Неэргодическая экономика

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Institutional Conflicts in Higher Education

Building a market economy in Russia has brought not only the emergence of various economic conflicts but also the destruction of entire branches and spheres of activity. One such “fragile” sector has been higher education, which has undergone massive changes and is now facing new institutional reforms.

Building a market economy in Russia has brought not only the emergence of various economic conflicts but also the destruction of entire branches and spheres of activity. One such “fragile” sector has been higher education, which has undergone massive changes and is now facing new institutional reforms.

At present, higher education has become an arena of fierce discussion. Some people believe that today’s institutions are better than their socialist “ancestors,” while others think that they have fallen apart and given rise to a scholarly and pedagogical vacuum. As always happens, the truth is somewhere in the middle, although, in my opinion, the second position is probably more accurate than the first. To back up my statement, let me analyze certain new phenomena in higher education that should be overcome immediately. To preempt accusations of tendentiousness and subjectivism, I note here that everything described below relies on basic introspection and is permeated with subjective emotions. In my view, such an approach is legitimate at this stage, as it enables us to glance inside a world that people are trying to discuss with abstract facts and figures.

The Uselessness of Education (Knowledge)

An important concept that may help us “unravel” certain knots in understanding negative processes is that of institutional conflict, by which I mean conflict between existing institutions (norms) and those being introduced. The end result of institutional conflict is either institutions that are not viable or ineffective but stable organizational forms that are called institutional mutants. The phenomena mentioned above play a great role in the theory of institutional traps, which has been actively developed in recent years [1]. How can these concepts be applied to higher education?

I begin with subjective impressions. In 1998–2000 I taught at one of the country’s leading universities. The students were academically weak and ill prepared; their mathematical background was almost nonexistent, and it was difficult for them to master economics. In the course of one or two semesters, however, I managed to pique their interest, so that they developed a taste for economics and an interest in economic issues. In 2005 I resumed teaching at the same university and taught the same courses. The results proved to be deplorable: the students’ academic background had declined further, and it was no longer possible to pique their interest within any period of time. The current generation of students has been completely lost in terms of intensive education. No efforts will yield results. A mere five years was all it took for the “rejection” of complex scientific knowledge to take shape and to solidify in the student environment. How and why has such a decline occurred?

There are many causes for this phenomenon, but the main one is the emergence of an institutional conflict between higher education and the labor market, between education and work. In the late 1990s the labor market was not yet saturated; and to a considerable extent, applicants’ personal qualifications for vacant positions matched hiring decisions. In addition, the labor market was not completely “settled,” and the workforce’s structure of demand and requirements for entry had also not wholly developed. As a result, students wanted to obtain as much knowledge as possible so they would later have a competitive edge in the labor market. Higher education and the labor market functioned cooperatively; the system of higher education “helped” the labor market and the future workforce.

By 2005 the situation had changed dramatically. The labor market was oversaturated, and obtaining a job required personal connections and recommendations. Qualifications no longer gave one an edge. In addition, the research-intensive sector of the Russian economy had almost fallen apart, and demand existed only in the service sphere, which required no special knowledge or skills and only minimal experience. Under such conditions, one cannot waste time on a useless education: one must work. One does, however, still need a college diploma, a requirement supported by informal tenets inherited from the socialist period. As a result, many students began to work—to the detriment of studying, naturally. Even those who were not yet working already knew, as a rule, where they would work after graduation, so acquiring knowledge they would not be able to apply made no sense to them. Higher education and the labor market began functioning competitively as the system of higher education began to “interfere” with the labor market and the future workforce. It is no wonder, then, that students no longer saw the point of intellectual overexertion.

What is the key element here? Above all, it is the influence of the labor market on the sphere of education. Most experts quite fairly saw the educational system as an appendage to the labor market, which dictated the structure of demand and the quality of the workforce. The problem is that the Russian economy, and hence the labor market, has been evolving toward declining quality. The primitive labor market deprives young people and the system of higher education of appropriate stimuli, and this leads to a syndrome in which education and knowledge are seen as useless. To be more precise, education remains necessary as a formal attribute of an employee, certified by the appropriate degree. Knowledge is no longer necessary. Under these conditions, it is impossible to fill students’ heads with professional information. The institutional conflict that has developed between the “old” system of higher education and the “new” labor market, itself a consequence of the poor connection between these institutions, is blocking improvements in the educational system.

