Higher Education in Russia

Degrees and Standards

In Soviet Russia, higher education had only one tier—the so-called specialist’s degree, requiring five years of study (or, in some cases, six) and resulting in a narrow specialization. A well-known joke that existed at that time was the following: "If an engineer graduates as a specialist in right-handed threading, they’ll never be able to retrain as a specialist in left-hand threading." In Post-Soviet Russia, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) gradually switched to a two-tier system of bachelor’s and master’s degree programmes, and Russia joined the Bologna Process in 2003. The change-over was completed in the 2010s, when the last students enrolled in specialist degree programmes graduated, although specialist training courses are still being conducted in some areas.  

The idea of moving to the 4+2 system in Russia was not just the result of a desire to correspond with global trends or to simplify the qualification recognition procedure. As higher education has become almost universal, the bachelor’s degree has become a general education qualification, if only because the bachelor's programme is a shortened version of a specialist degree. This means that in most subjects, specializations during the final years are stipulated by federal education standards. Russian children attend school for 11 years. Suggestions to switch to 12 years were shrugged off, even though general knowledge and skills, which are part of school education in other countries, are only taught in the first years of higher education in Russia.

The third-generation Federal education standards (the first and second generation date back to the 1990s and 2000s), to which our universities and colleges must adhere, articulate a framework of requirements concerning the structure of the basic education programme. The contents of the education (curriculum) that students are obliged to learn are not provided for in the standards—what matters is that graduates possess the competencies listed in detail in the standards for each subject. And each HEI takes these framework requirements into account when determining how to run its courses.

Discussions are underway to decide how to further develop higher education, in particular the bachelor’s degree. Currently, allmost all bachelor’s programme courses are designed along the same principles, but they could be divided into general degrees (non-vocational higher education), professional degrees (for a specific career), and applied degrees (shortened degrees for skilled labour jobs). The general bachelor’s degree would allow us to lighten the programme for students who haven’t yet decided on a profession, and an applied bachelor’s degree would allow qualified workers to be trained for jobs that are currently undersubscribed but in demand in the Russian economy.

See also: HSE and the Educational Reform in Russia: Experiments on Oneself

Education in a Changing Society

In the Soviet Union, Higher Education was the territory of a select few—the number of state-funded places was limited and dictated by the planned economy. No private universities or colleges existed, so studying at one's own expense was not an option. 

In the early 1990s, all of that changed. Private universities began to appear, although they are still relatively few in number, and state universities were allowed to enroll fee-paying students. Consequently, in spite of economic hardships, the demand for higher education grew enormously in the 1990s and has continued to do so. Today, nearly all parents want their children to go to university, and almost 90% of the current age cohort is enrolled in higher education of some kind. Very few, however, apply to technical colleges or vocational training institutes as their prestige is low, and students who graduate from such places attempt to enter university anyway.      

If in the Soviet Union many students already knew in their first year where they would be working upon graduation (a system existed for allocating work places), then in the new Russia, a university degree offers no guarantees of employment. But, demand is determined more by family perceptions than by the requirements of the labour market. Courses in economics, management, and law are particularly oversubscribed, as people assume it is easier to find work in those professions. It is also easier for universities to provide such courses as, unlike engineering or medicine, they can be taught without expensive laboratories and equipment. In the 1990s, almost all the HEIs, including engineering colleges, began to train economists, managers, and lawyers. The growth and scale of this phenomenon, combined with cuts in state funding, took its toll on quality. (Many “graduates” came out with degrees that weren’t worth the paper their certificate was printed on, which made it hard for them to find employment and angered employers who were desperately in need of properly qualified professionals.)

In the 2000s, a gradual increase in education funding brought the issue of raising the international competitiveness of Russian HEIs onto the agenda. The best universities have been given support on the basis that they can best deal with the problem of quality at institutions that were more or less just selling qualifications. Almost anyone, as long as they meet a few simple, formal requirements, can go into the business of education and issue state diplomas (licenses and accreditations).


The Struggle for Quality

Over the last 20 years, the Government has made multiple attempts to bring the higher education market into line.

In 2012, newly appointed Minister of Science and Education Dmitri Livanov conducted a full inventory of all HEIs and introduced monitoring to “evaluate the efficiency of their work and to reorganize ineffective educational establishments”. On the basis of these criteria—students’ average grades on the school leavers/university entrance exam (Unified Single Exam USE), the volume of R&D, the quota of foreign students, the volume of income, and infrastructure—130 state HEIs and 450 of their regional branches were found to be deficient.

The Ministry plans to monitor HEIs every year and to take appropriate measures depending on the results, although a significant portion of the higher education community is vehemently opposed to the conclusions drawn about the quality of education and the possible measures for optimization. Witness the student strikes and acts of civil disobedience in response to the incorporation of the 'deficient' Russian State University of Trade and Economics into the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics. The Government, nevertheless, knowingly pursues this unpopular course of cutting state-funded places at HEI outsiders and introducing optimization measures.  

See also: Monitoring Enrollment in Russian Universities


The Club of Leading HEIs

In an attempt to provide the minimum-acceptable quality in HEI outsiders, since the mid 2000s, the Government has made an effort to develop the strongest institutions in the country. This began in 2006 when, as part of the national project “Education” (a large-scale programme initiated in 2005 by Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin to support education), a competition for innovation in HEIs took place. There were 17 competition winners in 2006—the Higher School of Economics being one of them—and a further 40 in 2007. They all received state funding to realize their projects. Two new universities were founded: the Siberian Federal University, which combined several HEIs in Krasnoyarsk, and the Southern Federal University which combined several HEIs in Rostov-on-Don and neighbouring Taganrog.

In subsequent years, a club of leading HEIs emerged. It is made up of several dozen establishments that provide high-quality education and are permitted to set their own standards, with special government support. 

In Russia, two major universities have been declared national treasures—Moscow State University and St. Petersburg State University. They have been granted special status by presidential decree and by order of the Government which provides them with funding stated specifically in the federal budget. 

The next group of leading HEIs are the nine federal universities which were formed in the regions by combining several HEIs. The purpose of the federal universities is to develop higher education and to strengthen higher education's links to the economic and social spheres of those regions. They were created by the federal government without going through any competitive process.

In 2008, another category of leading university was introduced, the national research university—NRU. The main distinction of the NRU is the integration of research and education, something not found in the higher schools of Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia because scientific research was concentrated traditionally in the system of the Academy of Sciences, rather than in HEIs. According to a Government decision, the first two NRUs to be named were the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys (University of Technology) and the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute. Then following two competitions, 12 establishments including the Higher School of Economics, and then a further 15 establishments received the status of NRU.

In 2013, a group of 15 HEIs emerged as the winners of a competition for additional government support to propel them into world university rankings by 2020. Most of the 15 are federal and national research universities. The HSE is also among them. As Minister Dmitri Livanov stated, this all involves Russia's leading HEIs, developing their infrastructure, internationalisation, attracting leading academics, and working on ground-breaking research. And, as a result, Russian universities will join the fray for global leadership. Other developed countries run similar programmes to boost their universities' positions in international rankings.