Alex Usher conversa sobre educación superior en Rusia
Marzo 24, 2024

MARCH 21, 2024 | ALEX USHER – Higher Education Podcast

Higher Education in Russia

The World of Higher Education

Episode 2.23 | Higher Education in Russia


Alex Usher (AU): Maria, your book covers Russian higher education going back a couple of centuries, but I want to start right around world war one, just before the revolution. The Russian empire has about a hundred universities at this point with average enrollment of about a thousand students. They’ve got good standards in natural sciences. Then in the space of five years, you’ve got a war, two revolutions, a civil war. What I found really interesting in your book is that universities, and particularly professors, are presumably seen as tools or allies of the bourgeoisie. Yet the communist first actions upon taking power was not to crack down on the system, which they could have done very easily, but to start expanding it rapidly. Why did they do that? What were the effects?

Maria Yudkevich (MY): What we see from the history of Russian higher education is that each new political regime implements major reforms in higher education. Bolsheviks were the perfect example of that. Very fast, very large scale, reforms of higher education. It wasn’t just an expansion, it was introduction of totally different rules which created a totally different system. Bolsheviks understood well the role of education for society, and they wanted to have a system that will train people according to the needs of new economy. They also wanted higher education and education to be a channel for social mobility, and they wanted particularly to keep this mobility under strict control of state and communist party. They wanted to have people with technical training, and they wanted to have people who can manage large industrial projects. It was rapid expansion, but it was a substantial change, because access to higher education and type of access changed. It was actually one of the first Lenin decree, which he signed, that every person, of any gender, above 16, can get higher education for free without any exams. There was an introduction of new teaching technologies, because there was the same number of professors and a huge number of students and of course, introduction of working facilities as well.

AU: There was another change, in the early Stalin period around the late 1920s and early 1930s, where there’s another hinge for the Soviet higher education system. The number of institutions rockets from 100-200 to 500 or more, and the system becomes much more vocationally oriented. The institutions are not the necessarily the multi-faculty institutions that we remember from the pre-World War One period, but they are now the university of metallurgy or the university of railway sciences. I’m not sure if either of those are actually true. Why did Stalin do that? And to what extent were these events connected to Stalin’s consolidation of power generally in the Soviet Union?

MY: I think that those times were indeed the darkest times in the whole 20th century history of Russian higher education for universities. It was time when Stalin was battling against the whole idea of university as a space of intellectual freedom and a choice for students and faculty. If you look at the statistical data, on the number of institutions in the country, you would see the number of institutions increased rapidly. You’re asking yourself what happens? How would it really happen? The number of institutions grew, but number of students didn’t grow that much because most of the universities, they were divided from multidisciplinary institutions into more disciplinary pieces and given under their control of corresponding ministries, which coordinated curricula and coordinated everything related to institutions. Sometimes one institution was divided into several pieces and those institutes stayed in one building. So new institutions had to fight for every bench, for every classroom, for everything right? But what more seriously and more importantly was done there, it was the introduction of model of technical education with rigid curriculum. Students must spend time at factories and production plants. The idea is that each institution and each institute serves the needs of a particular industry in a perfect way. That’s why the rigid curriculum was introduced.

AU: In effect, if you think of the higher education system as as students, it’s the same size. But, the higher education sector in a sense, it all fragments because they’re now all responding to different ministries and different industrial needs, right? Is that fair?

MY: That’s true. That created a problem of very little coordination between different pieces of the system. Russian higher education system still bears some threats of that even after the whole century.

AU: In the post war period, in the 1950s, the system actually did expand in terms of the number of students, right? For much of the rest of the Soviet period, the Soviet Union was the world’s second largest system of higher education after the United States. The part of it obviously is from what you spoke about at the beginning such as the importance of allowing people from any background of encouraging women, encouraging working class students to go. But how did the Soviet Union actually achieve that level of mass education? And in particular, what was the role of distance or correspondence courses?