The Formation of a New Teaching Model

Whether students want knowledge or not, they still have to attend classes, and we still have to teach them. The question is how. Maybe we should rethink how we present the material? Make it more vivid, interesting, accessible?

Although logical at first glance, these questions contain a hidden danger. The problem is that a new model of teaching already exists in the student environment: professors must entertain students with their lectures, so that students can enjoy studying and have as much fun as possible. So a good instructor is one who can keep his or her students happy and in a state of euphoria. This paradigm came to Russia from the West, but in the West they also have a different approach, whereas in Russia other approaches are likely to disappear any day.

In reality, learning is hard work. It always has been, and it still should be. Mastering new, complex knowledge requires significant, time-consuming physical and intellectual effort. This is so by definition. Students should come to the university to work and apply themselves rather than to have fun and enjoy themselves. If we abandon this principle, education as a whole will be superficial and ineffective. This is exactly what is happening in Russia. The results are already almost catastrophic. In orienting themselves toward the new educational model, universities are publishing large runs of inferior textbooks and educational manuals, abandoning mathematics and all forms of modeling, and tolerating increasingly incoherent, shallow lectures. We are losing not only instrumental culture (mastery of mathematics, complex research methodology, state-of-the-art software, etc.) but liberal-arts culture as well (competence in Russian, skills in writing and self-expression, and familiarity with the scholarly literature). My personal experience shows that these days hardly any graduate students on the brink of defending their candidate’s dissertation have sufficient knowledge of Russian to turn their ideas into really competent texts.

Isolated attempts to raise the requirements for material presented to current students will not yield results. A person who burdens his or her students with complex information and exercises them by imposing high standards for mastery arouses bitterness and hostility in response.

So what lies beneath the new teaching model? It derives from an institutional conflict between tuition-based education and the uselessness of knowledge. Most education has become tuition-based, and the fees are rather high. It is quite logical that at that price people have the right to demand comfortable learning conditions; and since the labor market does not insist on in-depth knowledge, demands for comfort are degenerating into minimal effort by students. The distorted [urodlivyi] labor market, combined with tuition-based education, is leading to the emergence of an institutional mutant—a higher education system with immediate consumers who have low requirements in terms of the quality of their education. Such structures are a type of institutional trap and can exist indefinitely. On the surface, a university exists and organizes the process of education and even issues diplomas, but students do not receive real knowledge from it. Since no one needs this mythical knowledge, everybody is happy with the university.

New Weapons in the Campaign Against Knowledge

What if we nonetheless try to destroy the mutant university from within by raising requirements for our students?

Experience shows that the potential of this approach has already been exhausted. Several insurmountable institutional obstacles stand in its way.

First, you cannot fail every student who takes an exam. If you assess their knowledge objectively, that may be exactly what you should do, but what will the university administration say to instructors who insist on defending their principles in this way? The answer is clear: these are poor teachers who are now reaping the results of their own hackwork. The instructors are at fault, not the students. The administration does not need the notorious quality of knowledge; it needs a smooth teaching process. Moreover, it prefers to avoid excessive problems and conflicts. Naturally, professors of sound judgment will not want to put themselves and their reputations to such a test.

Second, you cannot give everybody equally low grades. However low the general level of knowledge, students still differ from one another rather significantly. So if you give a “C” to one student, then you will certainly have another one who has, by comparison, earned an “A.” Of course, instructors hand out top grades rather generously. As a result, we have many graduates with “red” diplomas [summa cum laude graduates—Trans.] who in fact know nothing at all. Faced with such specialists, Russia’s labor market is becoming increasingly perplexed and less and less convinced of the usefulness of a current higher education.

Third, one cannot give endless makeup exams. The current tuition-based form of education envisages that students can take tests as many times as they choose within a given period of time. This is understandable: people have paid money to study, and no one has the right to deprive them of that right. Incompletes, meanwhile, must be eliminated prior to graduation. Under such a system, anyone can wear down a teacher’s resistance. The instructor will give in and submit any grade at all. In general, expelling students for academic delinquency is no longer in fashion; the institution needs to receive the promised money, and the administration will not permit teachers to get away with disrupting the financial schedule.

