Inwards and Backwards. Russia's withdrawal from the Bologna system

June 16, 2022
  • Mikhail Pavlovets

    Candidate of Sciences (PhD) in Russian Literature, university and lyceum teacher

Mikhail Pavlovets on how decoupling from the West is manifesting itself in the Russian education system and on Russia’s decision to withdraw from the Bologna system. How might that look in practice?
Russian students in auditorium, 2014. Source: VK
In recent months, the educational community in Russia has been shaken by the initiatives related to the education system voiced by various government officials. They include the following, from least to most significant:

  • Replacing English in schools with other, “friendly” languages;
  • Teaching Russian history from first grade and introducing a mandatory annual course on Russian history for all higher education programs;
  • Creating a mass youth organization for teenagers (Bolshaya Peremena, or Great Change) based on the model of the Soviet Pioneers;
  • Withdrawing from the Bologna (European) system of education;
  • Cancelling the Unified State Exam (USE).
All these initiatives should be distinguished from real news, which is happening not in the future, but in the present: for example, the strong recommendation to Russian universities from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education to refrain from cooperation within the framework of the EU student exchange program Erasmus+; and the investigation by the permanent committee of the St Petersburg University Academic Council into the curriculum of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences, a “bastion of liberalism,” in the course of which “a large number of extremely ideological disciplines, in line with the worst Western stereotypes” were uncovered, while 70 undergraduate disciplines and a number of others were cut (I haven’t mentioned the break in academic cooperation between Russian and Western universities and scientific institutions like DAAD, Web of Science and others).

Consensus at the top and the future of the Unified State Exam

Among the initiatives that have stirred up the public, one must distinguish between, on the one hand, those that represent a simple “probing” of public opinion – a political “smoke screen” to divert attention away from some sort of negative agenda, or simply an irresponsible proposal on the part of politicians or public figures to demonstrate ultra-loyalty – and, on the other hand, those initiatives that come from the very top, where real, serious decisions are actually made, even if they were preceded by an extended period of lobbying. Signs of the latter type of initiatives first of all include a demonstrative consensus across the legislative and executive branches of government. Thus, the fact that Sergei Kravtsov, the education minister (for some time now in Russia there has not been a unified education ministry, with a separate Ministry of Education and separate Ministry of Science and Higher Education), like a number of other officials, dismissed the possibility of abandoning the USE and didn’t respond in any way to the initiative to replace English with other languages means that such decisions are absent on the ministry’s agenda today.

Everything is clear about the USE: despite the fact that, according to the latest surveys by the research center of the SuperJob portal, about 70% of the population does not support the USE, the state is generally satisfied with it. This is partly because since its introduction much of the corruption at universities, which had been taking bribes for admission, has gone away or, if it has persisted, has become more centralized, as now it’s restricted to a narrow circle of people involved in developing USE tasks and ensuring information security.

"The USE has actually opened the door of the best universities for the best students, whose parents now pay fees to private coaches instead of bribes to admissions officers."
At the same time, certain universities have the right to require additional tests – the lack of interest on the part of law enforcement could indicate both that there are simply no major abuses around these exams and that the abuses themselves are institutionalized, under the supervision of the competent authorities. Moreover, the USE means centralized, expensive purchases of equipment and supplies, providing a source of income for those close to the system. Finally, the USE is a system of total control over the “single educational space,” which means less that the opportunities for prospective students from capitals and distant auls and villages are equal and more that the requirements and rules for testing the knowledge they have gained are the same. Meanwhile, the initiative to replace English is also a populist idea, which, having originated with the politically powerless State Council of Crimea (the regional parliament), would be difficult to implement due to the lack of teachers ready to retrain to teach, for example, Chinese.

