UNIVERSITIES AND HIGHER EDUCATION IN RUSSIA

HIGHER EDUCATION IN RUSSIA

By 2004 more than 1,000 public and private institutions were in operation, and 6.9 million students were enrolled in higher education programs in 2005. Unlike the Soviet period, about half of higher education students pay fees and/or entrance bribes. The education budget fell drastically in the 1990s, although the Putin administration has restored it somewhat since 2002. In 2004 some 4.9 percent of the national budget was allocated to education.[Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

According to a 2005 UNESCO report, more than half of the Russian adult population has attained a tertiary education, which is twice as high as the OECD average. The number of Students in higher education increased 71 percent between 1990 and 2002 and the number of institutions jumped from 517 state schools to 1,337 schools in 2000, including 365 new private ones. Many bright students study abroad, and many of the ones that go to America don't come back, creating a brain-drain situation. The same situation exist with professors. The best and the brightest have sought work abroad. Other moonlight at other jobs.

In the post-Soviet era, the system of higher education has undergone a more drastic transformation than the primary and secondary systems. Authority has moved from the center to agencies in local and subnational jurisdictions. About 14 percent of institutions of higher learning are located in the twenty-one republics of the federation. Under the new system, each institute of higher education (VUZ) can determine its own admissions policy and the content of its academic programs. These institutions also have their own financial resources and statutes of operation. [Source: Library of Congress. 1996 *]

The Soviet Union concentrated its vocational training resources in areas such as space and military technology. It lagged behind the West in technical and vocational training in other sectors because of the practice of ending students' preparation in these areas at the secondary level. In Russia vocational schools traditionally have had a poor image; only in the early 1990s was comprehensive vocational education introduced for postsecondary students. In 1993 some 400 VUZ offered specialized training in specific vocational areas ranging from engineering and electricity to agricultural specialties. Some vocational schools have combined general and vocational curricula, with the goal of giving specialists a broader educational background. Another trend is the integration of higher technical education with on-the-job training by linking educational institutions with enterprises and factories. *

Types of Higher Education in Russia

There are 658 state-owned and 450 private civilian university-level institutions licensed by the Ministry of Education. In 1995 about 500 postsecondary schools were in operation, including forty-two universities. Postsecondary technical and vocational schools now offer comprehensive education. Many private schools and universities emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s. [Source: Wikipedia, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Institution of higher education (vyssheye uchebnoye zavedeniye --VUZ; pl., VUZy) VUZ category includes all of Russia's postsecondary educational institutions; in 1995 these totaled about 500, including forty-two universities. The other two types of VUZ are the institute and the polytechnic institute. Institutes, the largest of the three groups, train students in a specific field such as law, economics, art, agriculture, medicine, or technology. The polytechnic institutes teach the same range of subjects but without specialization in a single area. Most universities teach the arts and pure sciences. *

The institute program consists of two phases. After completing two years of general studies, a student receives a certificate; he or she then may take an entrance examination to continue for two more years or terminate the program and seek a job. Completion of the next two years results in conferral of a baccalaureate degree. The next level of higher education is specialized study based on a research program in the area of future professional activity. This phase lasts at least two years, at the end of which the individual is designated a specialist in the chosen field. The top level of higher education is graduate work, which entails a three-year program of study and research leading to a degree of candidate (kandidat ), then finally to a degree of doctor of sciences (doktor nauk ). *

Universities in Russia

Most of Russia's universities are located in large cities. Moscow State University, which was founded in 1755 and had about 28,000 students and 8,000 teachers in the 1990s, enjoys the highest reputation. In the 1990s the Russian People's Friendship University in Moscow had about 6,500 students and 1,500 teachers, and St. Petersburg State University had about 21,000 students and 2,100 teachers. [Source: Library of Congress. 1996]

Entrance to university is based on competitive entrance exams. A total of 12 entrance exams are required for admission to Moscow State University. The exams are quite hard. On some university exams students are expected to know the proper spelling of words for which no standard spelling exists.

University education used to be free to anyone who could get in. Now about half of students have to pay their way. After the collapse of the Soviet Union many universities lost the bulk of their funding. Among the ways that they make money are leasing space and facilities for conducting research for private companies and more people spending their time and energy doing fund raising.

Soviet-Era Universities

University education was free and students were given a stipend, which was sometimes increased with good grades. Training was highly specialized from the start. Students often spent five or six years studying their subjects and took only courses in their fields. Future doctors took only medical classes and future lawyers took only law classes. There was no such thing as a liberal arts curriculum.

The Soviet system dictated what classes university students would take and decided what jobs they would take after they graduated. The system encouraged students to go into pure and applied sciences, engineering, medicine and agriculture. About 50 percent of all students majored in engineering with hopes of getting a prestigious, well-rewarded join in a large state institution. The best and the brightest were often picked for scientific jobs with military applications.

The number of slots open in universities was determined by five-year plans which took into consideration the needs of certain region and the number of doctors, engineers and scientists the government decided country needed. The children of tradesmen and landowners from generations back were sometimes punished for their pedigree and had a harder time getting into good universities that those from peasant stock.

