Alexander Bikbov: How Russian Universities Became the Future of World Education

Alexander Bikbov: How Russian Universities Became the Future of World Education
Alexander Bikbov, Center for Modern Philosophy and Social Sciences, Moscow State University [1]

The Russian Ministry of Education entered the European Bologna reform club in 2003, five years after its foundation, having jumped over the constitutive phase. Such a delay accompanied by the government’s explicit hesitations and high resistance among university administrators, made Russian universities seem like an(other) example of obstructed modernization. This vision was and still is actively promoted by the advocates of reform in both national and international agencies. Ironically, the very same idea of efficiency has recently been imposed on the university in the European cradle itself, now proclaimed rigid and retrograde. Being an object of important public expenditures, the contemporary university is everywhere condemned by the new commercial doxa as never-good-enough.

The Russian rhetoric creates a clear line dividing the desired global market future of Russian higher education from the isolated and clumsy Soviet past. The attempt itself is far from being the first during the long post-war period. The categorical imperative of “optimization” in terms of effectiveness and adaptation to the “needs of industry and services” has been progressively applied to the expanding university system since the late 1950s. But even this protracted historical perspective does not explain the current impetus for university change. If we separate the new university model from its technical dimension (convertible credits, common levels of study, mutual recognition of degrees), the Russian version, as in the rest of the world, finds itself part of a global political trend guided by three key principles: reducing the costs for the public sector, privatization of common goods and the disempowerment of self-governed (peer-based) social bodies in favor of a directive state.

The fact that the Russian universities were radically pushed in this direction as early as the early nineties, is an attempt to reverse the usual hierarchy, forcing them to jump from the bottom to the top of the “modernization” ranking. Russian higher education may be an example of reform, in a certain way, brought to its ultimate success.

Back to the Future

One of the decisive indicators making clear this success consists in the proportion of the financial self-funding of universities. Public universities of the continental Europe (France, Germany) have 8-10% of their budgets coming from non-public sources [2]. Certain UK universities, which are often used as a didactic model by advocates of reform, receive up to 28% of their budget from endowments, tuition fees and other publicly independent sources (ibid.). Russian universities do not provide the public with statistics of this kind, with excuses such as calculation difficulties or appealing to the principle “it depends on what is taken into account”. Nevertheless in private discussions administrators of several great public universities and departments indicate a proportion of “around 50%” from private sources, which corresponds quite well with expert estimations of 45-55% given in the early 2000s. Even if university managers always love to get more from the public budget, last year’s State programs and State institutional grants, unknown in the nineties and even in the first half of the current decade, may result in some indigestion syndrome among university structures.

Such an extensive self-financing, compared to the modest 10% rising to 28% for European universities, sounds pretty seductive. So why is criticism of the lamentable quality of education in post-Soviet universities so common whether in professorial or in administrative statements and discussions? What makes these criticisms persist? The fact is, contrary to the mental experiments, financial self-sufficiency and commercial profit made under real economic conditions turn out not to improve but to lower educational standards.

Pushed by the “liberated,” i.e. profoundly deregulated, market in the early 1990s, and in absence of those economic agencies that could and would invest in non-profitable education and research, Russian universities set out to sell those goods which might provide them with a minimum level of survival. The goods that sold well were far from being fundamental knowledge and even educational services were still rather exotic in that early post-Soviet moment. They included, first of all, square meters of the university buildings and acres of the university lands proposed for rent to trading companies, commercial ventures, etc. They also included diplomas which may or may not have required any knowledge or learning. A significant factor behind the exponential growth of the diploma industry was the exemption from mandatory military service for students of the great public universities. All these self-financing measures lay at the limits of legality, and, indeed, often exceeded those limits, generating corruption rents. Such a situation was largely tolerated by State agencies since they were enmeshed in similar corruption “like everyone in the country”. This crisis-based management, while letting universities survive, had little to do with the quality of education and competition in pursuit of knowledge. It generated the income to pay electricity bills and basic (though miserable) professors’ salaries, but also personally benefited the university executive which re-established itself as a faction of the new Russian bourgeoisie, making its fortune in the emerging free market.

