Lessons from Mid-Century Soviet Higher Education
I’ve been reading Benjamin Tromly’s excellent book Making the Soviet Intelligentsia: Universities and Intellectual Life under Stalin and Khrushchev. It’s full of fascinating tidbits with surprising relevance to higher education dilemmas of the here and now. To wit:
1) Access is mostly about cultural capital.
There were times and places where communists waged war on the educated, because the educated were by definition bourgeois. In China during the cultural revolution, or in places like Poland and East Germany after WWII, admission to higher education was effectively restricted to the children of “politically reliable classes”, meaning workers and peasants (if you wondered why urban Chinese parents are so OK with the punishing gaokao system, it’s because however insane and sadistic it seems, it’s better than what came before it).
But in the postwar Soviet Union, things were very different. Because of the purges of the 1930s, a whole class of replacement white-collar functionaries had emerged, loyal to Stalin, and he wanted to reward them. This he did by going entirely the opposite direction to his east European satellite regimes and making access to higher education purely about academic “merit” as measured by exams and the like. The result? By 1952, in a regime with free tuition and universal stipends for students, roughly 80% of students had social origin in the professional classes (i.e. party employees, engineers, scientists, teachers and doctors). The children of workers and farmers, who made up the overwhelming majority of the country’s population, had to make do with just the other 20%.
2) The middle-class will pull whatever strings necessary to maintain their kids’ class position.
Khrushchev was not especially happy about the development of a hereditary intelligentsia, which made itself out to morally superior because of its extra years of education. Basically, he felt students were putting on airs and needed to be reminded that all that training they were receiving was in order to serve the working class, not to stand above it. And so, in 1958, he tried to shake things up by slapping a requirement on university admissions that reserved 80 per cent of places to individuals who has spent two years in gainful employment. This, he felt, would transform the student body and make it more at one with the toiling masses.
This has some predictably disastrous effects on admissions, as making people spend two years out of school before taking entrance exams tends to have fairly calamitous effects on exam results. But while the measure did give a big leg up to the children of workers and peasants (their numbers at universities doubled after the change, though many dropped out soon afterwards due to inadequate preparation), what was interesting was how far the Moscow/Leningrad elites would go to try to rig the system in their children’s favour. Some would try to get their children into two year “mental labor” jobs such as working as a lab assistant; others would find ways to falsify their children’s “production records”. Eventually the policy was reversed because the hard science disciplines argued the new system was undermining their ability to recruit the best and brightest. But in the meantime, the intelligentsia managed to keep their share of enrolments above 50%, which was definitely not what Khrushchev wanted.
3) Institutional prestige is not a function of neo-liberalism.
We sometimes hear about how rankings and institutional prestige are all a product of induced competition, neo-liberalism, yadda yadda. Take one look at the accounts of Soviet students and you’ll know that’s nonsense. Prestige hierarchies exist everywhere, and in the mid-century Soviet Union, everyone knew that the place to study was Lomonosov Moscow State University, end of story.
Remember Joseph Fiennes’ final monologue in Enemy at the Gates? “In this world, even a Soviet one, there will always be rich and poor. Rich in gifts, poor in gifts…”. It’s true of universities too. Pecking orders exist regardless of regime type.
4) The graduate labour market is about self-actualization
One of the big selling points of the Soviet higher education system was the claim that “all graduates received a job at the end of their studies”. To the ears of western students from the 1970s onwards, who faced the potential of unemployment or underemployment after graduation, that sounded pretty good.
Except that it didn’t to Soviet students. A lot of those “guaranteed” jobs either took students a long way from their studies they loved (“I trained to be a nuclear scientist and now you want me to teach secondary school?”) or the big cities they loved (“I’m being sent to which Siberian oblast”?) or both. And failure to accept the job that was assigned was – in theory at least – punishable by imprisonment.
Yet despite the threat of punishment, Soviet students found a way to evade the rules. Getting married (preferably to someone from Moscow) was a good way to avoid being sent to the provinces. Many simply deserted their posts and found work elsewhere. And some – get this – enrolled in grad school to avoid a job they didn’t want (would never happen here of course).
The point here being: people have dreams for themselves, and these rarely match up neatly with the labour market, whether that market is free or planned. There’s no system in the world that can satisfy everyone; at some point, all systems have to disappoint at least some people. But that doesn’t mean they will take their disappointment lying down. Dreams are tough to kill.