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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Thinking Outside the Box

My Russian godson, Zhenya, recently announced that he is ready to go to college. No surprise there. He is 18 years old and has been taking what many Americans call a "gap year" between secondary and higher education. The idea is to gain a bit more maturity and experience before returning to things academic and then heading off to the big world.

Zhenya has definitely matured and gained experience. He has been observing life from the business end of a McDonald's counter, and he has had enough of the view. His new vision extends far beyond burgerland and toward a macroeconomic big world unimaginable a generation ago. Given the option, he would probably major in Oligarch Studies.

Having worked both sides of the desk in six Russian universities, I should have some useful godfatherly advice to share with Zhenya about college options. But I'm not sure I do. Russia's higher education is in flux; there is no unified theory to explain where it stands today or where a proto-entrepreneur like Zhenya might best fit into it.

The overview can be encouraging if you cherry-pick the right figures. One recent study makes a nice best-case graphic of the post-1991 era, showing higher institutions doubling in number, enrollments up 250 percent and per-student spending up 70 percent since 2001 (in real terms). Moreover, it would seem that market forces are starting to work as well: 15 percent of Russia's undergraduates now attend private institutions.

Perhaps best of all, Russia's accession in 2007-2008 to the Bologna Process -- a European-standard curriculum and degree regimen -- could put the country's diplomas on par with those of European and North American institutions, leading to a host of benefits for young college graduates here.

If the good news is good, the bad news is worse. The new institutions are often bogus, meaning the country will soon be "flooded with graduates of nonexistent universities," warns the Moscow News. In addition to the sham institutions, the enrollment at real ones has sharply increased. The system is less educational and more "a place for a large number of male students to hide from the army," one sociologist laments. Moreover, paltry living stipends offer scant help to struggling undergraduates; most of mine spend a great deal of their time either at jobs or looking for them.

Two of the worst aspects of the Soviet educational legacy -- bribery and cheating -- have grown and prospered. New federal teaching subsidies and a nationwide standardized admissions exam might affect the first of these -- in a generation or so. In the meantime, bribery will continue to grow, paralleled by a culture of cheating that pervades the system -- literally, from top to bottom.

And finally, Russia's accession to the Bologna Process might not take place at all. Highly critical statements by Viktor Sadovnichy, rector of flagship Moscow State University, and First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signal their firm belief that the much-debated Bologna Process is a a bunch of processed bologna.

Some of my Russian colleagues say it's time to start thinking outside the old college box. In fact, somebody already has, beating Zhenya to the punch. In 2003, then-Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky offered a $100 million gift to Moscow's prestigious Russian State University for the Humanities. But this unprecedented donation was rejected -- not because it had strings attached, but because the state clearly had different plans for the donor and his money.

Can't this paradigm be re-examined now? Several Kremlin-friendly oligarchs could step into the chronically underfunded world of Russian higher education and make a difference overnight. Given significant tax incentives (and perhaps the odd get-out-of-jail-free card), Russian versions of U.S. "oligarchs" Leland Stanford and Andrew Carnegie could also build monuments to learning, creating centers of scholarship and independent research that any modern society needs for long-term success. Why not encourage the creation of Abramovich University, the Deripaska Institute of Technology or even, in a rather longer perspective, the Boris Berezovsky School of Management?

Is there an alternative "new approach"? Of course: the University of Rosneft and Gazprom State. There, students could double major in Russian History for Patriots and Sovereign Democracy Studies. But it's unlikely that they would learn how a real market system can breed enlightened self-interest and raise the common standard of living. Which is what I'm really hoping Zhenya will actually major in.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.