A university model based on the crisis management “naturally” required decision making to be concentrated in the hands of higher university administration. In the same period when Russian industries were privatized via the voucher system transforming managers into owners, the decision-making power of the never-too-strong Academic Councils was monopolized by senior management that made universities work under a paternalism that was even sharper than in the late Soviet era. Public universities were never privatized de jure but were (and are) often administered as if they were privatized de facto. This not only affected finances. It also included such an important procedure as staff recruitment which was appropriated by deans and chair administrators leaving the mandatory public competition for vacant positions, formally required even in the Soviet era, in abeyance.

Liberating commercial incentive and leaving local administrations to govern in their own interests was considered by the ultra-liberal government of the early 1990s to be an important advantage driving Russian education to produce new competitive knowledge and to leave behind all the disadvantages of the conservative Soviet system. Market autonomy destroyed both occupational security for the professorial body and its self-regulated quality control, which had the effect of a retrograde conservation of the degrading Soviet university structures and of its knowledge base [3]. The quality of education declined at traditionally strong departments in the natural sciences accompanied by a high brain drain towards other world scientific superpowers. Not surprisingly, the emerging post-Soviet social sciences have not produced an epistemic breakthrough so long as professors and researchers were seeking extra jobs inside and outside the university sector to compensate for their miserable salaries, and in this way intensifying their precarity not only in its economic but also in its intellectual dimension. 

The tough survival years ended in the early2000s, with the growing public finance of secondary and higher education and with the introduction of new university supports such as State Target Programs and institutional grants. Aside from the growing public budget for education, Russian universities enjoyed growing tuition fees, now introduced officially as early as the mid-1990s. By the middle of the first decade of the new century, 62% of all the freshmen in public universities were paying for their studies [4]. Tuition was seldom below 3,000 dollars per year in the central universities (Moscow and St. Petersburg) or below 1,500 dollars in the regional universities. The most prestigious public universities charge annual fees of around 6-9,000 Euros. The market for legal education expanded considerably on the basis of a management model marked by the absence of peer-based decision making.

Controlling the growing public finance and commercial flows, the university-as-enterprise remains an important agency of the black and gray economy and is connected genetically and functionally to earlier institutional models. Maintaining illegal commerce in diplomas and reselling a part of the remaining 38% of the vacant student places that had already been paid for by the public budget (so called “budget places”), certain university administrations make double profit from their financial autonomy in spite of toughening State measures against unlicensed commerce and corruption inherited from the “wild nineties”. Private reselling of publicly paid places was already familiar under the rigid Soviet regulation but became much more widespread under harsh deregulation. The image of the university as violating basic principles of social justice continued unabated, even intensified, in the post-Soviet period. Such commercial autonomy kept the post-Soviet university afloat and its management motivated. In some cases, prestigious universities might take up to 50,000 Euros in cash from student families as the admission fee for vacant “budget places”.

It worth mentioning that another key factor of this model — along with a diploma of higher education to be presented on entry to the labor market and the avoidance of military service — consists in holding mandatory entrance exams (since the Soviet era) following the model of elite High Schools but now applied to mass education In 2009 a set of universally imposed but locally managed exams were replaced with a set of mandatory national tests which serve to regulate the role of private incomes including corruption that lie at the basis of university self-financing.

Under these circumstances, the significance of the current European (Bologna) university reform in Russia is quite unusual from a global perspective. The State wants to take over the underground financial flows which have been controlled, since the early nineties, by separate university groupings. The contest between a faction of university managers and the Russian government does not signify a struggle between two opposed principles, such as academic freedom and repressive State control, but rather it is a struggle between two rival models of commercialization of the educational sector, namely a “black” and private model versus a centralized and seemingly more transparent manner. From the outside, this situation is often seen in a distorted way, a contrast between the revival of state tyranny on the one side and the expansion of the mafia on the other. If we look closer, however, we see these two models are but slightly different expressions of spontaneous capitalist neoconservatism, or neoliberalism, depending on one’s viewpoint. What could better reassure the pro-“modernization” Western observers frightened by the threat of Russia’s ascetic despotism? Indeed, the new right governments in Europe are on the way to a profound mutual understanding. The actual governmental executives of Sarkozy or Berlusconi reveal similar political and economic sensibilities, and consider the Russian State as a successful enterprise which knows how to make a good profit from public goods.

