Yesterday I told you a little bit about late-Soviet higher education. Today, I’ll explain a little bit about how higher education has fared in the Russian Federation since 1991.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about higher education in Russia today is that it exists at all. Ever wonder how many people would still be at your university or college if pay stopped for months on end? That actually happened in Russia. In the chaos of the early 1990s, funding for universities fell by 80% (and could cease altogether for months at a time), and funding for research fell by 95%. Foreign aid programs – run mainly by the EU and a couple of large American foundations – briefly made up over half of all research dollars available in the mid-90s (donors were interested in preserving Soviet science, but even more so in keeping Russian nuclear physicists too busy to contemplate going to Iran or North Korea).
During the long university freeze, institutions were told to raise their own money. With decades of co-operation with industry, tapping business was an obvious route to go – or would have been had the Russian economy not been collapsing at the same time. That left tuition fees as a solution: except that, legally, tuition was supposed to be free. The solution, as in many post-socialist countries (e.g. Poland, Romania), was to offer dual-track tuition – those who did well on exams got to go for free, while those who did less well were offered full-cost places.
Where the Russians went further than most was in the way they handled the exams. Basically, institutions discovered they could make even more money if they each set their own exam, and then offered courses on how to pass their exams. That way, even if they let someone in free for an undergraduate course, they could still make money off them during the pre-university tutorial period. And since being in university also got males out of military service, the onset of the Chechen crisis also did wonders for the ability to charge fees for this kind of thing.
Under the communists, most higher education institutions were not universities but polytechnics or specialized institutions. This changed in the early 1990s when, under a new accreditation system, most were allowed to call themselves universities (which they all did, because of prestige). At about the same time, many institutions began to opens schools of business, social sciences, and humanities, because in the post-Soviet period, that’s where the demand was. In this, new private universities were not at a prestige disadvantage to the older universities, because the discredit was most discredited in precisely these areas. A private university sector thus grew as well. All told, enrolment at universities almost tripled between 1995 and 2007, with virtually all the growth coming in the fee-paying sector.
Another hangover from the communist period was the separation of research and teaching. Most research in Soviet times was done in research institutes and academies, away from universities – and though there was a lively discussion about whether or not to ditch this system in the early 90s, inertia prevailed and the university/academy bifurcation remained. Just as Russian science returned to something approaching health in the mid-2000s, global rankings like the Shanghai and Times Rankings began to show how poor Russian university scientific production was compared to the rest of the world. At best, Moscow State (Lomonosov) University and St. Petersburg State are capable of making a top 500 of global research universities – no one else is close. Unfortunately the major investments the Russian government is putting forward through the Project 5/100, which aims to put five Russian universities in the global top 100 by 2020 aren’t going to make a lick of difference to this unless the government bridges the university/academy divide. Unfortunately, that seems as far distant as ever.