MY: First, the period after the end of the second world war is the period of the Cold War. Everything in the country, including higher education, was related to military needs. For example, the atomic bomb project was related to the creation of two important institutions in Moscow. One of them was Moscow Physical Technological Institute, which was created by Pyotr Kapitsa and Lev Landau, who later got their Nobel Prize for physics. This institute was important to train people who are then working in different research institutions specifically in physics. Several centers were created in Siberia. In Siberia, in the fifties, they created the Siberian branch of Academy of Science. With Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk, as big Siberian cities, they got universities, and they created a huge growth of human capital in that part of the country. Also, as you said, the distance and correspondence learning type of training played a huge role because the state, the government, and the society needed more specialists, but they didn’t want to create shortages in the labor market. They wanted people to be trained, but at the same time, to be part of the labor market. The number of institutions was stable, but the size of institutions and the number of students in institutions grew mostly because of this type of distance and vocational correspondence training. There was reform, which was very important in 1958, which assumes that you need to work for a few years before you can get into higher education institutions. It was abolished a few years later, but that’s played a huge role in this type of logic.

AU: I want to move ahead, getting closer to the present day and talk specifically about how Soviet universities fared during the economic troubles of the late 1980s and early 1990s. My impression is most public universities were technically insolvent in this period and sometimes didn’t pay their staff for long periods. As a result, many new private universities came along to fill the gap. From your perspective, what were the key points of that era and how did it shape higher education in Russia through to the present day?

MY: First, I think that it was a time of huge demand driven supply of newer disciplines like mostly economics, law, and psychology. Those are probably the most popular ones. Many people wanted to get a diploma in economics, in law, or to be a psychologist, etc. We should also stress here that there were quite cheap technologies, because you don’t need to any equipment like in engineering or in computer science to train economists or lawyers. So many institutions accepted many students with cheap technologies and low cost. Of course, quite often with quite low education. But the whole segments of new disciplines emerged at that time. There was a huge amount of moonlighting on the part of faculty. Many faculty worked for many places at the same time. For example, you work for good old university with a huge reputation and no money, but then you have extra classes in some, quality institutions, private type and you get a huge money. You survive in this way. Also, of course, many institutions allowed small businesses to rent space in their buildings and earn some small money or not even small money out of that. I would say that in that period, we had a huge change in the structure of our disciplinary field as a market. Many pedagogical institutions became universities because only pedagogical institutions at that time, they had all disciplines in one organization.

AU: Now, eventually there was a similar sized change, when Russia joined the Bologna process and thus adopted the European three degree system. That came at a time when there were more international contacts for Russian universities, exchanges, and those kinds of things. How big a step was that integration into Bologna and the European system? How did it affect how universities in Russia actually worked?

MY: First of all, I would like to say is that international connections played a huge role at that time. In some disciplines I would say even a critical role. For example, in economics, I would say probably that our high-quality economic programs, they were all created because of the huge support of our international donors and international universities. Of course, Bologna process was a key point I would say as well. I think that it resulted in a few important changes. First, it allowed to change curricula, very substantially, especially in the high-quality institutions. Second, it provided transparency for students, which means that students now can go for international universities abroad. They have transparent credits to demonstrate and that’s increased a lot in the exchanges. Russian universities started to accept international students more. And, of course, at the master level, now could step in to your master’s while having your undergrad with some other disciplines. So many people started to get bachelor’s and master’s degrees for different disciplines. That’s also played a future and important role.

AU: Maria, there was one key decision that was made. I don’t know if it was actually made or I don’t know how conscious the decision was, but after 1991, there was the option to reintegrate the Academy of Sciences and their laboratory facilities and their scientists into the university systems. This was a step that the Baltic countries played after they left the Soviet Union, but it didn’t happen in Russia and that deprived the universities of those resources and assets that would have allowed them to become multiversities in the sort of North American and European sense. Why didn’t that happen in Russia and what were the consequences?