Commercialization Equals Hierarchy

The fact that the actual educational struggles in Russia have been developing around an almost unchallengeable commercial and managerial/corporatist consensus has several interconnected and not always evident effects:

1. Neither government nor university administrations normally consider the problem of inequality of access to and success in education. In most cases such social justice issues are the concern of the left, vastly marginalized in the political decision making and often nostalgic for the “excellence” of the Soviet educational system.

2. At the same time that social assistance for tuition fees and other expenditures (such as housing) has decreased, students’ geographical mobility, especially between big cities and between regions, has also fallen considerably, when compared to the welfare decade of 1980s [5]. This does not concern students from wealthy families who can assist their children in pursuing studies at prestigious centers including international ones. But for the majority, especially for those coming from small and medium towns, a cheap dormitory and, in general, lower living expenditures are a key factor when choosing a university. In other words, the quality of education or a discipline’s attractiveness often play a less important role than basic material conditions. According to surveys conducted in the early 2000s in several major Russian cities, from 70% to 95% of students come from the same region [6]. The famous “mobility”, which was one of the main planks of the reforms, has an economic price which, at least in the Russian case, proves to be higher than the inflated social and economic value of the university diploma.

 3. A large proportion of parents pay quite legally for their children’s studies (the above mentioned 50-60% in the recent years), but what they really purchase is not enhanced academic knowledge or skills adapted to the labor market. They pay for a diploma that is only a basic prerequisite for gaining access to a job. This fact makes the university a less probable institution for knowledge production, transforming it into a machine for extracting a “natural” rent for awarding degrees, with special appeal to young males wishing to avoid mandatory military service. In this sense, post-Soviet universities drop out of the history of world culture and find themselves, to a large extent, as part of the modern economy of rent seekers – an image that is all too closely associated with the New Russia. .

 4. Increasing fees and inadequate social programs transform the university into a place of forced social consensus where no one has interest in claiming too much. Parents do not ask what they pay for, professors do not ask students to study hard, and students themselves feel uneasy to formulate any claims. Such a tight consensus reveals itself in various ways, including an extremely low failure rate from one year to the next. By the early2000s, the ratio of the number of graduates to the number of freshmen five years earlier was a sensational 102%, while in the early 1990s the figure was only 63% [7]. A success rate over 100% looks quite ironic as compared to the European situation where the recent governmental criticisms of the university has been directed at the low graduation rates which vary from 20-30% in Italy to 40% in France. In the Russian university, “liberated” more than 15 years ago, a student is never removed until the delivery of the diploma, whatever his or her scholarly prowess or success in intermediary exams. Far more than in the Soviet Union, commercial autonomy of universities has transformed higher education from a personal project into a weighty family investment.

 5. Commercialization does not improve the most problematic parts of the university model, such as general entering exams serving as one of the main relays of educational corruption. Indeed, commercialization does not eliminate the weak parts but just makes them more profitable. Locally held mandatory oral and written exams (in 3-5 subjects, depending on the university), giving access to university studies, served as an important source of illegal income for university administrations and staff, until very recently. This elitist admission procedure was not abandoned, whether in favor of a open commercialized access or to take into account the fact that 72% of school leavers were entering universities in the early 2000s [8]. Mandatory written tests taken in schools and controlled by the Ministry (and not by the universities), mechanistic and often senseless, replaced the previous exam system in 2009. The formal procedure and the controlling body were changed but the principle itself remained immutable. Both forms had the same results – allowing the coaching industry to flourish and dividing all the vacant student places into those paid by the public budget and those paid by students’ families. In long oscillating polemics that have accompanied preliminary regional experiments and the ultimate shift from exams to tests, some university administrators confessed that none of methods of pre-selection had effectively measured student abilities. While claiming to “guarantee the level” of university entrance, this new method of selection works as it did before, namely to obtain, legally or not, educational rent from the student population.