The Soviet university system produced good engineers and technicians. The humanities were highly ideologized. Soviet universities offered specialist programs. These were more specialized and different than the liberal arts and sciences curriculum offered at Western universities.

Prestigious Universities

Moscow State University is the oldest (1755) and largest university in Russia and is regarded a as its best. The entire university of 40,000 students and 8,000 teachers is placed within one building—a huge "Stalin-Gothic" wedding cake of grey and red granite that seems like something out a "1984" movie—which is perched on top of a steep bluff on the Moscow River called Sparrow Hills (formally Lenin Hills). The university was founded by Mikhail Lomonosov, a fisherman by birth who became highly educated and is regarded as Russia's first great naturalist-scientist.

The Moscow State University building is the largest university building in the world. It is 787½-feet, 32-stories tall and was constructed in the last years of Stalin’s rule between 1949 and 1953. Inside the self contained building are vegetable stores, bakeries, a pharmacy, watch repair stand, banks and barbershops as well as thousands of dormitory rooms that sometimes squeeze four students in one room and hundreds of well equipped laboratories which demonstrates the former-Soviet emphasis on science. The outside of the build is potpourri of Slavic, Babylonian and classical decorations and even a fountain pool with metal water lilies.

St. Petersburg State University is considered the second best university in Russia. It has about 30,000 students and 5,800 teachers. The Moscow State Institute of International Relations issi also highly regarded. It has traditionally trained diplomats. In the old days entrance was often based on connections within the Communist Party. Now it is often based on money. The Russian People’s Friendship University (formally Lumumba University) opened in 1960 to serve students from Africa, Asia and Latin America. It has about 20,00 students and 5,000 teachers, and St. Petersburg State University Many of its 12,000 students are still foreigners. They have been the target of racist attacks.

The St. Petersburg Mining Institute is Russia’s oldest technical institution and has produced many industry leaders and Academy of Science members. Founded in 1773 by Catherine the Great, it has prospered in recent years due to the rise of one of it alumni, Russian President Vladimir Putin and donations from companies like Gazprom, De Beers and Hewlett-Packard. Students wear military uniforms and carry electronic identification cards and are said to watched carefully by on-campus surveillance cameras.

Corruption in Higher Education

Shady business deals and bribery by applicants and students who needed a passing grades became common after the Soviet Union break up as universities tried to figure out ways to make money in a world where much of their funding from Soviet era has been cut off. In the 1990s, professors were particularly susceptible to bribes as they only made around $100 a month.

University students who wanted to pass their exams without studying too hard pitched in and gave their professors cash or bottles of vodka. One student who joined 10 other students to buy their professor a new television told the Los Angeles Times, "I am not against bribery, I work and study, but I do not have time to learn the whole bulk of questions in literature, history or philosophy. It has advantages for both for students and teachers. They get money and we pass our exams.

A student at Moscow State University told the Los Angeles Times that admission to the university’s law school can be bought for $50,000. Entrance to the journalism school cost $10,000 to $20,000. He said. “In many department, an exam costs $100, while a test costs $50 to $100. In other more prestigious departments, like the law and economic departments, you may pay up to $200 for an exam...It all depends on who you know, the chain of mediators. The longer the chain, the more people you have to share it with.”

In the early 2000s, a professor at Moscow State Academy of Fine Chemical technologies was gunned down in a chaffered car. It is believed he got into some deals with gangsters.

Russian University Students

Most university students tend to be from educated rather than working class families. In the 1990s, people could not enter university without showing a doctor's certificate that stated they were free of venereal disease. In some places students have to pay bribes of thousands of dollars just to sign up for the university.

Dormitory rooms in Russia are called blocs. They are often only around six by ten feet and sometimes have four to six students squeezed into them. In the early morning the sidewalks the dormitory rooms of Moscow State University used to often be littered with broken glass. Alcohol was illegal in the dormitory rooms. To avoid detection students simply tossed their vodka bottles out the window. By late morning the babushkas had swept it all up.♪

Some Russian students have a lax attitude towards attending cloass. Angered by the high rate of absenteeism, teachers at one medical school starting imposing fines of $4 for every hour of class they missed.

Majors and the Job Market for Russian University Students

As part of a Soviet-era system called raspedyelyeniye ("assignment") students were told by the state where and what they should study and then they were assigned to a job. The system encouraged students to go into pure and applied sciences, engineering, medicine and agriculture. The best and the brightest were often picked for scientific jobs with military applications. About 50 percent of all students majored in engineering with hopes of getting a prestigious, well-rewarded join in a large state institution.

Now the best and the brightest study business, marketing and economic and go to Europe and the United States for advanced degrees. According to survey of 14-year-old high schools students in 1998, 21 percent said they wanted to be economists or accountants, 20 percent lawyers, 18 percent financiers and 14 percent entrepreneurs. Only 2 percent said they wanted to be each of the following professions: a politician, journalist, computer operator, doctor, diplomat, bank teller, model, car salesman, translator, hairdresser, gangster, profession killer. Only one percent wanted to become prostitutes. No one wanted to be an engineer or a cosmonaut."

