What’s behind the Russian higher education cuts?

Higher education massification leads to more or less similar consequences in most countries. The change in the higher education landscape usually involves the emergence of universities which directly target non-traditional students in a bid to widen participation.

While mainstream economists and sociologists say that increasing the number of students in higher education brings wealth to nations and happiness to individuals, policy-makers have to deal with the side effects.

Some of the policies they come up with may look radical. The recently announced reduction of higher education institutions in Russia is one such example.

Firstly, the framework of the Federal Programme of Education Development 2016-20 declared the goal of a 40% overall reduction in higher education institutions, including an 80% decrease in the number of satellite higher education institutions.

Then Minister of Education and Science Dmitry Livanov announced the changes to the media. He explained that the policy is targeted at low-quality higher education.

How will it work?

In the 20 years from 1990 to 2010, the number of Russian higher education institutions doubled to 1,115 (2010-11). The rise of small private higher education institutions mostly contributed to this growth.

Besides, the number of satellite or branch institutions – institutions which are physically distant from the original university – had reached 1,668 by 2010. The total growth more than doubled the proportion of students in the Russian population from what it was before the USSR collapsed.

In 2012 a new team took over at the Ministry of Education and Science. The struggle over low-quality higher education institutions became one of the major priorities for policy-makers.

The much criticised policy of ‘monitoring effectiveness’ – an annual government evaluation procedure – was brought in to supplement the state accreditation system.

The monitoring initiative involves an evaluation of institutional performance in education, research, internationalisation and other numerical indicators. Unlike under the complex system of licensing and accreditation, failing institutions are absorbed by a geographically close ‘effective’ institution that is supposed to provide a sufficient level of administration and improve the quality of education offered.

However, recently the state accreditation system has also withdrawn several licences from institutions, so both instruments can work together.

This policy move gave a clear signal about the need for quality institutions. However, the issue is still a subject for discussion in the media and in public.

In the last three years the number of public higher education institutions has declined to 548 (by 14%), the number of private institutions to 402 (a 10% reduction) and branch institutions to 1,319 (a 20% cut). Most of those institutions were small and their loss did not contribute as much to the decline of the total student body as one might assume from the above numbers.

Although the reasons for taking such hard decisions seem unclear at times, the ministry have good reasons for their actions beyond their vague arguments about quality and effectiveness.

Why has the reduction taken place?

The shifting labour market of the transitional Russian economy in the 1990s was followed by a period of relatively rapid economic growth due to the high revenues from the trade in natural resources.

Economic change was frequent. The signals being sent out to higher education institutions who supplied the labour force were not always clear. The inability of many institutions to cope with these difficulties had an impact on the image of higher education in general.

In addition, the new conditions opened the market up for new players, whether or not they were able to provide an education of sufficient quality or were just taking advantage of the demand for higher education diplomas.

Credentialism has become the main driver of the higher education market. A higher education degree is the first and most obvious requirement to get a foot in the door of most industries. Furthermore, 80% of employers say that they do not care if a higher education diploma is granted by a reputable university or not.

This race for degrees had a snowball effect: demand-driven growth by whatever means led to a growth in institutions opening local branches and to the expansion of part-time education. Part-time students made up 51% of the student population in 2014.

The recent shrinking of the number of higher education institutions tallies with the decline of the student population from a maximum of 7.5 million students (2008-09) to 5.2 million (2014-15) because of demographic changes.

Population forecasts predict a continuing fall in numbers until 2021 – from five million students in 2015 to 4.2 million students.

Lack of vision

On the one hand, these trends suggest a need to reform the sector. However, university mergers are not necessarily the right solution for the current problems.

It takes time and resources to bring two complex entities together. So merging a poorly performing institution with one that is working well does not necessarily result in the creation of an effective larger university. The effectiveness of reducing the number of institutions in order to improve quality remains questionable.

To be fair, these measures are also accompanied by efforts aimed at different types of institutions. Previously, several government programmes focused on burnishing the credentials of the leading research universities.

Now, in order to allocate state funding efficiently the ministry is focusing on the best universities in the second tier. These teaching universities serve the needs of local regional economies and major national employers.

As for the third-tier broad-access sector, government incentives seem to be focused mainly on threatening those which do not improve their performance with possible mergers.

The state does not have anything positive to offer the sector because of its wariness about those which are more or less ‘diploma mills’ and about general demoralisation in the higher education institutions.

In contrast to the research-intensive universities and regional flagship institutions which focus on internationalisation or research enhancement or relevance to the local labour market, the third-tier institutions have not created a decent mission for sustaining their legitimacy within the system and none is proposed by the government either.

Dmitry Semyonov is head of the Laboratory for Universities Development at the Institute of Education at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia.