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Dark Side Last Updated: Aug 2, 2022 - 2:13:57 PM

The high price of becoming a student in Russia
By Estelle Levresse, Le Monde Diplo, 1/8/22
Aug 1, 2022 - 2:33:44 PM

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The Soviet Union was proud of its free education. But universities in Russia today impose huge fees on their students and keep teaching staff on a tight leash.by


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Past: students at 1st Moscow University (now Lomonosov Moscow State University), c 1925
James E Abbe · Ullstein Bild · Getty

The temperature was close to zero in Ekaterinburg, some 1500km east of Moscow, but the late September sun shone brightly on the Ural Federal University (UrFU) building on Mira Street, with its imposing classical façade, and the nearby student halls of residence, and it felt as though the academic year had just started.

At 70 Komsomolskaya Street, I met the newly elected student union rep for residence no 8, in charge of 26 volunteers tasked with improving the lives of its 1,200 students. ‘It’s an honour to be chosen,’ he said. The five-year-old building is made up of two-bedroom apartments (each bedroom holds two or three beds) with a shared kitchen and bathroom; each floor has communal sitting spaces, study rooms and a laundry. The décor is plain but functional and in good condition.Rent is 1,000 roubles a month ($16). Some 10% Russia’s students live in halls like this.

The students’ union (UrFU’s only student representative body) spends its time not setting the world to rights, but enhancing campus life. Around 30 students employed by the university and 600 student volunteers organise leisure activities, night life, sports events, workshops, plays, talks, and festivities at the start of the academic year and on graduation day — ‘more than 600 events a year’, boasted union chairman Oybek Partov, whose office is provided by the university.

Students' union leaders are on university salaries. It's a permanent conflict of interest. They suppress their own dissatisfaction and even try to pressure protest groups, like when students who haven't got places in halls of residence get together and set up a protest camp near the university Dmitriy Trynov

Ekaterinburg has around 90,000 students at 50 higher education institutions. More than a third (some 36,000) — including 4,600 foreign students from over 115 countries — attend UrFU, where admissions increase every year; in 2021 it enrolled more students than any other university in Russia. UrFU was formed in 2010 through a merger of two highly reputed and complementary institutions: Ural State Technical University (UGTU-UPI) and Ural State University (URGU), both founded by the Bolshevik government in 1920.

The newly established Soviet state, though still fighting a civil war, had just made education free and compulsory. From 1918 it financed dozens of new higher education institutions, including at Ekaterinburg, which it renamed Sverdlovsk. The Russian empire’s former mining capital was to be a major centre of industry and science. ‘We needed large numbers of engineers,’ said UrFU’s vice-rector for international relations, Sergey Kurochkin. ‘When it was built, URGU was one of the world’s largest universities.’

‘Many were mediocre’

Rapid industrialisation in the 1930s further increased the need for engineers. The number of higher education institutions rose five-fold, from 90 in 1927 to 481 in 1940, but their quality was variable according to former minister Boris Saltykov: ‘Some were outstanding but many were mediocre’ (1).

Under the Soviet system, higher education and basic research were separate: research was handled by specialist institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Universities experimented with positive discrimination in favour of working class applicants. ‘Workers’ faculties’ (rabfak) prepared young people from farming and factory-worker backgrounds for university entrance. Children from more affluent families were excluded or had to pay prohibitive tuition fees. Free education for all only began in 1936, and was halted again in 1940: with war looming, Russia needed young people for its factories. Free higher education, restored in 1956, became one of the Soviet Union’s biggest social gains.

But in the 1990s, after the breakup of the USSR, the Soviet then Russian state teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and government spending per student fell by 70%. Universities were unable to pay their teaching staff or even their utility bills. Most tried to save or raise money in other ways: renting out premises, selling their expertise, running preparatory classes for entrance exams and so on. ‘Everything was monetised: fines for absences, fees for catch-up classes and sitting exams etc,’ writes Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean, a researcher at the Institut Français des Relations Internationales (2). Students were sometimes advised to take private lessons with a particular teacher to get good marks in the exams they would set. You could even buy degree certificates and doctoral theses.

At the same time, it was a period of new freedom; all options were open. In Ekaterinburg, though the city was still off-limits to foreigners, Professor Valery Mikhailenko founded Russia’s first international relations department at URGU. Irina Cherneva, now a historian at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), studied there from 1999: ‘Our history professor told us, “This is a time of change. I’m not sticking to the syllabus.” She showed us documentaries and used her own teaching materials instead of the Soviet-era textbooks. We learned about repression under Stalin.’

