It is the goal of this article to touch on some of the main aspects of Russian higher education system. Hopefully this will inspire potential students, parents and educationalists to find out more.
Russian higher education cannot be understood without refence to history. Unlike the European/US or Bologna process model, Russian higher education system was, during the Soviet period and the first years of the Russian Federation, not divided into undergraduate (bachelor’s) and graduate (master’s) levels. Instead, tertiary education was undertaken in a single stage, which typically lasted five or six years, which resulted in a specialist diploma. Specialist diplomas were perceived to be on a par with Western MSc/MA degrees.A specialist graduate needed no further academic qualification to pursue a professional career, with the exception of some (but not all) branches of medical professions that required a post-graduate residency stage (as in the West). There were and are a few universities which offer wide curriculums and a much larger number of narrow specialisation institutes (including art schools).Top institutions such as the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute, or the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, are in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and the rest are located where they are needed.
Many such institutes have histories of select entry. During those now distant Soviet days, an egalitarian approach was tempered with ideological, geographical and even religious constraints. And yet despite of all of its many failures, the Soviet education system worked in the sense of raising the standard of education throughout the whole Soviet Union to unparalleled levels.
In the 1990s, most of the institutes renamed themselves universities, while retaining their historical narrow specialisation. Russian universities can be accused of not modernising enough, which is a criticism that can be made if one accepts that westernisation of Russian universities is a desired goal, and not all Russian educators are united in that view (just as not all Russians wish Russia to be completely westernised – even if it could be). Instead of reshaping their courses, universities have been accused of simply inserting a BSc/BA accreditation in the middle of their standard five or six-year programmes. However it is not that easy to judge what is going on across the board as each university is developing at a different speed and in some cases in a different direction. The increasing number of private universities is changing the picture again, as is the proportionally decreasing number of state sponsored scholarship programs. Whilst the five-year specialist training was free, the new MSc/MA stage is not, and in many cases, neither is the new first degree course. Fees in general in Russian universities are far lower than in countries like the UK let alone the US, however the concept of students’ parents having to pay fees is still fairly new, as is the idea that students are, as in many western countries, clients.
In 2001, Joseph Stiglitz,a former chief economist of the World Bank, stated that one of the good things that Russia inherited from the Soviet era was “a high level of education, especially in technical areas so important for the New Economy”. But truth is in the in the eye of the beholder, and perhaps nowhere is this proverb more true than in the world of university rankings. There appear to be as many different rankings of Russian universities as there are organisations which deem to supply objective evaluation of educational institutions. On the positive side, we have rankings such as the QS EECA University Rankings 2018 , with MSU (Moscow State University) being No. 1 in ‘emerging Europe’, and No. 24 in the QS World University Rankings 2018. Bloomberg in 2016 rated Russia’s higher education as the third-best in the world, measuring the percentage of high-school graduates who go on to university, the annual science and engineering graduates as a percentage of all college graduates, and science and engineering graduates as a percentage of the labour force. On the negative side, we have rankings such as that offered by the Times Educational Supplement which ranks MSU as number 194 in the world, and Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) at 251. The Academic Ranking of World Universities places MSU at 93, and the St. Petersburg University at 301.
It might be worth considering that all ranking systems work by deciding whether a particular university complies to pre-set categories. US-based ranking system are usually based on categories found in the US education system, likewise for the UK system or any other model. A Russian law school may not score well on class sizes for example, but may have plusses such as public speaking practice which may not even be a category in a particular ranking system. The bottom line is that the word ‘education’ means different things to different people in different countries. Whether or not students pay much attention to ranking systems or whether employers do either is not within the scope of this article, however what can be said is that Russian universities have not been overly keen to tune themselves to western norms for the sake of a higher score according to categories they may not agree with, cannot comply with or, in some cases even fully comprehend.
We now seem to be entering a period of greater state control on education, however, paradoxically, this may mean that some universities are actually become more ‘western’. Any student thinking about entering a Russian university needs to look beyond rankings, and should be prepared to critically appraise reports written about a Russian university written at a distance.
Of crucial importance is whether or not the degree concerned is recognised in the country where the student wishes to work. A medical degree earned in Moscow will be highly respected in India, but in the UK, a doctor who has spent 6 years studying in Russia may have to re-qualify for some specialisations. Meritocratic valuation systems seem to be more prevalent in the US, although the political factor cannot be ignored. As a very general rule, Russian pure science based degrees are generally more universally accepted, science subjects with cultural aspects such as medicine may be less universally accepted without some kind of re-training. Arts subjects are usually accepted universally.