New courses are offered in ecology, law and economics, Students no longer have to take courses in scientific socialism. Students who graduated with doctorates in the sciences have found that there are few opportunities for them. They have enrolled in business schools or become traders.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, suddenly the jobs with the highest returns were taxi drivers, street traders, butchers and hard-currency prostitutes. The number of students enrolled in universities dropped sharply. One educator told the Los Angeles Times in 1998, "There was a long phase where students dropped out from school altogether and went off to trade on the street instead. But that's over now. Kids now need to prepare themselves properly for the job market these days. [Source: Vanora Bennett, Los Angeles Times, May 18, 1998]

Differences Between U.S. and Russian Student Life

Russian Anna Malinovskaya wrote in Voice of America News, “Being a student in the U.S. is different in a lot of ways than what I experienced back in Russia. Classes are taught differently, schools are run differently, and grades are doled out differently – some for the good and some for the bad. Here are the top 10 things I’ve had to adjust to as a student in America. [Source: Anna Malinovskaya, Voice of America News, February 8th, 2012 |+|]

“1) Your grades are private: While in the U.S. students’ grades are not revealed to the whole class, in Russia it is the opposite. It is common for a Russian professor to announce students’ grades publicly in the presence of the whole class. It is also common for Russian professors to put a list of students’ names and grades next to the names on their office door, so everyone at the university can see the students’ grades. 2) Your parents are not involved in your academics: Another policy in line with the previous point is the habit of colleges in Russia to call or write letters to students’ parents if students do not do well academically. This is what American students would probably take as a violation of their privacy. |+|

“3) Notetaking is optional: Many Russian professors require that students take notes during the lecture or seminar. They often tell students what exactly to write down, and if they see someone is not taking notes they may ask the student to leave the classroom. In an American classroom it’s usually your choice what you want to write down or not. 4) No exam determines your whole grade: Exams in Russia are certainly more stressful than in the U.S., because in many cases a final exam is worth 90 or 100 per cent of the grade. The exam format is similar for all majors and class years. During the exam, a student receives a few random questions based on the content of the entire course, and often has to answer the questions orally in a one-to-one conversation with the professor. |+|

“5) Classes can contain students from different years, and different majors: Unlike in the U.S., in Russia, you will never see students of different class years in the same class. All students, after they have been admitted to a college, are assigned to groups according to their major and class year. Students then attend classes with the same group until they graduate. 6) Your academic decision-making requires, and receives, help. In the U.S., academic advisors play a crucial role in helping students make all kinds of academic decisions. In Russian universities, there are no academic advisors, simply because there is no need for them. Russian students cannot choose what courses to take. Colleges together with the government develop a program of study for each major compulsory for all students pursuing that major. |+|

“7) Textbooks are EXPENSIVE: Although Russian students experience some lack of freedom in shaping their college education, they are better off than American students when it comes to textbooks. Russian universities provide all students regardless of whether they receive financial aid or not with free books through universities’ libraries. 8) Financial aid can be given based on your need, not just your qualifications Speaking about financial aid, Russian universities do not normally offer need-based financial aid. Only orphans are awarded a tuition waiver. Unlike in the schools across the U.S., all financial aid in Russian schools is merit-based. |+|

“9) You take significantly fewer classes: About half of the courses that Russian students take in universities are evaluated on pass or fail scale. Students take such courses in addition to four or five graded courses, so the average number of courses students take each semester is about twice as big as the normal course load in American colleges. 10) There’s less … ummm … “collaboration”. There is something about the Russian culture that is responsible for students’ tendency to collaborate in many situations in which American students don’t, for example, during exams. As students progress from their first year to their last, they develop more and more creative ways of “helping” each other without being caught by professors.” |+|

Business Schools in Russia

In the post-Soviet era, business education has expanded dramatically because the demand for competent managers far outstrips the supply. Experts believe that Russia's business education programs will play an important role in transforming social attitudes toward the market economy and capitalism and establishing a new economic infrastructure. The primary goal of the new programs is to create familiarity with the principles of the market economy while casting aside Marxist economic ideology. In the first two years after the Soviet Union dissolved, more than 1,000 business schools and training centers were established. *

Many young people say they are more interested in getting rich than receiving an education. Students have been anxiously enrolling in business schools. The Higher School of Economic was founded in the early 1990 as a way of spreading the gospel of Western-style economic thought. It offers degrees in economics, law, management, sociology and finance. In the early 2000s it was one of the hardest schools to get into. The best 200 or so student have their tuition paid. The remaining 200 pay fees of about $100 a month.

Three types of institution offer business management education: state and private business schools and private consulting firms. Many in the last category simply offer high-priced lectures, but some business schools have developed sophisticated programs. Examples are the International Business School of Moscow State University, the Graduate School of International Business of the Academy of the National Economy in Moscow, and the International Management Institute in St. Petersburg. Several schools offer full master of business administration (MBA) degree programs based on Western models. Business schools are funded by the state and by private enterprise. Competent faculty are at a premium in this field; many have been trained by Western firms such as IBM. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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