Twenty-five years of change in post-Soviet HE systems

The Soviet Union fell apart a quarter of a century ago. A formerly unified higher education system branched into 15 distinct systems. Much has been written about different aspects of the post-socialist transformation. So far, however, academic and policy discourses have lacked a systemic picture of post-Soviet higher education systems.

The recently released book 25 Years of Transformations of Higher Education Systems in Post-Soviet Countries: Reform and continuity fills this gap. The book is the outcome of the first-ever study of the transformations of the higher education institutional landscape in 15 former USSR countries following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

It is distinctive in that:
  • • It presents a comprehensive analysis of the higher education reforms and transformations in the region in the last 25 years;

  • • It focuses on the institutional landscape through the evolution of institutional types established and developed in pre-Soviet, Soviet and post-Soviet times;

  • • It embraces all 15 countries of the former USSR; and

  • • It provides a comparative analysis of the drivers of transformations of the institutional landscape across post-Soviet systems.
The book makes some key observations about the post-Soviet space. It illustrates how the 1990s and early 2000s in the post-Soviet space were a period of massive horizontal growth.

Facing economic decline, political instability and a drastic drop in public funding, policy responses were almost uniformly neo-liberal in nature. The Soviet mechanism of regulating demand and supply through advanced planning of study places was abandoned. Higher education institutions broadened their study programmes. Tuition fees were introduced in the public sector and state control and oversight were reduced.

Privatisation and centralisation

Private entrepreneurs and governments alike responded to the rising demand by opening new higher education institutions. The resulting massive growth in overall enrolment and in simultaneous brain drain of underpaid faculty led to a distinct drop in the quality of higher education systems.

Almost all post-Soviet countries introduced centralised admission exams and government-run quality assurance procedures to assure minimal quality standards. In addition, as the demographic trend in many European countries of the post-Soviet space had reached its peak, lower demand combined with stricter quality requirements led to the end of many higher education institutions.


Following the massification and growth of the 1990s and early 2000s, there is now a period of vertical differentiation. As a rule, status differences that existed during Soviet times continued to exist and grew even more pronounced. Near-universally, these differences were further accentuated by the type of funding regimes and the introduction of national entrance exams that typically favoured ‘elite’ higher education institutions.

In addition, Russia and Kazakhstan made deliberate attempts to transform existing universities according to the model of the global research university (for example, through the Russian 5-100 programme) and established new research universities such as Nazarbayev University. In countries like Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, vertical differentiation was driven by the emergence of transnational or international higher education institutions.

While the transition to a market economy, the growing demand for new subjects among the populace and the need for higher education as a tool of state-building were important drivers, the case studies also point to international influences as powerful drivers for the differentiation of higher education systems.

The case studies illustrate how organisations like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union’s Structural Funds as well as powerful international NGOs, such as the Open Society Institute and Aga Khan Foundation, played a role in shaping national higher education systems.

These institutions promoted neo-liberal ideas regarding financing higher education and higher education governance and supported policies that encouraged competition and entrepreneurial behaviour by the universities.

Branches of international universities or ‘national-international’ universities like the Russian-Armenian University or Kazakh-British Technical University set new examples and models for ‘old’ universities. The Bologna Process strongly influenced degree structures as well as approaches to quality assurance in most (if not all) countries.

New trends

The book also makes visible certain developing trends. Governments are consolidating the private higher education sector by closing and merging lower-tier institutions as well as increasing their efforts to position their leading universities globally. In Central Asia, international campuses and foundations such as the Aga Khan Foundation play a growing role.

In terms of student populations, universities increasingly have to cope with a demographic decline and an outflow of students to Russia, Europe and China.

The book provides a profound overview of 25 years of changes in 15 post-Soviet higher education systems. It also illustrates not only how the common past of the 15 post-Soviet countries has shaped (and is continuing to shape) their development, but how similar and (less often) diverging policy choices were taken to deal with common challenges.

Lukas Bischof is a research fellow at the Institute of Education, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia, and co-author of 25 Years of Transformations of Higher Education Systems in Post-Soviet Countries: Reform and continuity, published in the Palgrave Studies in Global Higher Education book series. In addition to the book with its 15 case studies, HSE’s Institute of Education has created an interactive web timeline of key events in higher education in all post-Soviet countries. The timeline can be found at this link.