According to a top Soviet educator visiting the United States, his country's higher-education system is in the midst of a major restructuring that will formally begin in January - one that has gone virtually unreported in the West. The reforms will reportedly reach into every aspect of Soviet colleges and technical institutes, says Prof. Sergei Semakov, who is here on a joint Yale-Moscow State University exchange. The revamp includes new teaching methods; rigorous evaluation of professors; new curricula; new funding structures; a reorganization of administrative authority; greater autonomy and power for local colleges; and a dramatic increase in student ``rights'' to help them be better ``self-managers'' and decisionmakers.
The new Soviet leadership sees education as a key plank in its platform of economic revitalization, according to Professor Semakov and two other Soviet educators, all of whom returned to the Soviet Union yesterday after a week at Yale.
Semakov, a Soviet historian at Moscow State, says the Politburo has already ``approved'' the reform package, and a formal acceptance will be made by the Central Committee on Dec. 20.
``Training at Soviet colleges has been too theoretical - divorced from real-life demands,'' Semakov said in an interview outlining the reforms. ``Graduates may grasp general engineering, but not know any specifics ... not know how to do any job, work on any particular machine.''
Further, coordination between college and workplace has been poor, he says. ``We haven't known how many workers are needed in a particular field,'' he adds. ``Often a graduate in hydroelectrics ends up working in a machine factory.''
Semakov is a member of the Moscow State University Council, the university's governing board, and is close to Anatoly Logunov, the university rector, a Central Committee member and vice-president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Semakov has attended high-level meetings on education reform and is positioned to be one of the first to know of changes taking place at Moscow State, the Soviet Union's premier university. Many of the reform ideas originated at Moscow State.
Mr. Logunov is known to have enormous influence in Soviet education. George Hogenson, who led a Yale delegation to the Soviet Union last spring and who is with the MacArthur Foundation, said that during his visit ``Lugunov told 40 of us, including the head of Komsomol [the Communist Youth League]: `We're not going to keep people around here who don't teach.' He aimed to reform tenure and curricula. It's clear a decision was made in the [Communist] Party Congress in March to do that.''
The other Soviet delegates were Valerie Tabachenko, a chemist and faculty adviser, and Yuri Demin, adviser to the Soviet Student Council.
All three delegates say students need to have more modern training and be more independent in their thinking if the country is to have a world-class economy. ``We want students to be more active, not so passive,'' said Professor Tabachenko.
``Graduating with a diploma is not enough.... Students must learn how to participate,'' Mr. Demin said.
Urban Soviet colleges may succeed with some reforms, US experts on Soviet education say, but change in the provinces will be ``a mixed pattern.''
Politburo member Yegor Ligachev was given credit for engineering the changes. This may surprise some Kremlinologists, who have previously viewed Mr. Ligachev, as merely a hard-core conservative ideologist.
The reforms have been under way since last spring, the educators said, and have been officially referred to as ``the democratization of education'' - which is in keeping with the expansive language of the new regime of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Western observers say.
Some changes have already begun. In the past three weeks, for example, 500 of Moscow State's 4,500 ``scientific workers'' (research fellows) were fired for inept performance.
Among the reforms discussed, these specifics were given:
New teaching methods. Professors will be asked to reduce the number of lectures and deemphasize rote lectures, and emphasize ``analytic lectures'' and courses in ``independent study.'' Solving ``real life'' problems will be stressed. Teachers will be asked to experiment.
A more rigorous evaluation of the Soviet professoriate. Serious teacher evaluation begins next year, in an effort to make room for bright teachers to advance. Tenure will be abolished and teaching jobs will be made competitive and will go up for review and reapplication every five years.
Funding. To beef up college budgets, funding will be channeled from two new sources. Along with the state education budget, there will be a new ``scientific scholarly budget'' of protected funds for science research only - lab equipment and other machinery that is now missing from technical training institutes. The second new source will be from whatever ministry the students are pegged to work under once they graduate. The Ministry of Chemical Industry, for example, will now give money for each new freshman chemistry major entering college. This, says Tabachenko, will allow a ministry to complain if the quality of students is poor.
The amount of new funding will be announced during the Dec. 20 Central Committee meeting, Semakov said.
Student rights. Semakov made this a high priority. In order to spark student creativity, students will be given more ``rights'' in the areas of culture, academics, and ``self-government'' in student life. They will, for example, be able to choose for themselves which writers and artists speak to their student clubs. They will determine which of their peers get extra stipends. They will take control of dormitory life. They may now comment on course content. And, in an unprecedented move, students will take part in teacher evaluations. Much of what deans used to decide for students, students must decide for themselves, Semakov said.
Komsomol, Semakov says, will ensure that students do not exceed their rights.
More overall rigor. While receiving more rights, students will also be required to work harder. Traditionally, faculty have not flunked students, since fewer students means fewer faculty positions. Now, faculty ratios based on students will be removed. The effects will be felt most in science and mathematics, where there are three prospective students for every opening - versus history, psychology, and biology, where there are 20 for every opening. Bright but lazy students who did not fear failing will have to perform.
Reorganization of college administration. The 893 Soviet colleges will no longer be run by separate government ministries, but will be centralized under the Ministry of Education. The colleges will also be given expanded powers to decide how and what to teach.
Along with the 500 workers dismissed at Moscow State, other recent changes include the scuttling in one day last summer of a program laboriously set in place between 1981 and '85, which required entering Soviet freshmen to account for every course to be taken during their college years. ``It was a classic example of ineptitude and waste,'' said Tabachenko.
Also, late this fall, Moscow State University officials agreed to send two 19-year-old students to Harvard next year for a four-year program. One will study prelaw; the other, history. Student leaders are being asked for student ideas about reform. New ``innovative'' curriculum plans are being designed around independent study and research.
```Independent student work' is the buzzword now,'' says Prof. Paul Bushkovitch, chairman of Yale's Russian Studies Department and a frequent visitor to the Soviet Union, who acted as translator during the interview. ``We knew big changes were under way, but we didn't know they went this far. It makes you wonder what else is going unreported over there,'' he noted on the reforms.
Faculty have grumbled considerably during preparation for the reforms. The process of doing this has been ``very hard,'' Semakov says. But most faculty ``feel something like this is necessary.'' He also said, ``The unique difference between our system and yours is that 60 percent of our faculty are party members.''
The reforms have been discussed in Soviet journals since 1978. In 1980, a proposal to adopt them was turned down.
The reform process itself has been a dramatic departure from standard procedure, the educators said, since it did not come in the form of bureaucratic directives.
Instead, Politburo member Ligachev's staff asked a variety of academics in fields as diverse as math, psychology, and pedagogy, ``What do you need?''