “Putin pension rise” — a supplement received monthly by every Transnistrian pensioner since 2008. The unrecognised republic also receives Russian gas on credit and at very low prices — another special, and very significant subsidy alongside the technical credits for the development of its agricultural sector and small business. Without this support, it is very unlikely that Transnistria would have retained its self-declared independence for 27 years.

Transnistria is farming country — some see its future in agriculture. But here too, there’s an acute shortage of specialists. This is partly because the republic has very few training facilities in this sector, and partly that even there, students only study so they can get their documents. As a result, government money is spent on training qualified agricultural specialists, while there are no young specialists coming along to replace the old ones (little wonder why — agricultural labourers earn an average of only $251 a month).

Leaving for the recognised world

Despite Transnistria’s lack of resources, it is possible to get a high quality, free university education here, thanks to the development of research institutes. These are concentrated around leading universities: the Agricultural Scientific Institute, the Republican Institute of Environmental and Natural Sciences, the KVINT brandy distillery’s developmental laboratory and other centres. Transnistria’s scientific bodies often receive patents for their innovative technology.

The leading university is the Taras Shevchenko Transnistrian State University (PGU), opened in 1990. The PGU sees itself as the successor to the Tiraspol State College of Education, founded in 1930.

Taras Shevchenko Transnistria State University was originally founded in 1930 as the Moldovan ASSR's Institute of Public Education. CC BY 3.0 Alexander Sokolov / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.Like everything in Transnistria, the university is trilingual, with courses taught in Moldovan, Russian, and Ukrainian. To all extents and purposes, it’s a regular university operating on the Russian model. It also has agreements with higher educational institutions in other countries: many students, for example, spend time in Germany for language practice.

The situation for professional training is gradually changing — but “gradually” is the operative word. The problem is that, armed with their qualifications, young specialists head into the wider world, often leaving Transnistria. Many leave without any formal qualifications whatsoever, looking for work wherever they can find it.

Of those five tenth graders in Plot’ for whom a class was specially set up, only one girl, Vika Platonova, wants to study medicine at Taras Shevchenko University. And only Vika says to return to the village afterwards. “I’ll work at the village health centre,” she says, “if it hasn’t been closed down by then.”

Vika’s classmates are more wary about disclosing their future plans. But one thing is certain: once they leave home, they’ll only come back to visit — if at all.

Translated by Liz Barnes.

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