Cherneva told me that after perestroika, alt rock bands and theatre groups performed in basements: ‘The plays were about politics — and they went far beyond criticising politicians. The authors were subversives — they wanted to shake up society. They were really popular with the students.’

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Present: lecture at Lomonosov Moscow State University, 2012
Natalia Kolesnikova · AFP · Getty

Grassroots activism

In the mid-1990s, the student unions that had sprung up exchanged political for social slogans. Russia’s youth wanted more freedom and opportunities to study, and were hard hit by the economic crisis. Human rights lawyer and investigative journalist Stanislav Marlekov (murdered in 2009) was a co-founder of Student Defence, one of the most active unions. ‘It was a grassroots movement,’ he told sociologist Alexander Bikbov in 2006, ‘and some of its demands concerned students directly.’

Student Defence attracted 10,000-15,000 members from Moscow and other major cities including St Petersburg, Tula, Novosibirsk and Rostov. After demonstrations in Moscow in 1994-95, they obtained several of their demands, including freedom of movement within halls of residence and punctual payment of student grants.

During the Soviet era, higher education was free for all, and there were no scholarships based on social criteria. Nor are there today. So Russians don't see the system as unequal, though it makes them vaguely uneasy Alexander Bikbov

Since then (well before the Ukraine war), student protests have died down. The ‘official’ students’ unions in major universities are supposed to defend students in disputes with teaching staff, administrative issues or incidents in halls of residence, to support students in financial need, and to provide legal help. But close cooperation with university administrators undermines their independence. ‘The [students’ union] leaders are on university salaries. It’s a permanent conflict of interest,’ said Dmitriy Trynov, a co-founder of university teachers’ union University Solidarity. ‘They suppress their own dissatisfaction and even try to pressure protest groups, like when students who haven’t got places in halls of residence get together and set up a protest camp near the university.’

UrFU’s students’ union, with 17,000 members (almost half its student body of 36,000), has a rewards system to encourage students to join — membership is 500 roubles ($8) a month — and to get involved; they score five points for taking part in an activity organised by the union, 10 or 15 points for helping to organise it. Every month, a list of the most active participants is published. Prizes range from university merchandise (sweatshirts, insulated water bottles etc) to benefits such as a place in a better hall of residence. The three highest scores win a one-year scholarship of 5,000 roubles per month (around $60). ‘We started off with an Excel spreadsheet, but the university paid for a specially developed app which we manage,’ said Partov, scrolling through the rankings (updated in real time) on his phone.

The recovery of university finances has led to tighter controls on teaching staff too. University teachers have never really been treated as public servants. In Soviet times, they were on five-year contracts, though continuity of employment was the norm from the 1950s. Today, universities can still offer fixed-term contracts under which only the basic salary is guaranteed by the state; the state also encourages them to offer performance-related bonuses and even fire less productive staff. More than 27,000 university teachers quit in academic year 2014/15.

Many opt for distance learning

Tuition consists of mass lectures and tutorial classes for groups of 15-30 students; in many cases the same staff provide both. More than 40% Russian students opt for distance learning or part-time courses with classes in the evenings or at weekends.

After two years of pandemic, universities in most parts of Russia resumed in-person tuition early this year. But the Ukraine war shook Russian academia, creating a deep divide between those who support it and those who publicly express their opposition.

In the early days of the war, some 1,100 UrFU students, teachers and employees signed a petition calling on the government to ‘stop this catastrophe’, with an open letter warning that ‘every bullet, every shell fired is an attack on Russian learning, significantly damaging the quality of higher education.’

UrFU’s academic council responded by affirming its support for ‘President Putin’s policy ... which aims to ensure our national security’.This was expected, since the senior management of most universities is appointed by the federal government. The students say they are concerned about the war and the outlook for the future. Though being in higher education allows them to postpone military service (compulsory in Russia), many are worried about their older friends: there are media reports of conscripts being sent to the front in Ukraine, despite Putin’s repeated denials.

The economic crisis since the West’s drastic sanctions could further affect students, especially as neoliberal policies since the 1990s have resulted in a two-speed education system. Some students pay no tuition fees but are awarded state-funded places on the basis of merit (their baccalaureate results). But the number of fee-paying students is rising; in 2020 they were a third of the intake and paid double what they had a decade earlier. In 2021 the average fee per semester was 155,200 roubles ($2,480), around 4.3 times the average monthly income per capita; only a handful of students had scholarships based on social criteria (orphans, disabled applicants, young parents).

Competing for university places

The right to free education, pride of the Soviet system, is a thing of the past but competition for university places remains fierce. Every higher education establishment in Soviet Russia had an entrance exam, whose difficulty reflected the institution’s prestige. The hierarchy hasn’t changed: of the most prestigious, only the Higher School of Economics was founded after 1991. Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), Moscow State University (MGU), and Bauman Moscow State Technical University are still considered the best. The introduction of a Unified State Examination (EGE) at the end of secondary school, equivalent to a baccalaureate, has made the competition even tougher. Since 2009, secondary school pupils are ranked nationally, and their exam scores (out of 100) affect their chances of getting into universities. In 2021 applicants needed to score at least 42 to get a free place at UrFU (33 for a fee-paying place), compared with 74.8 to get into MGU (26.8 for a fee-paying place).

The EGE was supposed to make access to higher education fairer and more transparent. But the rectors of the most prestigious universities, who feared losing the freedom to select students, secured the right to hold ‘Educational Olympiads’ — competitive exams specific to their schools. This, they said, would be a better way to identify the best applicants and test their knowledge of specialist subjects, whereas the EGE was ‘only suitable for monitoring the knowledge of the masses’ (3). Since then, millions of secondary school pupils have taken part in Olympiads under pressure from teachers, who are themselves ranked according to how many of their pupils have been successful.

For pupils, stakes are high: the prize for a first place is often free admission to the university without sitting the entrance exam; those for second and third place may be a state scholarship or points added to the contestant’s EGE score. But the system heightens competition and increases the pressure on secondary school pupils and their parents. The majority of Russian families pay vast amounts for private tuition. ‘I spend more than half my pay on extra tuition for my boys,’ said a mother of three in Ekaterinburg who had studied at UrFU and was now finding that secondary education, supposedly free for all, was not.

Besides the pressure of competition, Russian students face huge financial pressure. A shortage of places in halls of residence forces many to seek other, often more expensive, accommodation. An HSE study between 2006 and 2015 found that more than half of all students had taken jobs to pay for basic necessities. Classes for postgraduate degrees, from master’s onwards, are all between 5pm and 9pm, leaving the day free for paid work. Ivan Birnokov, studying at the Ekaterinburg Institute of Physical Education, works at a carwash. Despite receiving a state-funded place on the basis of outstanding exam results, he has had a string of jobs as a waiter or barman. ‘Education is very expensive,’ he said. ‘There are plenty of state-funded places if you want to study a technical subject like maths or computer science. For other subjects, it’s much harder.’

Maria Demeneva is a fourth-year journalism student at UrFU and lives at home with her parents in Ekaterinburg. Even if she had wanted to, she could not have afforded to study elsewhere. Her first year’s tuition came to nearly 100,000 roubles ($1,600), a considerable sum for her parents, who aren’t well off. In the middle of her second year, she was given a state-funded place. ‘It was a big relief,’ she said. She works for a university newspaper while pursuing her studies.

Russia’s higher education system creates significant inequality. In the absence of social policies, the system rewards the well-off: free places go to the best applicants — who often come from families wealthy enough to pay for private tuition or preparatory classes for the EGE or Olympiads. Steeped in meritocratic culture, Russians don’t see the system as unfair. ‘During the Soviet era, higher education was free for all, and there were no scholarships based on social criteria,’ said Bikbov. ‘Nor are there today. So they don’t see the system as unequal, though it makes them vaguely uneasy.’

(1) Boris Saltykov, ‘Enseignement supérieur en Russie: comment dépasser l’héritage soviétique?’ (Higher education in Russia: how to escape the Soviet legacy?) in Institut Français des Relations Internationales (IFRI), Russie.NEI.Visions, no 29, Paris, April 2008.

(2) Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean, ‘Enseignement supérieur en Russie: comment redonner de l’ambition à un secteur en détresse?’ (Higher education in Russia: restoring ambition to a sector in distress) in IFRI, Les universités russes sont-elles competitives?, 2013.

(3) Carole Sigman, ‘Contourner la compétition par la compétition: les universités russes et les olympiades’ (Overcoming competition through competition: Russian universities and the ‘Olympiads’) in Revue française de sociologie, vol 62, no 1, 2021.

Source:Ocnus.net 2022

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