Fourth, if necessary, any teacher can be pressured. Today’s students have already developed new means of bringing rebellious professors to heel by lodging official complaints about the poor quality of teaching. If an instructor exerts too much pressure on his students, they can play their “trump card”: they can accuse him of bribery. No one even needs proof in such a case—what is important is to defame the person and to undermine his or her prestige in the eyes of co-workers. It is difficult for people to clear themselves of such accusations. The administration does not want to deal with such cases and has an interest in not having any. No matter what happens, teachers who have experienced such accusations no longer feel like being strict during exams and, as a rule, are no longer primarily concerned with testing.

Fifth, you cannot stick to your guns during the final stages of the educational process—during state examinations and the defense of senior theses. Here, too, there is an informal rule: those who have a chance to receive summa cum laude diplomas should be given excellent grades even if their answers are poor. The university justifies this by its need to report extraordinary success in preparing highly qualified students: the higher the percentage of summa cum laude graduates, the better the specialists that the university is producing must be. The better the university, the higher its rating and the higher its tuition fees can be.

Sixth, one more norm of the Soviet period is gradually fading—mandatory class attendance. At present, it is typical for three or four students from a group of twenty-five to attend morning seminars. Not infrequently, a lecture for three groups of students may pull in a dozen people, with one member, say, of the third group being late for class into the bargain. Being late for lectures and seminars has become the norm, and teachers turn a blind eye to it. To cite an example from my own experience, I had one class in which about one-fourth of the students had never appeared in class by the time of the final exam. In such a situation students cannot even accuse their instructors of poor teaching skills, since teaching evaluations are based, as a rule, on a student’s personal experience, which requires the student to attend class at least once. In the good old days we could punish students for such behavior. Now we cannot expel students for poor attendance. On the one hand, attendance is not the main factor in learning. The students may yet pass all their exams. On the other, if today’s students are really hard-pressed, they can always acquire some type of letter to confirm the validity of their reasons for skipping class. Finally, I repeat, you cannot expel a student for poor attendance if that student has paid for his or her education.

All these principles are, in one way or another, aimed at protecting students from the aggression of knowledge, personified by strict instructors. What we see here is various mechanisms of consolidating the positions, first, of a mutant university in the education market and, second, of the entire higher education system with its low requirements as to quality. The existence of a system of tuition-based education that is not reinforced by objective needs for quality logically produces such ineffective institutional configurations.

An Ineffective System of Competition and Poor Curricula

Students’ rejection of complex multifunctional knowledge has its origins in the way the competitive admissions process is set up. Here we can distinguish two major problems.

The first problem is that entrance examinations are given in the wrong subjects. Frequently, the list does not include mathematics, which lays a foundation for instrumental weakness among prospective students. This trait characterizes many majors in economics and management.

The second problem is the bastardization of the competitive admissions system. At present, the procedures for competitive selection are so complex that no layman can figure them out. Thus, the number of spaces for students includes “targeted individuals” and the children of university employees, who have their own competition (or lack thereof!). What is known as the university board of trustees can also submit recommendations, which are usually taken into account. As a result, the real number of places for applicants turns out to be considerably smaller, and in this way the basic principle of honest and fair competition is violated, even as the university is filled with the wrong people.

The students’ poor background is then reinforced by a poorly developed curriculum. Probably the most vivid examples of this come from the system of second higher education [in which candidates complete a second major in a different discipline—Trans.]. Thus, in this system future economists study econometrics in their first year without any prerequisites in mathematics. This is done although such students may have obtained their first diploma in jurisprudence, philosophy, or philology and at times have even graduated from an institute of culture [which trains librarians and those who organize various activities in clubs—Trans.] or are retired military officers. I remember one time when I was teaching an econometrics course at an elite Moscow university and explaining to my students the methods of linearizing nonlinear regression models. One of my students, a lawyer by profession, asked me a question that threw me for a loop: “Excuse me, Professor, what is a logarithm?” Unfortunately, I am not joking. The important point is that no number of state standards and no amount of oversight by the Russian Federation Ministry of Education and Science can protect education from outright stupidity.

