What Is Wrong With Higher Education in Russia?

A huge number of myths have surrounded Russian education over the past few decades. These myths have come about largely because almost all the country’s citizens have come up against the problems associated with secondary and higher education, meaning they are in a position to give their own particular slant on them and make demands on officials on education matters. At the same time, public opinion is hardly ever taken into account during the endless rounds of reforms, innovations and modernizations. 

That is why many experts struggle to explain the decision-making mechanism in the education sector. This was particularly apparent during Mr. Fursenko’s time as education minister. In addition, the reforms have so far failed to have the desired effect: Russia is still not capable of raising the quality of its training of specialists. And even though we have apparently entered the “knowledge economy” phase, it is unclear as yet how competitive Russia really is in this field. The main problem we come up against is borrowing from the “progressive” Western experience, which is not always particularly suitable to the reality on the ground in Russia. As an example, take the transition to a two-stage model, as set out in the Bologna Process, when training graduates is carried out in the absence of any real demand for such people.

Several of the problems that have afflicted Russian higher education have existed throughout the entire post-Soviet period of “modernization”. Take for example outdated school and university programs. Many programs are already obsolete by the time the Ministry of Education gets round to approving them. This is partly down to the poor quality of the programs themselves, and partly down to the bureaucratic barriers that stand in the way of the introduction of the most advanced education technologies.

The Unified State Examination may have played a role in setting up anti-corruption barriers between schools and universities. But in terms of assessing the quality of education, in particular in humanitarian subjects, it is clear that the Unified State Exam does not give a clear and accurate assessment of the real capabilities of university applicants, their analytic abilities and creativity, in spite of all the efforts to improve the exercises in section C of the tests. I believe that for prospective history students, the Unified State Exam needs to be combined with more traditional, oral forms of assessing knowledge. To a large extent, assessing knowledge should not be a question of cramming facts, names and concepts. Being able to think freely and put forward one’s point of view are the real tests of whether a candidate has mastered the historical material.

As far as roundabout means of getting into university go, the last two rounds of university entry have shown that those who want to fish in troubled waters are coming up with new, ever more sophisticated ways of getting into university, even though they are clearly no more intelligent than their peers. This is especially noticeable in the regions.

Regarding the prestige of the teaching profession and pay levels in schools and universities - the state is trying to raise the prestige of the teaching profession, by, for example, introducing incentives for teachers in rural areas. But even in the country’s leading universities you can see how the age of the staff at humanitarian and natural science faculties is going up. Very few young people see any real opportunities for career growth in the teaching profession.

At Moscow State University the situation is somewhat different, insofar as external funding allows faculties to establish more favourable conditions for young academics. This affects not only pay, but also living conditions and training opportunities in universities abroad. But this is the exception rather than the rule for Russia’s universities, which are facing the most far-reaching generational change for decades.

Why is the country, which in Soviet time possessed huge scientific and educational potential, gradually losing its leading position, as evidenced by the ratings of the world’s universities, even though their specifics do not always adequately reflect the level and quality of training?

In my opinion, the root of the problem lies in the fact that the authorities regard the education sector as the main instrument of modernization and competitiveness in name only, but not in deed. The same can be said of the pension and healthcare reforms. And the reason behind it is this – we are not going to do anything drastic, because the social costs are too high, but we will allocate scraps of money, leftovers in other words. We are getting rid of corruption through the Unified State Exam, but we are not addressing the underlying cause of corruption – the low pay of teachers and limited financial opportunities of schools and universities.

Is there a way out of this situation? It seems the new education minister has summed it up quite carefully: increase the proportion of forms of education that people have to pay for and reduce the number of universities. On what basis public-private partnerships will be drawn up is so far unclear. For instance, there is talk of getting private business more actively involved in cooperating with schools and universities through a system of grants targeted at training specialists. However, it is already clear that many educational institutions are not ready to produce new capable graduates to promote mobility in the labour market. What is in it for business? Added to that is the fact that there is quite a big difference between businesses and state institutions in their approaches to organizing joint educational projects. Will these measures become a miracle recipe for an educational breakthrough? Unfortunately it is difficult to believe in such an optimistic scenario. But prospects in this direction do exist.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.