As loyal readers know, I am a big believer that Soviet Higher Education teaches some real eternal truths about our sector (see here
in particular). This week I’ve been reading a book of essays called 25 Years of Transformations of Higher Education Systems in Post-Soviet Countries
, edited by Jeroen Huisman, Anna Smolentseva and Isak Froumin. And although structurally it’s a bit repetitive (as any book containing 15 identically-structured essays is likely to be), it’s very much worth a read for two reasons. First, for some of the totally bananas anecdotes (my faves are the public universities in Kazakhstan that were turned into joint stock companies and then sold off during an early-2000s privatization, and the Turkmen policy of shortening bachelors degrees to just 1 year because who needs all that learning anyway?), and second, because the post-1991 experiences of these countries provide some very deep insights into higher education as a whole.
Though the book isn’t quite structured to look at this directly, it’s worth conceptualizing the break-up of the Soviet higher education system as a massive sociological experiment: from a single common base, fifteen different experiments in policy. Of course, it’s not a perfect experiment: the initial conditions in the 15 post-Soviet states were quite different (compared to the average, Russia and Ukraine were better-endowed than the others, while the central Asian republics were less well-endowed), as were the economic and social fortunes of the states after independence (the Baltics got to join the European Union, Turkmenistan basically joined the 19th century, etc). But there was enough in common – the old policies, the common economic collapse of the early 1990s – to make a comparison of outcomes interesting.
The common Soviet heritage was basically four-fold. 1) Free education in a 2) highly stratified system with very few actual universities but tons of (to us in the west) hyper-specialized institutions 3) many of which were run by separate line ministries (the health ministry ran the medical schools, various economic or military ministries ran the engineering schools) and in which 4) not a whole lot of research took place because the money for research were all in external “academies”.
But what is truly fascinating is how, despite the different political and economic conditions the fifteen countries faced, they settled on some remarkably common policy outcomes. Consider:
- In nearly all countries, the economic crisis and liberalization led to the introduction of tuition fees in some for at public universities and the introduction of private universities (a couple of Central Asian republics are exceptions).
- That said, all countries kept the principle of free tuition. That is, a significant portion of students pay, but a significant portion (i.e. mainly better-off kids who test well coming out of secondary school) go for free.
- In the beginning when places were hard to come by, there was significant corruption and bribery in university admissions. All former Soviet countries countered this through the introduction of standardized national exams. Some of them seem to have been genuinely surprised that this did not eliminate social stratification in admissions – they assumed the stratification was a product of the bribery.
- Private universities were understood to be low-quality from the get-go, but in nearly all countries, it took almost a decade for governments to either introduce minimum legislative standards or adopt quality assurance standards that would lead to the closing of some institutions.
- Though subject to market competition, in all countries institutions became more homogenous. Basically, if you’re a university that historically specialized in tractor repair, you realised pretty quickly that it was a good idea to also have a business school in order to keep revenues up. Isomorphism – not differentiation – turned out to be the ultimate survival tactic.
- Nearly all countries still have bifurcated reporting lines – that is, many public universities still report to line ministries other than Education/Higher Education.
- With the exception of the three countries that joined the EU, in nearly all countries the academies retained their power and privileges with respect to research, which is a major reason why so few post-Soviet Universities look good on international rankings privileging research output.
I think from all of this there are some important lessons that probably apply to higher education as a whole. First, star researchers usually have the clout to hang on to their privileges, regardless of the overall effects these have on the system as a whole. Second, even under massive financial stress, institutional relationships with governments don’t necessarily change very much. Third, people can get addicted to free tuition even in situations where it makes obvious sense to change the policy. Fourth, it’s really hard to get government to focus on quality as an issue in higher education, even where it’s clearly a very big problem. Fifth – and I really think this is the big one – a market-driven system does not necessarily lead to a differentiated system; in fact, it may be the opposite. And that’s not because prestige-seeking institutions pursue isomorphism in order to appear more like “successful” institutions (though that may be part of the issue), it’s because specialized institutions may not be very resilient in the face of economic shocks. Avoiding specialization is thus a hedge against uncertainty in future demand – isomorphism is in part a portfolio strategy.
And in case you were wondering: yes, this Russia/Soviet talk is all a plot to shoehorn in a World Cup reference into the blog. In the absence of the azzurri – allez les bleus!