In this case, we can see a manifestation of the absence of any effective connection between educational structures and the state institutions responsible for monitoring their quality. The absence of common interests among these institutions restricts the potential for high-quality work at colleges and universities.

The issue here is that a mutant higher educational institution is masterful in its institutional mimicry. It tries to fulfill all the formal rules and norms while violating the very spirit of higher education. On the surface, we see an extraordinarily tough competition to enter higher educational institutions, which is supposed to attest to the serious selection of applicants based on the criterion of academic preparedness. We see impressive titles of lecture courses in the curriculum, which are supposed to indicate a high level of teaching based on the inclusion of advanced scientific achievements. We can also see a surprisingly large number of people who have graduated from university with summa cum laude diplomas, which, theoretically, offers direct testimony of knowledge mastery. Yet the whole thing is complete and utter fiction.

Inadequate Course Content

At present, we can observe an obvious tendency toward autarchy in Russian higher educational institutions and toward the building of fences between them and their academic environment. University departments are becoming self-sufficient organisms, and department chairs a kind of local czar. Their own staff honors and respects them, but beyond the department no one either knows or wants to know them. This is understandable, since contemporary academia perceives almost all department chairs as a peculiar class of homespun scholars, “Samodelkins” [do-it-yourselfers—Trans.] who may have a certain originality and talent but do not meet current academic requirements. This is particularly evident in their insufficient familiarity with the Russian and foreign literature, without which it is practically impossible to design a good contemporary course of study (except in such conservative subjects as mathematical analysis).

As typical examples, I could mention monographs and textbooks by certain professors at Moscow State University on institutional economics, which include no references to the key publications by Russian authors in this field. This gives these books a certain archaic quality, since they (however beautifully published and despite ambitious marketing schemes) do not contain the cutting-edge ideas that our current stage of social development needs. One has the impression that such authors cite only works written by their department friends or by a narrow circle of acquaintances. Other publications are not even mentioned. We could provide many such examples.

Many university courses, in fact, are taught by self-taught individuals and dilettantes. Even that, however, is not the worst of it. The worst is that these self-taught people and dilettantes do not even try to reach beyond their narrow range of interests. They form narrow collectives linked by common administrative and business interests; and not only do such groups have no desire to integrate with the rest of the academic community, but they also prevent strangers from joining their ranks. Building such administrative barriers deprives education of the flexibility and effectiveness it needs and “puts a lock on” the subjects being taught.

Another reason for inadequate course content is the gulf between university professors and real research. Professors are responsible not only for classroom teaching but also for designing their own courses, developing lesson plans, formulating test questions and checking whether they meet state standards, and so on. In addition, university professors, too, are human and need outside sources of income if they are to live normally (one can subsist only with difficulty on a professor’s or associate professor’s official salary). As a result, they have more important concerns than research. Only a few even engage in research; and those do such work on their own initiative, which in the current higher-education climate is neither taken into account nor encouraged. The result is trivializing: today’s university professor is an honored teacher of a kind of higher school—no more. The days when professors were high-level specialists are long gone. But how can such people tell their students about the latest scientific results—new discoveries, concepts, paradigms, and so on?

Even that is not all. Over the last few years, another reinforcing tendency has emerged. Russia’s universities have become powerful administrative entities. The dominant atmosphere within their walls is one of intrigues, collusion, and mutual surveillance. Not surprisingly, it is practically impossible for an outsider to get into any Russian university. Here everything involves connections. This policy means that people without a doctor of sciences’ degree can become department chairs, deans, presidents, and vice-presidents of higher educational institutions. Now a candidate’s degree is sufficient, and sometimes even that is not required. In the Soviet period, such exceptions were made only for the highest party bosses. Now it has become the norm.

