Education reform
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Translated by
Joera Mulders
June 12, 2011
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Original appeared in Kommersant Den'gi
Author: Aleksei Boyarsky
Images: Kommersant / Itar-Tass

Dangerous universities

The Russian student union blames the minister Andrei Fursenko for the collapse of the educational system and demands his resignation. But even when the students succeed in removing the minister from his post, they will not be able to stop the reforms, he started. And that would mean that many students may not be able to finish their higher education in the discipline that they chose.

Original caption: Current processes in higher education will lead to teacher lay offs and larger classes.

Down with the minister!

On the 25th of May the Russian student union started to collect of signatures for the resignation of Fursenko. On the 29th of May the website fursenko.net came online. Affiliated pages on the social networks were also created. At the moment of publication of this article more than 7000 people had already signed the petition. [At the moment of translation the number of signatures had reached 11.505]

The students repeat the same accusations which in recent years have been voiced by their teachers: [Directly quoting the petition on the website] ‘In the years that Andrei Fursenko has lead the ministry, the Russian system of education and science has fallen into complete decay. Research teams fall apart. Laboratories are being closed. The brightest minds of Russian science and education continue to move abroad. The school system is being destroyed. The funding of schools is reduced and the quality of university entrants decreases. The system of higher education is being demolished: Corruption increases, the costs of education rise as well as the number of privately paid for places. The living conditions in the dorms worsen and the number of military draftees among the students increases. Many educational reforms are failing such as the implementation of the Unified State Exam, the introduction of per capita funding of schools, the transition to the Bologna system of education and so forth. All these attempts to reform the educational process have evoked a tornado of criticisms and protests’.

The minister took offense, called all the accusation lies and declined invitations to public debates.

There are theories that the student revolt has been initiated by some opposition groups, which try to provoke president Medvedev into firing at least one member of the cabinet and thereby breaking the unity of the tandem. A recent attack at the minister of health care Golikova hadn’t been much of asucces. Now another weak link would be tried for its solidity.

There is no conspiracy here, reassures Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the Institute for National Strategy [and someone who isn’t shy of a good conspiracy theory himself. JM] Furesenko like Golikova is attacked by the people who have always done so: the student community, the scientific elite, doctors and public activists. These groups have always advocated the resignation of these ministers. They have increased their efforts today, because close to the elections the likelihood that the authorities may meet their demands is somewhat higher. But by my estimates likelihood is very low. Fursenko and Golikova after all execute the ideas of Putin and Medvedev, in particular the idea that ‘big’ science is too cumbersome for the country and that it needs to be transformed into something compact. The tandem uses these ministers as lightning conductors. If they fire them, they get to bare the full responsibility themselves. So, these ministers will  get fired in one situation only: When the Kremlin analysts prove that such a dismissal would win United Russia at least 5% of the votes.

The Russian Student Union (RSS) also demands to return the military service deferment. Last week Dmitri Medvedev ordered the ministers of defense and education to review the issue of the granting military service deferment to school leavers who have reached the draft age, so that all of them have the possibility to enter an institute of higher education. [The military draft falls in between the date of graduation from school and the of date registration at an institute of higher education.]

The student union supports the initiative of the president and called upon him to take another step and remove from the law the condition that a deferment from the military service can only be granted once in a lifetime. In addition the students demand that the deferments will be extended to students of those institutes of higher education that do not have a state accreditation.

All these demands have a good chance to be fulfilled, Stanislav Belkovsky thinks. ‘These days the lobby power of generals is less than before. The minister of defense, Serdyukov, who manages the army from a economic point of view, has significantly weakened the officers corps. Medvedev on the other hand is extremely interested in supporting the students and other youth. The president may meet some of their demands.

But even when the demands of the students are met, many hurdles will remain on their path to a degree in higher education.

Original caption: What the student movement might try, they will hardly be able to stop the education reforms

The expensive student

On June 20th Russian schoolchildren will pass their last exams and will start to apply for the institutes of higher education of their choice. Within 2 or 3 years they will now whether they have made the right choice. By that time many educational institutions may have gotten into trouble.

The collapse of birthrates in the 1990’s manifests itself today in a shortage not only of conscripts, but also of entrants to higher education. ‘This year the institutes will receive 9.4% less entrants than a year ago. While in 2010 795.900 children finished their school, this year their number will be only 727.500. And this is not yet the bottom. This year those children leave school who were born in 1992 and 1993. By 1999 the birthrate had fallen by another 25%. So by 2016 the number of school leavers will  be a little above 600.000, which is 2 times less than in 2005’, says Artem Khromov, the chairman of the Russian Student Union.

The consequences of the demographic collapse of the 1990s will foremost hurt the commercial institutes. Students prefer the available places in public education or even the privately paid departments of the state institutes. There will be very few students left for the commercial institutes.

