Thu, Feb 15, 2018 - Page 9 News List

The rich answer Putin’s call with mega-schools

As US and European leaders work to isolate Russia, an increasing number of tycoons are taking their children out of Western schools and investing in projects that aid President Putin’s push to improve the nation’s national academic rankings

By Ilya Khrennikov and Irina Reznik  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Mountain people

As part of a push to get more Russian business leaders involved in education, Russian President Vladimir Putin sat down with some of the nation’s most gifted students for a televised chat about the value of life, love and learning.

They gathered at Sirius, an education center Putin established in Sochi after the 2014 Winter Olympics with backing from multiple billionaires.

Promoted by the Kremlin as a model for grooming talent, Sirius runs 600 exceptional students per month through intensive courses in everything from physics and coding to chess and ballet.

“The more intelligent and educated people are, the less aggressive they are,” Putin, a self-confessed street thug in his youth, said to the children in July last year.

Putin’s own aggression on the world stage has become an unexpected catalyst for an investment boom in Russian education. As US and European leaders continue to work to isolate Russia over alleged meddling in US elections and the conflict in Ukraine, a growing number of tycoons are pulling their children out of Western schools and putting money into private projects that aid Putin’s attempts to reverse a decline in national academic rankings.

Since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine a month after the Sochi Olympics, more than 30 billionaires and senior executives with investments abroad have founded or helped fund projects to nurture students at home.

The outlays coincide with a halving in the number of new Russian enrollments at boarding schools in Britain, long the educational destination of choice for the nation’s elite, to 608 last year, British Independent Schools Council data showed.

Herman Gref, head of state-owned savings bank Sberbank of Russia, opened a school called Horoshkola with his wife, Yana, in Moscow in September last year, joining billionaire Suleyman Kerimov’s Zarechenskaya Shkola and transport tycoon Nikita Mishin’s Novaya Shkola.

However, none of the 135 private schools that have popped up since 2014 can compare with Ros Agro founder Vadim Moshkovich’s US$200 million Letovo project, which includes a state-of-the-art facility on the edge of Moscow that opens this fall.

Moshkovich, who sent his two eldest children to Stanford University, said that what makes his school unique, apart from the price tag, is that rich people like himself cannot buy a child’s way in. Even his youngest son will not be admitted unless he passes the blindly graded entrance exam like everyone else, he said.

“I’m not building a school for children of officials or sanctioned businessmen or oligarchs from Rublyovka,” Moshkovich said in an interview, referring to one of Moscow’s poshest districts. “Education is the key driver in the modern world and I want Russia to be competitive. This is for soul and country.”

The first nation in space has fallen behind relative newcomers in math and science, mainly from Asia. A top-six finisher in the precollege International Mathematical Olympiad every year until 2015, Russia tumbled to a worst-ever 11th last year, behind upstarts such as Vietnam, Iran and Thailand. On a broader level, Russia is middling, ranking 32nd out of the 72 countries in the Programme for International Student Assessment exam of 15-year-olds, far behind Estonia, a fellow former Soviet republic.

The World Bank in November last year said low government spending on education and health in Russia “may jeopardize both economic growth and the well-being of the population.”

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