Private higher education in Russia: The way forward?

The scale of private professional education and training varies significantly in different countries, based on the level of economic development and cultural and historical traditions. As a rule, the privatisation process in education is a key characteristic of the elementary and more dynamic stages of economic transformation.

In particular, in these periods, the outputs from investment in private education have maximal meaning. Further, based on transition to stable, steady regimes corresponding to a higher level of economic development, the trend towards privatisation slows down on achieving stability.

The increase of financial assets of non-state origin in the system of Russian professional education is an objective necessity defined by developing economics.

It is clear that private investment ensures greater flexibility and adaptability of the learning process in relation to regularly changing requirements of the labour market.

Financial independence from government, with its sluggish system of control and distribution of funds, is no less important, since it creates the conditions to spread innovative technologies into the sphere of education. At the same time, two of the main principles of higher professional schools – university autonomy and assurance of academic freedom – are encouraged.

Privatisation in Russia

Today’s privatisation of professional education in Russia is conditioned by the creation of several hundred institutions in the past 10 to 15 years whose financial resources are exclusively private and non-governmental.

Currently, with the ‘demographic hole’ in student numbers [a predicted halving of the number of graduates from secondary schools since 2006], the increase in the number of private institutions has stopped and competition with state institutions has intensified.

The government, represented by educational administrative bodies, has started a policy of protectionism, aimed at supporting budget-funded institutions and limiting private sector activities. Hence, there has been a slowing down of educational modernisation and its rising innovative potential.

On the other hand, in the framework of current government-sponsored education the investment processes of increasing non-budgetary and ‘third-party’ mechanisms have continued.

The opening of paid-for programmes and courses, opportunities to study a second (additional) speciality, first steps towards student loans and greater financial-economic independence of institutions – all these and other steps taken by federal authorities continue to allow the privatisation of higher education.

The essence of such privatisation is the consolidation of various structural and systematic changes within the restrictions of government influences over the functioning of higher professional schools.

On a larger canvas, the term privatisation is positively viewed by the overwhelming majority of experts, and partly by the public. With regard to the population, which associates the concepts of ‘paid’ and ‘private’, there is largely agreement to pay for higher, middle and vocational education services.

The question is the amount of payment. The public counts on the attraction of extra budget resources reducing the cost of learning, such as funds from investors and employers, concessional loans and grants, social benefits and compensations.

In fact, this is a reasonable expectation, keeping in mind that in developed welfare economies the state insures against extreme financial risks and protects vulnerable groups.

The remaining issues in education are matters for private and non-governmental organisations, providers and institutions.

The future

Regarding the nature of their activities, in the next few years private education institutions in Russia will occupy the sphere of non-formal and extra-system education, and will master new spheres of social space and create an innovative educational environment there.

That environment will react to changing requirements of the labour market in a more sensitive way, and will gradually form a self-adjusting system of preparation, training and employment of an economically active population.

The absence of ‘academic snobbery’ in private universities, and close relations with enterprises and employers, professional unions, associations and corporative societies, will enable them to find a niche in the system of servicing the labour market and, consequently, keeping a place in the competitive race for the central figure of education – the learner.

By covering new forms of activity and enlarging the choice of learners at the expense of the adult population, the educational sphere in general will develop extensively and its accessibility will increase.

In terms of openness of information on its actions, participation in independent ratings and monitoring of graduate employment will ensure an increase in quality.

* Vladimir Geroimenko is associate professor (reader) in multimedia and web technology at the School of Art and Media at Plymouth University in the UK; Professor Grigori Kliucharev is head of the department of social-economic studies in the Institute of Sociology, Russian Academy of Sciences; and Professor John Morgan is chair of the United Kingdom National Commission for UNESCO and chair of political economy and education in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham.

* This is an extract from their article, “Private Higher Education in Russia: Capacity for innovation and investment”, published in the European Journal of Education, Volume 47, Number 1, 2012.