Russia pushes ahead with switch away from Bologna system

Russia is pressing ahead with plans to remove itself from the Bologna Process and restructure its higher education system to better meet the needs of its labour market.

Details of the new system were released last month in a presentation by Russian Minister of Science and Higher Education Valery Falkov and testing of the new system is expected to commence this year.

The final decision to move away from the Bologna Process, which aims to bring coherence to all universities across Europe and ensure greater staff and student mobility, was taken after a speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Russian Federal Assembly in February and in the wake of discussions throughout 2022.

According to Falkov last month, the new higher education system will be divided into three levels:

• Basic higher education (training period from four to six years),

• Specialised higher education: masters degree (one or two years); and

• Assistantship-internship and postgraduate study (adjunct).

Falkov said the basic (main) level will correspond to a bachelor or a specialist degree. It should “provide an interdisciplinary, practice-oriented approach to training”. The main difference in the new system is that the duration of training at the basic level will vary and depend on the requirements of the labour market and a specific profession.

Specialised higher education will provide in-depth training, but only for those who have completed the first stage. Specialised education is to become a more prestigious level in the new structure. In addition, there are plans to introduce several types of academic and professional specialised education, with the latter able to be co-financed, including through individual companies and business.

Finally, postgraduate studies will be a separate level of education aimed at training scientific and technical personnel, the minister said. Those who have completed the basic level with a period of study of at least five years or have received a specialised higher education will be able to enter postgraduate school.

According to Falkov, for the past 20 to 25 years, the magistracy (second level) has been for the most part a continuation of higher education of the first level. Thus, it does not yet perform the functions of an advanced level of higher education. The current reforms are expected to address this weakness.

More complex tasks

Inna Shevchenko, head of the Southern Federal University, one of the most prestigious universities in Southern Russia, said in an interview with the Russian Izvestia business newspaper that a switch to the new system will allow students to deal with more complex tasks within the framework of the masters programme than was possible under the previous system.

That means that the masters degree will become more scientifically focused, being oriented towards deeper training.

As part of the reforms there are also plans to improve admission procedures by introducing specialised education programmes that cannot be accessed without specialised (related) basic higher education.

Ivan Medvedev, a Russian analyst in the field of higher education and a columnist in Russian Business FM, said the reforms meet an acute need.

He said when Russian education switched to the Bologna system, the main point was to speed Russia’s integration into the international arena, which primarily involved mutual recognition of diplomas in different countries and an opportunity to start studying at one university and finish at another, particularly a university in a foreign country. But for various reasons, Russian education did not integrate into the system.

Support from university leaders

Heads of leading Russian universities generally support the reform.

“The plan is to take the best from the Soviet and Bologna education systems. At the same time, there will be no shocks for students,” said Vladimir Zernov, head of the Russian New University (RosNOU) in Moscow.

According to Falkov, the new system of higher education can be tested as early as this year.

“In order to see how these approaches and new developments are being implemented, it is important to always conduct a pilot test at several universities. We hope that these will be universities from different regions, different universities – technical and classical universities – and we are planning such work already this year,” he said.

According to the minister, the admission campaign of 2024 will be the key to the transition to the new system.

Andrey Fursenko, an aide to President Putin, said in a recent interview with the Rossiya-24 TV channel that the new system of higher education will ensure the training of specialists who are more focused on the practical application of their skills.

“Today, the requirements for qualifications are growing all the time because everything changes too quickly, so it is difficult for a person to adapt to rapidly changing conditions,” said Fursenko.

According to Evgeny Terentyev, director of the Institute of Education of the Higher School of Economics, the Bologna system has been strongly criticised in Russia, while a switch to the new system is seen to provide an additional impetus for growth in the Russian system of higher education.

Improvement in humanities programmes

One of the main tasks of the reform is to amend university courses in the humanities, including history, social science, literature and geography, so that young people can learn as much as possible about Russia, its culture and traditions, Terentyev said.

The main challenge arising from the proposed restructure, according to experts, relates to international exchanges – the basic idea behind the Bologna system. There is concern that Russian higher education will become more isolated and international cooperation between Russian and foreign universities will be negatively affected.

Local state officials have already said that Russian diplomas will continue to be recognised in a majority of foreign countries, as they were in the past.

However, opponents of the reform also believe the new system is too complex, consisting as it does of three stages, and that a growing number of graduates produced by the system will significantly exceed the real demands of the Russian economy, the growth of which is heavily restricted by sanctions.