 6. The power balance between university management and collegiate bodies has shifted dramatically in favor of the former, leading, in effect, to various kinds of university privatization. Concentration of institutional power in the hands of university executives, while spontaneously implementing models of “effective” university-enterprises, detached Academic Councils from decision-making, both in career evaluation and in teaching. This detachment affects staff recruitment as well as the way the curricula are immutably (since the Soviet era) determined on the ministerial level. Universities seeking the State certification must then make sure professors follow the curricula in conformity with the ministerial “standards”. This balance has little chance of being recomposed within the crystallized model of a paternalistic and profit oriented university, and, moreover, one that is impervious to critique and revision.

 7. One of the most immediate effects of such a model is a rapid increase in the “precarity” of the professorial body. This financial insecurity expressed itself in the nineties in the holding of several badly paid jobs, but by the end of the current decade, under a demographic and financial crisis, it involved the reduction of vacant positions due to the growth of teaching obligations. The Ministry of Education recently set the norm at 900 hours per year, as compared to less than 200 in European universities. University management does not explicitly make professors interchangeable, but in practice that is what happens. It can impose temporary lay-offs (furloughs) for periods during the summer holidays and profits from academic exchange that mean salary savings. Management may also dilute education by providing departments with packaged curricula in the form of ready-made powerpoint presentations. In the absence of active university trade-unions or collegiate structures, professors, especially younger ones, are often overburdened with unpaid administrative, technical (secretarial) duties or extra teaching making it even more difficult to do research and publish. Many universities do not even provide professors with a copy of their contract. Some contracts have an open ending-date, and in this way give management a tool for dismissing employees at any moment and with minimal legal risk. Legal trials are naturally rare in the academic environment which is governed by personal symbolic credit: Having lost their job, professors simply try to find another one. It is worth repeating that the proletarianization of the teaching profession is the reverse side of a no less “natural” evolution of the university’s higher management into an established bourgeoisie enjoying university rent. The intensification of social stratification among students, which accompanied the commercial drift of the nineties, thus went along with the social stratification of the university staff.

8. The same imbalance of university power translates itself not only into a low level of professional solidarity but also into a weak public activity of the professional corps. This can be observed in many domains starting with questions of establishing disciplinary boundaries, and ending up with struggles around the educational reforms. Such struggles are focused on the way that the professorial body is merely excluded from decision-making, often being manipulated by university management. That means that there is simply no chance for such a “French” confrontation (as in 2009) between professors and students on the one side and government and rectors on the other – struggles that have emerged more broadly in Europe from peer-based routines like self-governed professional and disciplinary associations, peer-to-peer career evaluations, university or department General Assemblies, etc. Russian university and ministerial administrations remain the key protagonists of reforms, and their decision-making is far from the public eye, never mind public debate.

 The Chicken or the Egg?

The spontaneous “managerial turn” taken in the early nineties by the Russian universities and their progressive commercialization created overwhelming evidence that such a turn does not make for an effective higher education. The market “liberation” which reduced collegiate power, weak enough in the Soviet era, produced trends in the opposite direction from the expectations of Russia’s “Chicago boys”. The university has not escaped from oversized bureaucracy: while the institutional power has been privatized, the university has experienced a growth of bureaucratic ranks and of direct administrative intervention in every sphere. The European universities living the managerial turn since the early 2000s seem to confirm these trends in highly parallel forms [9].

The 50% self-financing that Russian universities achieved by the end of 1990s has helped neither the public budget nor the quality of education. Getting money from students’ families in the form of rent, the university-as-enterprise has rarely reinvested it in the production of nonprofitable knowledge via research, in developing longstanding professional cooperation or student incentives. Instead the funding that existed has flowed into ampler and more urgent matters such as restructuring or constructing new buildings, attracting fresh students, creating new “market-oriented” departments, playing with salaries, maintaining bureaucratic expenditures, acquiring status symbols, etc. In other words, commercialization of university has not created competition for the production up-to-date knowledge and higher labor skills. Moreover, the neoliberal or neoconservative reforms have created something different from an emancipated and dynamic international intelligence so much desired in the early post-Soviet era. What it has produced is a new sovereign and visibly provincial rationality, stimulating universities to obtain profit from secondary commodities such as buildings, delivery from mandatory military service, distribution of university degrees and academic grades, creating departments for political and economic use, etc. In spite of a clear rhetorical emphasis on “effectiveness”, the highly commercialized and newly hierarchized universities have proved to be even less educationally functional than the State model of the late Soviet era.

All this is often vaguely seen from outside Russia as a local specialty, like caviar, Bolshoi theater, falsified elections and Gazprom. It is true that the definitive transfer of decision making from the fragile peer-based structures to the university’s top executive was realized in Russia under an economic and social crisis whose depth was unimaginable in the Europe and America of the two latest decades. The commercial turn that followed the political liberalization of the late 1980s, brought an end to high hopes for an intellectually valid and socially just educational system. Taking into account the fact that the actual European reform was planned in the context of a strong regulative presence of the State, the Russian deregulation crisis of the early nineties could be seen and used as an argument to deny any relevance of the early post-Soviet and the current European experience. These nationally specific circumstances do indeed make a difference.

Even though, one should not omit a homology between these reforms quite visible on the structural level. The Russian transformation disabled weak counter-powers existing in the late Soviet university and thus discouraged both institutions and professors from competing in the field of knowledge. In the new Russia disempowering academics was a spontaneous invention of university managers; in today’s Europe it is part of governmental policy. Is there still a difference? The contrasted Russian experiences of the nineties and of the current decade are both significant because they clarify a key point: Either a “liberal” or a State regulated commercialization guides universities to a hard compromise between the old and the new forms favoring those elements which persist with minimal effort of collective collaboration and personal commitment.

In the long run, tightly commercial and paternalist management, precarious university labor, and the retreat of knowledge production from institutional competition emerged in different societies under different crises, taking different speeds in different directions. The Russian crisis was sharper after the welfare State was overthrown with the repressive Soviet regime. The European and probably the American transformations revealed themselves to be more gradual. Though the actual European (as the previous American) governments tend to reproduce the same institutional architecture, that was spontaneously found in the early post-Soviet perturbations. Normalizing the state of exception which awards top university administrators with supreme decision-making power, provokes a reverse effect which is too easily explained away as another instance of the “exotic” Russian case. This effect consists in the fact that implementing a model well fitted to a sharp crisis condition, even under a presumably bona fide State watch, creates a management which ends up provoking a deeper crisis, just like creating a strong army often ends with a great war.

[1] Alexander Bikbov runs a blog of his own on educational reforms in Russia and elsewhere. See

[2] Christophe Charle, Charles Soulié (eds.), Les ravages de la “modernization” universitaire en Europe . (Paris, Syllepse, 2007). p. 78 (data for 2005).

[3] A more detailed illustration of the same academic crisis in the Russian research sector could be found in p.ex.: Loren Graham, Irina Dezhina. Science in the new Russia: crisis, aid, reform. Indiana University Press, 2008. Ch. 2.

[4] Data by the Ministry of Education for 2006 (

[5] In light of the permanently changing modalities of the official migration statistics, viable numbers of educational mobility are hardly accessible.

[6] Tchudinovskikh Olga, Denisenko Mikhail. Gde khotiat zhit vypuskniki rossijskikh vuzov?, Demoskop Weekly, 30 June – 10 August 2003 (

[7] Data by the Ministry of Education: the total number of graduates ( divided by the total number of freshly admitted to all the universities ( between 1985 and 2005, when the division into bachelor/master degrees had not yet been introduced.

[8] Data by the Ministry of Education for 2006 (

[9] Besides the above mentioned collection of articles, Les ravages de la “modernization” universitaire en Europe, important testimonies are presented in Franz Schultheis, Marta Roca I Escoda, Paul-Frantz Cousin (eds.) Le cauchemar de Humboldt. Les réformes de l’enseignement supérieur européen, (Paris, Raisons d’agir, 2008).

Universities in Crisis, 04/05/10