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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Can Schools Adapt to New Era's Realities?

For the last decade, the nation’s system of higher education has faced disaster as government funding was slashed. Students’ stipends and instructors’ salaries dropped below the poverty level. Many of the best teachers left for the West or for business careers. Curricula and teaching methods did not change from the Soviet period, and new textbooks were unavailable or unaffordable. Enrollment fell as students from the former Soviet republics went elsewhere. Will students who begin their higher education today be able to graduate in four or five years from a more healthy system?

Financial problems have decreased as universities and institutes in effect have been privatized and students have started to pay for tuition. This shift in the financial burden from government to students has introduced a new problem: Some students cannot afford to pay. But the system is adapting, and Sberbank has taken the first of many steps needed toward establishing a student loan system.

Enrollments are high in those faculties whose graduates will be best rewarded: law, foreign languages, economics, business administration. But overall enrollment will continue to drop over the next 15 years because of the demographic crisis.

Just like the military, the system of higher education seems to be too large to operate effectively; a painful downsizing seems inevitable. The system’s goals are stuck in the Soviet model, and changes in teaching methods are required.

Soviet higher education reflected Soviet society. Freedom of thought and expression were discouraged. Collectivism and equality were stressed over individual achievement and rewards. Academic freedom was largely unknown. The result was that few students were ever flunked from a course and students had very little incentive to learn. Three or more chances were given to pass exams. Communication during exams — read: cheating — was considered normal. Regular attendance and homework assignments were considered abnormal. Textbooks and detailed class syllabuses were standardized throughout the nation. While this system may have worked for a socialist economy, it is certainly not fitting for a democracy or a free market.

The privatization of higher education has not been accomplished by the growth of private institutes. These schools appeared in the early ’90s; many failed. Now the government is weeding out the survivors by denying licenses. If a private school can prove, according to government standards, that it is as good or better than a state school, it will be allowed to continue.

The privatization of state schools is not reflected in their legal status. Up to half of all students now pay for tuition, and these fees are the main funding for the schools. The government has little influence since it is not providing support, nor does it control the cash flows. Because schools’ legal status does not reflect economic reality, conflicts and academic compromises are inevitable. For example, there is an unwritten rule that paying students cannot be failed.

Merely by surviving, higher education has done remarkably well over the last decade considering the challenges it has faced and the limited resources it has been given. Greater challenges lie ahead, and fundamental change is sorely needed.

Peter Ekman is a financial educator based in Moscow. He welcomes e-mail at pdek@co.ru