As a result the costs of their education will grow. The institutes will be forced to increase their rates in order to avoid bankruptcy. Artem Khromov estimates that the rates offered will increase by 10-15% annually. Nowadays, one year of education costs on average €870, in Moscow €1620 and at some faculties of the most prestigious institutes up to €7500. And when a student enters he or she has no guarantee that the rates will not increase over the years. Russian legislation does not oblige educational establishments to set a fixed rate for a complete period of study.

“The large majority of institutes already raises its rates by 7-10% annually, Artem Khromov tells us. ‘Unfortunately, parents and entrants often do not read the contract which they sign with the institute. For many of them it comes as a surprise that after half a year or a year they are forced to increase the family expenses for their child’s education. For years representatives of various government organs and civil society have been demanding that institutes have to be obliged by legislative means to establish a fixed rate for the entire period of study. The bureaucrats at the Ministry of Education of Science and the rectors of many of the institutes however do everything to oppose such changes to the legislation’.

The idea is that the first victims of increased competition will be those shadier institutes that often not even have a state accreditation (their diploma’s are not recognized by the state and its students cannot get a military service deferment), but these institutes may very well be ones that survive. After all these institutes have a specific source of income; people that buy their diploma to raise their social status and self-esteem.

Certified ‘academics’

Besides closure in the light of unprofitability, the institutes will be threatened with a withdrawal of their state accreditation or their educational licenses for individual or all of their disciplines. The latter is in particular projected for the legal and economic departments of the ‘nonspecialized’ institutes, which according to the official path of modernization should not exist. [The plan is that institutes should specialize and not try to teach all disciplines.]

It is noteworthy that in this year for the first time permanent accretions will be issued. To be honest, their permanence does not exclude further state control. An institute may for example loose its accreditation when inspection organs find it has been breaching the agreements under which the accreditation had been issued. Of course, the process of reforming the system of education is stretched over a rather large period of time, but this years entrants may very well find out in their third or fourth year that they will not be able to finish the chosen discipline at their institute.

In the law it is written that an institute is obliged to provide its students with a complete education, but the procedures for the guarantees of continuation of education for the students are not specified in the various normative acts, comments Ekaterina Dobrenkova, rector of the International Business and Management Academy. Usually, the administration of an institute offers the students of a closing discipline a transfer to another discipline with the loss of one year (and the costs are often not compensated). When an entire institute is closed agreements can be made for the transfer of students to other institutes, but that depends on the good will of the administration. In all other cases students will simply be given an academic certificate for the courses which they were able to complete. It is up to them to find a place to continue their education.

In the opinion of the head of the department for new technology at the center of regional programs for the improvement of governance, Vladimir Eliseyenko bona fide students [sic] do not run the risk that their institute will be forced to close.  ‘The quality of higher education in Russia is so low, that it will come to no ones mind to close an institute that provides anything resembling quality educational services. Why would anyone touch them, when one could also start with those 30% of the institutes which do little else than the implicit or explicit trading of diploma’s. Of course they will start with the latter. So only those who buy their diploma’s should be concerned, as well as those who buy their deferments from the army.’

Harvard, the Russian way

A different story are the smaller provincial institutes, that are loosing students, because after the transition to the Unified State Exam it became easier for the inhabitants of the backwoods to enter the universities in the capital or the more prestigious regional universities.

The smaller institutes will disappear, the rector of the Moscow State University for Technology and Management, Valentina Ivanova predicts. The only way to survive is to become part of a popular brand, of a big university. A wave of merger and acquisitions does not only threaten the institutes located in the periphery. The Moscow university for food production for example recently merged with the Moscow state university for applied biotechnology and the State academy for innovation.

We see how such M&A activity is often accompanied by scandals and protests. In March for example, students and teachers of the All-Russian financial economic institute for distance learning, protested outside the Ministry of Education and Science against a merger with the Financial university of the Russian government.

According to the observations of experts, the Ministry of Education and Science conducts a deliberate policy of enlargement of institutes of higher education. One of the their reasons is to stop the massive outflow of people from the regions. In particular the ministry continues with the creation of so called federal universities – Russian Harvards – in the federal districts. The Siberian federal university, for example, was formed on the basis of the Krasnoyarsk university, which already in 2006 merged with 3 local institutes.

In the same year out of the Rostov university and 3 other branch institutes the Southern federal university appeared. The Far Eastern state university was renamed into the Far Eastern federal university in 2008, although the real process of up-scaling began only in 2011, when it absorbed 3 regional institutes. On the basis of several institutes in the Stavropol Kray it is planned to create the Northern Caucasus federal university.