Stories about students getting into a prestigious university because of connections or money are widespread. I believed and promoted these stories myself, until I became a lecturer at a Russian university. You will probably not believe me if I say that there is not even a whiff of ‘blat’ (Russian slang for bribery) in the institution I lecture at. Perhaps this is because it is not an important enough place. Private students, however, who are studying at prestigious universities such as MSU, and the Higher School of Economics, say that ‘blat’ for admission and good grades is no longer practised, at least as far as they know. Be this as it may, it seems that there are still pockets within the Russian university system, particularly those which are connected with power structures which may still be operating in the old way. Money, however, is not always the lingua franca of influence. Many professors now coach school children to prepare for entrance exams, to earn much needed extra cash. Is this corruption? Only if the professor has access to examination papers which is very unlikely.
On the level of entry into Russian universities, it seems to me that it is more difficult to swing the results of the Russian school examinations and the university entrance exams as it may seem. Top universities like MSU and the Higher School of Economics are at least as impressed by the results of inter-school competitions called ‘Olympiads’ than the new Russian State Secondary School Certificate. MSU reportedly awards 60%-70% of its places to students who are Olympiad winners. The marks are set for these competitions immediately, before the students go home, something that foreigners like myself who have invigilated such tournaments can vouch for. To influence the results would mean an incredibly well-planned operation involving the staff of several schools, almost a military operation, and the more people are involved the more likely it is that word would get out to the general public. It is possible that ‘blat’ has moved downwards to the level of admissions into top level State secondary schools. No doubt there are still a few places reserved at the top universities for the chosen elite, but then I would like to know, please, in which country the children of the elite do not get into the top universities by nature of the quality of their secondary schools/private coaching or gifts to the university concerned. There seems to have been a general presumption that the level of pluralism present in the teaching of humanitarian subjects is deficient, however the employment of highly qualified and experienced foreign professors in many Russian universities would seem to caste doubt over the certainty of this view.
So how good are Russian universities?
We have been hearing for the past 30 years that they are not very good. At the same time we have also heard that Russians are very clever, and that many western companies, particularly high tech corporations all over the world seem to employ a lot of them, not to mention universities. Either Russians have different shaped skulls allowing for more natural brain power, or the Russian education system is far worse than the Soviet system, or, we have to entertain the possibility that the Russian education system must be better than many educationalists have hitherto presumed.
A Russian physicist told me that when he visited a well-known US university in 2016, he was invited to listen to a 2ndyear lecture on quantum physics, and he recounted that he was at a quandary of what to say about the lecture to his hosts. “I didn’t know what to say, I did not want to be rude, because the professor reading the lecture was covering the same ground we covered at school.” At the same time, Russian universities are criticised of not having enough money to be able to support ground breaking research, which is probably true. Such a statement cannot be said to be true for all universities although a lot does seem to be being spent on some institutions such as ‘Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology‘ at the possible expense of other places of learning.
The utilitarian history of Russian universities goes some way to explaining why they seem to be stronger in science subjects than Arts or humanities. This, however, is a glib explanation as many travel to Russia specially to study at Russia’s top Arts Academies. The real issue may be a different understanding of what Art is all about, in Russian culture — a culture where arguably, post modernism has not yet taken hold, and yet which may be intrinsically postmodern at the same time. Nobody can deny, I believe, the influence of Russia on cultures around the world.
Meanwhile, some open minded western educators are taking notice of Russian universities. Brookes School; a new, large, progressive international school in Moscow has signed an agreement with MSU allowing their future graduates to enter Russia’s most prestigious university on the basis of the results of their IB (International Baccalaureate). Charley King, the headmaster said: “Although there are no Russian universities in the current top 100, they are considered to be of very high standard and very desirable places to study. MSU, for example, is producing world class specialists in physics, chemistry, cybernetics, maths. It is very attractive for Russian families, and expatriate families for that matter to have the best of both worlds – the option to go abroad and the option to study in a world class university here in Russia. To put things in context, MSU is spreading its own wings, it is developing a project in Shenzhen in China, which will be called the MSU Shenzhen. MSU itself is looking outside of Russia. I think that the world is becoming so much smaller, Moscow realises and the world realises that we have to collaborate together. What that means for education is that a more internationally recognised qualification such as the IB is the way to go, alongside the equally high standards of the Russian school programme. …I hope that we will see other IB schools including schools from abroad sending their children here.”
Whilst the debate about whether or not Russia’s universities are good or not continues, multilingual websites of Russia’s top universities are appearing. Russia’s top universities are quietly preparing to welcome many more foreign students in the next few years to add to the small contingent of students from our lands who already study in Russia. We shall probably also see an increase in top level western educators working here whose careers are not only based on altruistic motives, although matching quality teaching and quality remuneration has never been the hallmark of Russian higher education. ‘We shall see’, as the Russians like to say. I certainly did not expect to see the changes that have already taken place in Russia’s tertiary education.