MY: The main reason was that research institutes were totally not interested in that. For many years, for decades, they got direct budgets from the government, and they could do basic research for that. They got their students from universities, and they trained them in a way they need to. They don’t need to deal with teaching on the mass scale. Why should they care about universities? Why do they want to be a part of the universities and losing their freedom, their money, their property. huge buildings, equipment, et cetera? Why should they care about that? To bring that together, a huge incentive should be from both sides. I do believe that the Academic Excellence Initiative project was a very good attempt to bring science into universities, but it didn’t work well in terms of organizational nurture of the academy and university sector. I believe that there’s a huge divide between universities and research sector which was introduced again by Bolsheviks in the early stage of the reforms. I should stress that one of the reasons why they did that was political reasons. There’s a huge divide now, and it creates huge problems for many aspects of Russian higher education system.

AU: You mentioned the 5-100 project which I think is interesting. That’s where the Russian state and the Russian universities started to push to expand research into universities and make a mark in various world university rank rankings. My take on the 5-100 project, which was meant to get five Russian universities into the world top hundred, is that it started with a completely unrealistic goal that was never going to happen. But that nevertheless, the process was one that did some good. Now you’ve written about this in the book, Academic Star Wars, which we’ve covered on this podcast a couple months ago. Is that right? Is that a fair assessment of the 5-100, unrealistic but still doing good?

MY: I would say yes, briefly. But in more detail, I would say that the goal itself was not perfectly defined in the very beginning, because at that time when the presidential decree was signed, nobody in the country knew what global rankings meant. So, the decree didn’t mention what kind of rankings or what type of rankings. For example, later some experts suggested to treat the word ranking is a subject ranking. If you don’t think about general rankings, but think about the subject ranking, many universities did the job of entering 100 in different major rankings, right? The goal was not defined, so it was achieved in a way. But, what was important was the vector was perfectly determined and defined. I would mention probably two important aspects. First is research mission of university. Universities should be not just about teaching, but also about research. It was quite new for many institutions in the country. Also, internationalization would become an important pillar for every institution. Even the key performance indicator, most of them were somehow related to either research or internationalization. Second, rethinking strategies. For many institutions, they started to remove their thinking from process-oriented life such as we get some money from the ministry, and we do something for the ministry. To a more project-based approach. What is our mission? What are our goals? How do we achieve them? Of course, there was an effect not on just participating institutions which were huge, but also on the system in general. I would say yes, it definitely did good.

AU: Another really important change in Russia after the Soviet Union fell apart, was that universities regained quite a bit of institutional autonomy. So even if they were poor, they could set their own directions because deans and rectors were elected by academic staff. But that changed in 2014, the rectors at public universities since then have been appointed directly by the Ministry of Education. Obviously that puts institutions under much tighter political control. How much has that changed how institutions have been able to pursue their education and research missions?

MY: I think it’s a hard question especially for today. I don’t think that there were any periods in the Russian higher education system history where institutions had some substantial political autonomy. In some period, government was just not interested in what happens with university or inside university. But it doesn’t mean that they have freedom, right? After collapse of Soviet Union, Russian Universities got more broad economic rights. They started using this kind of rights in different ways. But political rights, I believe, didn’t come together with economic rights. And at some point of history, the government decided to exercise their legal rights in more full scale. It doesn’t mean that rights were taken out of universities. Nothing’s changed, I would say. Another type of control is that there always been a strict organizational control, which comes with government money. It’s every five cents that Russian university gets from the government, it should produce a lot of paperwork and a lot of constraints are introduced with this kind of money. Even though there are many rights, including economic rights and probably some political rights, universities are controlled so much by routines and reporting, that in many cases that has defined what happens in the university in a more substantial way than any other types of rights.