As for the other three initiatives mentioned, it bears to keep in mind how management works in Russia: at the top, a managerial decision is made, which, as a rule, is presented as if it had been made in response to an initiative from a branch of government or public figures and organizations; further, the main task of those charged with implementing the decision is to unconditionally execute it and the secondary task to minimize the harm that it might cause, finding – if possible – a case in which it might be used to solve really pressing problems. Such a story played out in 2013, when, at the request of a group of well-known public figures (including the widow of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Natalya Dmitrievna, a descendant of Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Ilyich, etc.), Putin ordered the “revival” within a year of an essay on literature for high school graduates and issued a corresponding order to the ministry. Yet the concept of such an essay contradicted both the Law on Education (there couldn’t be two exams in one subject) and the then-existing trend of individualizing educational trajectories and away from unifying them. Therefore, the ministry came up with a clever move and made the essay necessary to take the USE in Russian, math and other subjects (you write the essay on a pass-fail basis and then, after receiving a pass, are allowed to take the USE), allowing it to be rechecked by universities themselves so points for it could be added to the USE points and so universities had at least some influence over the selection of applicants. And though soon these rechecks were abandoned (since most applicants simply copied their essays off the internet), the essay didn’t do much harm. On the first attempt 97-98% of students passed, in the process getting used to performing meaningless tasks; materials suppliers and developers didn’t suffer, while language teachers humbly took on another burden, secretly cherishing the hope that young people would at least read something.

The new Pioneers and history for all

It's obvious that all three remaining initiatives one way or another come from the very top:
"For example, the idea to bring all children's and youth organizations under one umbrella was proposed to Putin a year ago by a refugee girl from Luhansk and received the highest approval."
On May 19, the day of the Soviet pioneer organization, a new organization under the working name Great Change was officially announced, the name in honor of a children's competition by the same name and a 1972 Soviet film popular with the older generation. (In the film, Soviet society is allegorically depicted as a school for overgrown children pulled out of asocial infantilism into Soviet infantilism through the pedagogical efforts of a shabby but spiritually rich Teacher.) This suggests that the name is not actually for the children themselves, but rather for the generation to which a number of high-ranking Russian bureaucrats belong. Thus, there is little doubt that the organization will be created. It’s also very attractive commercially – for example, a uniform for the Young Army Cadets (Yunarmiya), a militarized organization for teenagers created a few years ago, may cost up to 35 thousand rubles (considerably higher than the monthly salary of a teacher in most Russian regions).

The idea of introducing a compulsory course in Russian history for first-graders and first-year undergraduates is currently being discussed by experts from the respective ministries. But given that Putin has recently been emphasizing historical allusions and parallels, the implementation of these initiatives is as certain as their ineffectiveness. Experts note that history is hardly accessible for first-graders, meaning that it will turn into a series of semi-mythological formative cases, the interest in which (and even more so the educational effect of which) will almost entirely depend on the teacher. It may be assumed that given the current situation in which secondary schools instill in most children a persistent indifference toward history as an academic discipline (in sociological surveys, it isn’t named either among the most necessary or among the most disliked), beginning to study it in elementary school isn’t the best idea. As for the compulsory “History of Russia” course at universities, many will recall the similar ideological subjects during the Soviet era – first among them, “History of the Soviet Communist Party,” which was absolutely mandatory for all students regardless of specialization, and generally depended on the professionalism of the teacher.
“However, today, with students being much more pragmatic and the internet and other supplementary educational opportunities offering serious competition in higher education, the history course will inevitably have to be foisted upon students and certainly won’t contribute to the deepening of historical knowledge."
Valery Falkov, 2020. Source: Wiki Commons
Delinking from the European system of education: Quick decision, slow implementation

