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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

We Need to Raise the Bar for Higher Education

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Russian parents demonstrate the importance they place on education not only in opinion polls, but also with their wallets, spending a significant portion of their incomes getting their children into good institutions. It is clear, however, that Russia's system of higher education is lagging behind those elsewhere.

At the same time, the higher education sector has expanded significantly. The number of post-secondary educational establishments has doubled since 1991, and the number of students has increased by 250 percent. Over the past five years government spending per student has increased by 70 percent in real terms. And the number of people paying for their children's educations is on the rise, with 15 percent of all post-secondary students studying at private institutions and half of all students at public universities now paying tuition.

But indicators of the quality of education continue to fall. Studies reveal a growing dissatisfaction in the business community with the quality of higher education and the lack of communication between educational institutions and the labor market. According to international studies, Russian universities are falling behind their counterparts in the United States, Europe and Asia. Only two Russian universities placed in the top 500 in a recent rating of the world's universities.

Reformers in the 1990s and the first half of this decade realized that science and higher education could not continue working according to the Soviet model. The thinking has been that if it weren't possible to fund the same level of scientific research, then it was better to have fewer exceptional scientists and universities than more mediocre ones. But the reforms of the 1990s were doomed for political reasons, as the scientists and professors -- who were a privileged class in the Soviet Union -- could not forgive the government for instituting the economic reforms that deprived them of their relative wealth and status.

The severe lack of funding also generated a brain drain, with the best scientists finding jobs outside the country and the best administrators leaving for the private sector. The most steadfast stayed in education and science, but spent less and less time on science and more and more on economic survival. This meant that there was no development and, as in other branches of society, it was easier to continue to coast on a reputation established during the Soviet era than to make the painful changes necessary to ensure excellence. The system still looked good when measured by domestic parameters, but comparisons with foreign institutions revealed a gap in the quality of education.

Higher education continues to be catastrophically under-funded, with just 1 percent of gross domestic product dedicated to its support. The European average is about 2 percent, while 3 percent of GDP goes into education in the United States. Russians simply aren't prepared to pay the taxes that would be necessary to finance science and education at Soviet-era levels, and no incentives have been created to attract more private funding.

There is also a lack of effective stimuli for improving the quality of education. Financing isn't tied in any way to results or labor market demands. Until stimuli for improving quality are in place, neither the government nor the private sector will be ready to increase education funding significantly. This becomes a vicious circle, of course, as the "poverty trap" in which institutions of higher education now find themselves precludes improving results. Providing more funding before quality levels are raised, conversely, might just lead post-secondary institutions to conclude that it is profitable to maintain the status quo, thus exacerbating current defects.

The system, which functions more as a place for a large number of male students to hide from the army than as a provider of quality education, has to change. A new social contract among universities, the government and society is needed. Students and employers should know what they need, and be ready to pay for it. The state, in turn, should support their choice with vouchers and subsidized education credits.

While this kind of partnership could improve the quality of education and science, it would be a mistake to rely entirely on the government to set criteria for quality. Instead, an independent system should be set up to evaluate the quality of education, and students should become true purchasers of educational services. The student should choose his or her major and then pay for the choice as the primary recipient of a good education, even if this means taking out loans. The government should support the idea that "the money follows the student" by helping develop the system of student financial credit.

For the student to have a real choice, meanwhile, information regarding the quality of various programs has to be made available. There are many independent mechanisms in other countries that provide such evaluations: professional standards developed by organizations like the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and Delovaya Rossiya; subject-specific tests such as the GRE, GMAT, and TOEFL; professional tests for lawyers, accountants, financiers, etc.; and employment agency research related to the career paths of graduates from different universities. The publication of this information would create real competition between institutions and improve quality, as the winners in the competition would reap the tuitions paid by students and parents.

With regard to staff and researchers, it is no surprise that universities and research facilities lost so many talented academics during the transition to the market. The private sector had the most to offer many of these people, while those who wanted to further their careers often left for leading international research institutions.

The solution to this problem is obvious: At least part of the scientific diaspora has to be drawn back to Russia. The academies still enjoy a certain advantage here, as their internal corporate culture is oriented toward research. By integrating research facilities into the universities, the universities can benefit from this as well.

Unfortunately, getting young academics to return means paying them what are, by Russian standards, enormous sums. There is no other way. The market for research personnel in the United States is very competitive, with some scientists earning more than the U.S. president, let alone the president of the Russian Academy of Sciences or the rector of Moscow State University.

The distribution of research grants, and the creation of endowments in particular, on a competitive basis could help partially to reverse the brain drain. If competition for research funding were open to everyone and recipients were chosen by international experts (including members of the Russian diaspora), substantial support could be channeled to promising researchers.

The number and magnitude of problems facing higher education is no reason to lose heart. Many other countries have faced and, one way or another, successfully dealt with the same problems Russia is experiencing. Unlike as it was in the 1990s, there is not only an understanding of what has to be done, but also what we need to pull it off: more money in the federal budget, the political will to spend it on the development of education, and an opportunity to reform the system of administration in the universities. All that's left now is to get to work.

Sergei Guriyev is rector of the New Economic School/CEFIR. This comment appeared in Vedomosti.