It may seem that those students whose small institutes merge into the structures of the big brands only win. Instead of a diploma from a provincial institute, they get one from a well known university. It is however not as simple as that. As a result of these mergers, the local teaching infrastructure might be liquidated because of a too small number of students, who are then forced to move to a regional center. For example, as told to us by the vice-chairman of the admissions commission of the Siberian federal university, Valentin Zhuravlyov, the SFU already two years ago closed its subsidiaries in Norilsk, Dudinka, Kansk and will now also close its affiliate in Sharypovo. The quality of education at these subsidiaries was very low, even though the number of local students was sufficient for the institute to have existed independently. The logic solution to the problem would be to move to a form of distance learning, which would permit the student to avoid extra expenses for the rent of a place to live in the often far away and expensive regional center. Even before the wave of mergers there had been a shortage of places in the university dorms.

Original caption: Some say in his heart minister Fursenko himself does not agree to the policies he implements

The Bologna specialist

But even when the institute and its individual disciplines are not subjected to disturbances, it is already evident, that by no means all those willing will be able to get a complete their higher education at one single educational institution. The reason is that from September 1st 2011 onwards the 5 year programs for the preparation of specialists (some disciplines are excluded) will be changed into the two-tier program of education accepted in Europe (the so called ‘Bologna system’).

[It’s striking how this is called the Bologna process in Europe – a process is not alien to the system -, while in Russia it is called a ‘system’, most likely because it is experienced as a complete change to the current structure. JM]

In the new school year at all institutes and the legal disciplines in particular entrants can only enlist in the new bachelor programmes. They however do not know if their educational institute will be granted a license to teach a master. The nonspecialized institutes practically haven’t got much of a chance at all. The demands for a license to teach a master are very high’, says the rector of educational work at the MGYuA named after O. E. Kutafina, Elena Gracheva. The institute should have at least 7 specialized faculties and 70% of the teachers should be employed full time. Out of these full time teachers 80% should have an academic degree and half of them a doctorate. Such demands are not even met by all the state institutes, let alone the private institutes’. And despite the optimistic statements that a bachelor will be considered as a degree of higher education too, society does not yet accept bachelors as true specialists. In a country where traditionally higher education is understood as 5 to 6 years, those who finish a four year bachelor are considered half-taught persons. ‘The two-tier system has many flaws and risks’, admits the vice-chairman of the admission commission of the Siberian federal university, Valentin Zhuravlyov. ‘Employers still doesn’t understand what bachelors and masters are. We do not yet have a wage-rate manual for masters and bachelors.’

This is how Artem Khromov comments on the situation: ‘At this moment in the majority of institutes the number of publicly funded masters is about 3 times lower than the number of bachelors. In the near future a system is envisioned in which only 1 out 5 bachelors could proceed to do a master. [I assume he is still talking about publicly funded places. JM] As a result not all students will be able to pass both levels of higher professional education. The transition to the ‘Bologna system’ is an attempt to reduce the number of graduates with a complete higher education and increase the number of half-specialists. In addition the educational reforms are designed to cut budget spending: the cost of the education of a bachelor is after all  significantly lower than the price the state would have to pay for the education of a specialist.’

The winners of the introduction of the new system will be the commercial institutes and those which offer MBA programs. ‘A master means intensified training for scientific research and teaching work at an institute. Does everybody really need that?’ –  the rector of the Southern federal university Igor Uznarodov asks. ‘There is also the opportunity of a prestigious education in the specialized disciplines of management and business. The introduction of the two-tier system therefore aims to stimulate in its students a sense of autonomy, responsibility and a conscious specialization in the chosen discipline .’

It is unlikely that new commercial institutes will appear when there is a shortage of students, but it is important to recall the risks of entering a recently opened institute. ‘An institute may receive its state accreditation only after its first class has completed their education, says the rector of the National open university, Anatoly Shkred. Of course, institutes try to get their state registration at the same time as the first class graduates, so these students will get a state diploma. There are however no guarantees.

Some experts unambiguously approve the transition to the ‘Bologna system’, amongst others because the European standards may elevate the status of Russian diploma’s in other countries. Others consider the introduction of the two-tier system the open sabotage and destruction of fundamental education. It’s hard to disagree with the latter, taking into account that the large majority of the new graduates will be limited to a bachelor.

Artem Khromov advices future students to ‘first of all carefully read the contract with the institute and pay attention to the procedures of increasing the rates of educations. Second, it is important to clarify the number of places an institute offers in their master programs. They may be significantly less than the number of places in the bachelor programs. Third, students should consider the possibility that the institute may merge with other educational institutions, which could lead to a reduction in the number of disciplines, changes in the educational programs, increases in the costs of education and so forth. Fourth, school leavers that wish to enter an institute in another city should think twice about the costs of education and the procedures for finding a place in a dorm, because those places are limited and if a student doesn’t get a place in a dorm the costs of living may supersede all reasonable limits. Fifth, young people should definitely check the state accreditation of the individual disciplines of the institute, they wish to enter. If the institute hasn’t got a state accreditation, the youngster belongs to the army and can be drafted even during the school year.’