Finally, the most interesting issue is that of “abolishing the Bologna system:” Science and Higher Education Minister Valery Falkov and his deputies are ardently advocating the need to do so – allegedly for the sake of moving forward, not backward. Their persistence testifies both to the fact that the decision is political and to the fact that the abolition of the Bologna system will be the same half-measure as was its introduction in Russia (“the wording ‘withdraw from the Bologna Process’ isn’t entirely correct, as, strictly speaking, we never were part of it,” noted Falkov in a recent interview with Kommersant). The Bologna system rests on three pillars: a three-cycle educational system (bachelor's, master's and doctoral studies); student mobility between universities and countries thanks to the use of academic credits, which are recognized by all participating universities; unification of diplomas and degrees awarded and their recognition by all participating countries. Russia signed protocols to join the process in 2003, and in the early years officials responsible for the implementation complained that Russian universities were simulating the transition, turning a five-year degree into a four-year bachelor's degree but then rolling everything cut or poorly learned into a master's degree for another two years.
“Though a number of specializations (medical, military and some engineering) refused to switch to the three-cycle system, most universities gradually realized its advantages and began to play by the new rules and not just go through the motions:"
interesting master's programs appeared, while some students, dissatisfied with the education and professors at their own universities, began looking for master's programs in related departments or at other universities, including foreign ones. It was to student mobility that the announced withdrawal from the Bologna system dealt the biggest blow (although even before recent events it was clear that, for example, the system of transferable academic credits worked poorly and not all universities were ready to offer master’s programs that split practical and academic study up). The government failed to provide for the development of higher education in the direction of greater autonomy for universities, instead squeezing them through a combination of scarce funding and extremely tight control over both finances and curriculum, as well as over access for students from other universities and society in general.
Natalia and Alexander Solzhenitsyn receive Lyudmila and Vladimir Putin at their home in Trinity-Lykovo on September 20, 2000. Source: Wiki Commons
The prospect of counterreform

The general course taken by Russia to disintegrate with the EU was bound to affect the educational system as well, as the latter can’t move in the opposite direction from other, isolationist and backward processes taking place in society and the state. However, officials are convincing the country and themselves that this will be a step forward accompanied by an intensification in the trends of personalization and individualization of education.

Thus, MGIMO, a bastion of state conservatism, which has trained the country's diplomatic corps since Soviet times, has already announced that it will abolish the Bologna system and introduce its own system of individual trajectories for students, with only nine mandatory and fixed disciplines and the rest being electives selected from an offered list. At the same time, it’s clear that the most important thing with this approach is that students don’t have the ability to substitute these disciplines for those taught at partner universities in other countries. However, following the Russian Union of Rectors meeting on June 2, plans were revealed to develop student exchanges with universities of so-called “friendly countries,” i.e. those that didn’t make the list of “unfriendly” countries specified in a special Putin decree (including more than 40 countries and territories).

A number of other Russian universities announced that they would continue to move toward a mixed system in which some specializations would be offered as part of a single-cycle five-year course of study (based on local practices, which was the case before as well), while others would be more flexible, with the transition from the 4+2 model to the three-cycle 2+2+2 model. (The three-cycle model entails that the bachelor's degree is divided into two parts, a propaedeutic basic one and a more specialized second one, from which it will then be possible to move on to a highly specialized master's program or to take a leave from one’s studies after two or four years to gain practical, professional experience.)

Restrictions are intended only for those wishing to enroll in a master's program from a different bachelor's degree – for example, from journalism to physics – but it is yet unclear whether the reverse (from physics to journalism) is possible, which would be a rather logical step for an aspiring science journalist or a science writer. In addition, the process itself will take many years: according to Federation Council Education Committee Chair Lilia Gumerova, at least a year is needed to rewrite the Law on Education (adopted in 2012, it has since been torpedoed by advocates of the Soviet educational system and has increasingly come into conflict with the conservative turn in Russian education), after which the list of specializations will need to be updated and new programs developed.
“All this will require both human and material investments, meaning it will provide the overgrown bureaucracy with well-paid jobs for years, while students will basically study in the old way."
Overall, there are more questions than answers, as the decision “from above” has outstripped the system's readiness to immediately switch to a new, “nationally oriented” education system. The shape of that system is still unclear and is still being discussed among professional communities and expert groups, which have been forced to switch tracks amid the new reality in which Russian education has found itself.

Moreover, Russian education, both secondary and higher, enters this moment with a whole set of chronic diseases, including very aged pedagogical and scientific personnel: the prestige of secondary and higher education has declined, and young people are reluctant to enter science and education; the long-time underfunding education is likely to continue in the face of growing military spending and the impact of sanctions; and negative selection across the teacher corps, in the administrations of universities and at ministries, which is particularly reflected in the large number of pseudo-specialists who have bought academic degrees for themselves or defended works that have no scientific value.

The state has dragged its feet finding solutions to all these problems – actually making them worse or getting in the way of solving them – and there is no reason to think, given a much worse situation overall and the old tradition of simulating activity, that these problems will suddenly be solved effectively and that Russian education will embark on a new phase in its development.
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