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A university playing on two fields at the same time

The accelerated globalisation of the past three decades has had a strong impact on science and higher education. There is now global competition between the world’s top universities, which is reflected in international rankings. The 1990s became a difficult period for the Russian academic system. It was challenged in many ways.

First of all, the country’s financial turmoil resulted in underfunding of higher education. Second, the Soviet academic culture was not ready for the changes that were happening in the global science and higher education arena. Third, the inherited system of higher education organisation needed structural reforms, which were in the end postponed until 2007-08 due to financial reasons.

At the same, it was in the 1990s that several new academic centres were built in Russia that complied with international standards and were oriented towards the global science and higher education market.

The National Research University Higher School of Economics, or HSE, is already well-known globally; it ranks highly internationally on a number of indicators and is recognised in Russia as a leading expert centre in the sphere of economics and social policy.

Institutional tension

HSE has managed to gather a strong international academic team. Retrospectively, it is obvious that the university’s landmark mission was and remains to be a testing site for institutional and cultural innovations in science and education in Russia.

On the one hand, pursuing this mission gives HSE momentum for further development. On the other hand, it often leads to cultural and institutional tension.

The main source of this tension is the fact that HSE is both a prominent global player and an organisation still embedded in the Russian academic and administrative environment, which differs substantially from international standards. The university is playing on two fields at the same time, and the rules aren’t always the same.

One of the main challenges came with changing ways of working and work content, changing levels of professional autonomy, and modifications to familiar behavioural patterns in the academia.

Higher education experts have been describing the trend of moving towards a managerial governance style at universities for many years. The new forms of governance and control are based on the principles of transparent performance evaluation and professionals’ administrative accountability.

Researchers worry that managerialism reduces the autonomy of academic professionals. This is proven by empirical data, but universities have to compete with other institutes of knowledge production and distribution so they have to keep in step with the times.

Monitoring academic performance

HSE was one of the first universities in Russia to switch to a transparent system of evaluating and managing academic performance: it introduced an incentive scheme that rewards publication, reformed the academic labour contract to make it more productivity-oriented and launched an administrative reorganisation of faculties and departments.

These changes stimulated future development and had a positive impact on academic productivity. At the same time, they caused some tension among staff.

Over the past eight years, the authors of this paper have participated in two studies aimed at analysing transformations of the academic profession in Russia drawing on the example of HSE. The first study was dedicated to academic autonomy, the second one to academics’ time budgets. HSE also annually monitors its internal academic life, which helps us to understand faculty attitudes towards institutional transformation.

If we summarise the results of the two aforementioned studies, we can detect several problematic areas within the university; however, they are not unique for HSE or even for the Russian higher education system as a whole.

First of all, increased formalisation of administrative procedures augmented the influence of the university’s administrative structures compared to a traditional Soviet university governance system. Competition for power between academic structures and the new administrative units caused discontent in both ‘camps’.

The former see the risks of reduced academic freedom and self-governance, while the latter fear that failure to understand the importance of efficient administration will lead to disarray. In terms of discourse, this is a conflict of two ideologies: of managerialism and academic professionalism.

The latter appeals to the principle of academic autonomy; its proponents view the university as having a mandate of knowledge production, storage and distribution.

In the Russian context, they are often ‘conservatively oriented’ (for example, they idealise Soviet higher education); they believe in the ‘special historical path’ of Russian science and education (consideration for the local context), and show distrust towards academic administrators as the principal agents of the implementation of new control practices at Russian universities.


The ideology of managerialism is, on the other hand, globalist and futurist in nature. It promotes the transfer of efficient management practices from business to the academic sector.

Second, the introduction of new incentive schemes leads to a re-examination of existing academic hierarchies that guarantee a direct correlation between an academic title and seniority on the one hand and higher salary on the other hand.

Nowadays remuneration is no longer linked to one’s formal status, but rather depends on the measurable quality and quantity of the publications resulting from one’s own research. This helps motivate young researchers and creates a competitive environment within the university. However, it is often a cause of dissatisfaction among those faculty members who matured professionally in the Soviet system.

Third, our academic time budgets study shows that a new role differentiation related to faculty work is emerging. Alongside traditional research, administrative and teaching roles, new ones have materialised too, for example, academics are experts for various external stakeholders and public intellectuals working with the media; sometimes they combine all three roles.

Of course, academics have always had to reconcile various expert roles, but today this differentiation is becoming more evident and is sometimes perceived as a threat to the customary modes of academic professionalism.

Research vs teaching

Moreover, the time budgets study showed a shift in university faculty attitudes; they are now more oriented towards research, which can sometimes be to the detriment of teaching.

As the administrators focus primarily on research and publication activity, there is a risk that teaching will be perceived as less prestigious and not worth much attention. As a result, the group that is most dissatisfied with the new working conditions is those faculty members who only do teaching.

On the whole, HSE internal monitoring shows that research productivity requirements remain the major source of stress both for teaching staff and for researchers.

Fourth, the communication environment that unites the university’s administrative and academic worlds sometimes fails. Prompt changes fuelled by global competition and the necessity to comply with the local norms of the Russian higher education system do not always allow broader circles of academic professionals to play a meaningful role in these transformations.

Many of them feel that they are mere objects of some externally imposed changes. In fact, many of them do not even manage to follow the changes: according to HSE Center for Institutional Research, 7% of faculty don’t know that the university was selected for the national ‘5-100’ excellence initiative, while nearly a third haven’t heard about HSE’s Development Strategy.

This causes estrangement of some of the faculty from the university’s institutional norms and the development of conservative attitudes towards new initiatives.

So, the areas of tension that we have described result from the fact that HSE stays at the forefront of science and education both in Russia and – as we can now claim thanks to its recent success in international rankings – globally.

Measures taken to mitigate the tension are important, not just at the institutional level but also from the point of view of HSE’s landmark mission of marking the direction for university development in the new context and sharing good practice for the successful implementation of change.

Roman Abramov is associate professor in the faculty of social sciences, School of Sociology, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russian Federation, Email: rabramov@hse.ru. Ivan Gruzdev is director at the Center for Institutional Research, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russian Federation, Email: igruzdev@hse.ru. Evgeniy Terentev is a leading analyst at the Center for Institutional Research, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russian Federation, Email: eterentev@hse.ru. This article was first published in the current edition of Higher Education in Russia and Beyond.
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