RUSSIA: Bologna about to take root

After years of dragging its heels over following the higher education framework it formally joined in 2003, Russia is preparing to roll out the Bologna process' two-tier skills and competency-based higher education reforms within a year. Russian universities and degree-awarding colleges must offer three-year bachelor and two-year masters courses from 2009.

The reforms, designed to bring Russia into line with Europe's fast developing streamlined higher education, may look good on paper but critics warn that widespread entrenched opposition and haphazard preparation threaten to create significant teething problems.

"Most Russian university rectors – many of whom are past 60 – do not accept Bologna and are not keen on reforming their institutions," said Lena Lenskaya, a former deputy Education Ministry official who recently joined the staff of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, one of the institutions that has long been a champion of the Bologna process.

Rearguard opposition by rectors from Russia's group of leading classical universities – led by the president of the powerful rectors’ union, Moscow State University's Viktor Sadovnichy – caused delays despite Education Minister Andrei Fursenko's vigorous support for reform.

Shortly after Russia joined Bologna, and before most higher education staff had ever heard of it, Sadovnichy warned that it threatened "university autonomy and originality". But his extensive lobbying for opt-outs came to nothing: only some specialist arts establishments such as the Moscow Conservatoire, the famous film school VGIK and possibly medical academies are likely to be exempt from Bologna's provisions from next year.

Despite the overall victory of Bologna's supporters, Lenskaya fears Russia still has a long way to go: "There is a danger this will be a very superficial reform. Universities may do what is required but won't enforce the process in teaching," she said, adding that Bologna might influence the better teachers at the better universities but, unless thorough new competence and outcome-based benchmarks were introduced, little change was likely soon.

An Education Ministry consultation exercise in which universities – many with little experience of international higher education – were asked to draw up their own versions of standards, has been criticised for being pushed through in a rush. One senior official, who preferred to remain anonymous, told University World News that Russian higher education's lack of communication and contact with employers, along with employers' ignorance of what Bologna was about, was a key stumbling block.

"A major problem is that employers see no difference between bachelor and masters degrees and offer no differentials in salaries to graduates with the different degrees. Employers are clueless and very little has been done to tell them what Bologna means," the official said, pointing out that credit transfer, mobility and quality assurance were also areas of concern.

It is not all doom and gloom, though: universities that have taken advantage of European and international partnership programmes in recent years have made significant strides with some 40 or more, including Moscow's Peoples Friendship University and the Russian State Social University, already offering a wide range of two-tier courses.