"I'm not saying things were better under the Soviet Union, but there is definitely a problem with access to higher education in Russia," Tatiana Gounko, assistant professor at the University of Victoria in Canada, said at the OECD's Institutional Management in Higher Education conference held in Paris this week.
Speakers at the conference, titled "Higher Education in a World Changed Utterly: Doing more with less", described how momentous post-Soviet era changes have strained the higher education systems of Russia and Poland.
During the Soviet era, education was managed at the national level with the same textbooks, the same curriculum for all at every level of education and no tuition fees were required for university studies. This allowed for a more level playing field, she said.
Today each Russian republic, even each district, is responsible for determining educational programmes and funding them. "That means poor districts are not getting the same educational opportunities as the richer ones" and rural areas are especially disadvantaged, she explained.
Some reforms aimed at reducing the inequalities were implemented in recent years.
The government introduced a standard university entrance exam in 2009, an innovation that should help to eliminate bribes - another factor of inequity, Gounko said.
In April this year, the government reformed its student loan programme, which is now entirely based on results of the exams. "This often skewers the results in favour of those who need it least," she argues. The loans are based on merit rather than need, she pointed out. Since the more wealthy students are getting the best secondary education, they are getting the best scores on the test. Yet, they are not the ones with the greatest need for financial aid.
In the face of profound economic, political and social changes in the 1990s, public funding for education was drastically reduced.
The government licensed 300 private institutions to provide better access to those who could afford to pay. But this move also raised the price of education and excluded large parts of the population who could not keep up with the rising cost of living. According to the OECD, the cost of high quality university education in Moscow is now over $10,000 per year.
With the shift to a free-market economy, Russian officials now refer to education as an individual consumer item or personal investment rather than as a public good and the right of every citizen.
Until that changes, the educational gap between the wealthy and the disadvantaged will continue to widen, Gounko argued.
The situation in Poland is even more dire, with low quality education being the norm across the board, said Jerzy Woznicki, president of the Polish Rectors Foundation, in a paper submitted to the OECD conference.
Higher education institutions focused too much on teaching to the detriment of research and as a result "graduates' qualifications are inconsistent with the needs of the job markets," he told the conference.
The problems in Poland stem from a government push over the past two decades to expand access to higher education after the collapse of the Soviet Union and to "critically low" spending on scientific research, he said.
As early as 1995 the OECD's Review of Higher Education pointed out that "teaching is supply-dominated and links with the labour market are weak".
Poland further suffers from a lack of prestigious universities with international recognition. "Poland higher education institutions must become more recognisable, both in Poland and abroad," Woznicki added.
In an effort to address the issues facing Poland's education sector, the government is contemplating reform.
A proposal by various rectors' associations, including the Polish Rectors Foundation, calls for creating flagship or reference universities, increasing funding of science research, and introducing a transparent nation-wide ranking system for both public and private institutions.
The government is also considering a rival plan devised by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, Ernst & Young and the Gdansk Institute for Market Economics, which Woznicki calls "unacceptable" because it does not allot sufficient funds to scientific research, diminishes the autonomy of the institutions and is too burdensome.
A decision should be imminent as the plan aims to cover the 2010-2020 time-frame.
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