AU: You’re very critical in your book about the rigidity of curriculum in Russian universities and point out the ways in which it’s difficult to make programs, which are more relevant to the modern labour market. I’m wondering why that is? Is that because of regulatory barriers which come from government? Or is it something within the academic profession that prefers not to modernize? Is it something else? What’s the root cause here of this problem?

MY: Even in the 19th century, Russian higher education systems and universities had the same quite rigid curriculum. Why was that? Because the government accepted graduates of Russian universities as the public servants. If you accept people as a public servant, you want to control what type of people are trained in the university, in which ways they are trained. There is a huge history of rigid curriculum in Russian universities. In Soviet times, it was because as I said earlier, every institution train people for some particular factories, industries, etc. Now I think there are still many reasons for that. I think that the whole idea, even in the market economy, still bears a lot of specific features which speak to the idea of planning. There is so much planning in our Russian higher education system, which somehow contradicts the whole logic of the market economy. So, institutions are in some way between some market logic and this residual of the planning logic. So, universities has good budget for teaching students and introducing more stories is related to many different barriers. And of course, economic profession probably in general is interested, but in many cases, academic profession is just interested in reproducing itself. So, for every particular faculty, sometimes it’s much easier to teach the same type of courses every year, especially taking into account the huge teaching load for faculty members in Russian institutions. I think that explains why we have that now.

AU: In 2022, just after your book was published, and also just after the invasion of Ukraine, the governor of the Russian Federation indicated that they wree introducing another set of sweeping changes to the system by abandoning the Bologna three year system and many other things. What were the key elements of these announced changes? And do you think they’re likely to last very long? Or is this a new system that’s unlikely to outlive Vladimir Putin?

MY: Here we go back to our initial question and points. Every government, every political regime in the country wants a higher education system to serve the needs of the economy and society in a way that this regime understands that. So now, the idea is that the Russian higher education system should go away from 4 plus 2 system and go toward a 5 or 6 years plus potential master appendix, and it’s still discussed. I think the whole idea is to prepare the system to work and to function under severe isolation and to be able to be competitive for in industrial sectors to have more investments in computer sciences, IT, and engineering, and also to train more people in this area, again, to be able to compete with other economies under the constraints of political isolation. I think that’s their main idea. We might think about different kinds of chambers, but I do believe that there are so much dictated by political ideas and political regimes, so we just can now wonder what’s going to happen.

AU: If you look back at the 30 years between 1992 and 2022, What were the biggest points of success of the Russian higher education system? Are there some strengths from the last couple of decades that can be built on to make an even better system for the future? Or is there going to be a need to start over again after the isolation ends?

MY: That’s a hard question. From one side, what we managed to do in those I would say 30 years is to build a system which was to a huge extent integrated in the global academic community and the global market for higher education and to compete there and to create some universities which were probably world class universities or close to be world class universities. So, Russian higher education system really became an integral part and quite important part of the global society and global community in terms of research and education. How can you measure success? I think it’s a quite sad question because what we see now is that a lot of things are destroyed, like in terms of faculty brain drain. There are huge changes in curriculum and huge changes in our faculty composition and everything. So, I would probably say personally that a huge success are students who are trained during those 30 years and now work for many countries in the world, to change the world for better, and are actually the citizens of the world. Not being stuck toward one particular country, one particular plant, or one particular industry. For me, which now looks what happens with Russian higher education and how system is destroyed, I think it’s the biggest success. That’s human capital which can never be destroyed. That would be my answer, probably.

AU: That’s all the time we have for today. Maria. Thank you very much indeed. It just remains for me to thank our excellent producers, Tiffany MacLennan and Sam Pufek, and you, the listener, for tuning in. If you have any comments on this podcast or suggestions for future episodes, please do not hesitate to contact us at [email protected]. Join us again next week when our guest will once again be Australian higher education expert, Andrew Norton. He’ll be joining us to discuss the university’s accord, which was just released by the Australian government last month. Talk to you then.

*This podcast transcript was generated using an AI transcription service with limited editing. Please forgive any errors made through this service.


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