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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The state of affairs in Romanian education

One of the regular podcasts I listen to is Casting From the Server Room. It's guys who work in IT / SysAdmin jobs in the education (colleges, high-schools, etc). I usually listen for the technical content, but I can also catch a glimpse about the state of education in the US. Usually they complain, but I think they should be happy they don't live here.

The quality of education (and I'm referring here mostly to university level because that is what I have recent first-hand knowledge of, but as I understand highschool isn't better) is dropping from year to year as the universities tend to focus on quantity instead of quality. In the past (read: in the communist era) it was a big deal if you got a university diploma and became an engineer or doctor or something like that. In a small village (like the birthplace of my father) usually just one or two people made it to the university and they were looked up to. Admission criterias were very strict and usually you had to pass several exams to get in. Now most of the time you don't have to pass any exams, you get in based on your highschool grades, and even if you don't get a place payed by the state (the number of which is limited), you can be sure that you get a place for which you need to pay (the number of which increases at an incredible rate every year).

Now for the quality of the teachers: from my experience around one third of them are bright, very knowlegable people but don't have the slightest idea how to explain things such that we mere mortals can understand them, an other third have mediocre capabilities and you'll be bored to death with them and the last third is the worst one: right out dumb, they don't have the slightest clue what they are talking about or they are effectively quoting word for word from a book and they are convinced that they know what they talk about. What remains is a 1% percent rounding error which is the ratio of great, dedicated and talented teachers. And the laboratories are no better: you use outdated equipment with apathetic technicians while meditating about the question: why am I wasting my life here?

As I said earlier our education system is moving rapidly to a quantity based system and the worst offenders are the private universities. Theoretically you go there and pay big money to get a first-rate education. Instead they are known for the fact that they provide the easiest means to getting a degree as long as you have the money. The universities and (most of) the professors try each day to find a new way to get as much money as possible out of the students. The most commonly known method is that you have to buy the professors book if you wish to pass the exam or you wish to pass it with a good grade. And these aren't even marginally acceptable books, but usually parts taken from different other books (probably without regards to copyright and other such details) put together in a blob with no editorial process resulting in text which is unusable (if you received spam messages which include a lot of other text to try to fool the filters, these books are like that).

Of course this can be traced back to supply and demand. The universities supply what the public demands. But why does the public demand it? It's partly because our parents grew up in an era when having a degree meant something because only a select few had it. To clarify: I'm not crying back communism here. For there was a movement started back then when we wanted to show the world that we are the country with the smartest people and part of highschool became mandatory. But know it's different. People actually demand it. An other problem is that people / parents think that they have a better chance for getting a job. This is became a vicious cycle for most of the companies seeking applicants: at the beginning they specified a degree as a requirement because it was a very good first filter, then everybody started getting degrees and now the companies started to specify university diploma as requirement for even less demanding jobs, which in turn reinforced peoples belief that you can't get a decent job without one.

And there also is the financial problem (from the point of view of the student): from a certain age one feels the need to be independent. There are no other means for students to get a usable amount of money (and I'm not talking about money that buys you a Porsche, but about money which buys you a decent computer) in some acceptable timeframe (a couple of months lets say) than being employed full time. There are no summer jobs or part time jobs here. Many of the students go to the US during the summer break to gather some money but many more remain and become employed full time. This again creates an avalanche effect as students have less and less time to attend school and the university tries to help them by relaxing the rules which again convinces more students that this can be done. Currently only the ones who really, really don't want to finish the university leave it. The others pass through a series of re-examinations, re-re-examinations and so on until they pass. (There are some exams that you can take 7 times without repeating the year!)

We have of course a few bright people and usually place very well in international student competitions, but if you would to ask these people: what has the school given you to help? you would most probably receive the response: nothing, I did this on my own time because I like what I do and I have a passion for it. I know many people, many very bright people who won different kinds of international competitions and know more than 80% of the teachers and still only have mediocre (at beast) marks and possible have several failed exams.

What will happen? I don't know and I'm no futurologist (although I like watching Futurama ;)) but I suppose that it's going to get worse. That's why although I like teaching and explaining things to people I have no plan to teach at universities and highschools. I couldn't endure looking at the horde of apathetic students. Most probably I'll go into the private sector teaching to people who consciously decided that they want to learn about the given subject and are disposed to make at least a minimal effort and who aren't just looking a way to pass.

I'm going now to attend a boring lecture and to buy some books...


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