When a candidate of sciences chairs a department, the consequences can be disastrous, because a candidate of sciences will never hire a doctor of sciences for his department, since the doctor can eventually compete with the department chair and even “eat him or her up.” Nobody wants to sit on a volcano by having a prominent scholar under his command. As a result, the university system effectively filters out good specialists, thus depriving itself of the opportunity to enhance the quality of teaching. Even if good scholars with the rank of professor are hired to teach at a university, they will probably suffer constant harassment—“as a preventive measure,” to ward off potential promotions up the administrative ladder. To be fair, we should mention here that having a doctor of sciences as department chair does not guarantee the absence of departmental battles. In this way, the strongest and most successful scholar-professors are currently the least desirable members of Russian universities.

This brings us to yet another problem. In today’s university system, the principle of teaching disciplines within the instructor’s area of specialization is being violated. Let me give you an example from my personal experience: in one Moscow technical institute I was negotiating a job with the dean of the Management Faculty and the deputy chair of the Department of Management. The dean was a candidate of technical sciences, and the deputy chair a candidate in chemistry. This did not prevent them from occupying administrative positions in teaching with a major in economics. In another management institute in Moscow, I negotiated with the chair of the Department of Management, who was for some reason a doctor of education. I am deeply convinced that good scholars can change their initial specialization and even choose an adjacent field, but the presence of chemists, doctors of education, and doctors of technical sciences in leadership positions in university economics departments can hardly be justified by anything other than their being somebody’s relatives and friends (“our people”) who at some point needed good jobs.

Another new norm in the university system is learning standards. Standard courses have been developed, the content of those courses has been approved, and only a few so-called specialized courses remain at the discretion of the universities. It is obvious, though, that a top-level specialist will not agree to teach a standard course. Hence, the current system is “squeezing” out the best specialists. Their alternative is to accept professional degradation.

Instead of university science, therefore, Russia has received university administration. This administration is not even very effective, because it lacks any corrective mechanism in the final stage of education. So far, the labor market has sent higher education only lackluster signals, which the universities turn to their own ends. Contemporary higher educational institutions spend all their funds to support themselves, not to transform themselves to achieve the ultimate goal of providing a high-quality education. We can state here that the “external” institutional conflict between a demand for higher educational institutions and the useless knowledge they provide has been gradually transformed into various forms of “internal” institutional conflict involving specific groups within the university.

The Relationship–Status Imbalance Between Teachers and Students

The course of economic reforms in Russia has, slowly and imperceptibly, brought about a reversal in the status and financial situations of students and university teachers. Whereas students used to be ordinary, low-income young people and their professors well-to-do members of society, now it is the other way around. The parking lots of the capital’s higher educational institutions are packed with students’ expensive foreign cars, while their professors modestly travel by foot. The reasons behind this status quo are well known, but the situation cannot be considered normal.

A rather strange system has taken shape. Students, being well-to-do individuals protected from all kinds of minor problems, consider themselves the masters [khoziaeva] of the institutions where they study, whereas the indigent faculty members act as an odd sort of waiter. Their job is silently to bring and to remove whatever is ordered. Not only do students have no respect for their mentors, but sometimes they openly despise them. Effective teaching is not possible under such circumstances. The consequences of this juxtaposition within a system of “the student versus the professor” are either professors’ complete indifference toward their students or hypocritical strictness calculated to wring some sort of bribe from the wealthy student class. Endless paid consultations and lobbying for kindness from professors have already become almost a norm.

We can already see many everyday manifestations of university administrations’ orientation toward their students’ thick wallets. University cafeterias, snack bars, cafés, and bookstores set prices that are obviously higher than the market rate. In the rest of the world, the exact opposite prevails.

One unpleasant consequence of the high financial level enjoyed by many students (and, primarily, their parents) is their almost complete disinterest in economic issues. In my experience, most students do not understand and have no interest in inflation, currency exchange rates, prospective correlations of the world’s currencies, and the future of the global currency system. They also care nothing about taxation, foreign debt, corruption, and so on. At times, one has the impression that present-day students, at least those living in the capital, are so well insulated by their parents from the vital financial problems of the day that they simply cannot comprehend their relevance and hence have no impetus for deeper understanding. Also in my experience, low-income students are most curious in terms of research.

The teachers, as a group, are heading in the opposite direction. Those who exist at the level of primitive survival are hardly ever characterized by broad erudition, vast knowledge, and subtle scientific intuition. To acquire such qualities, one needs both free time and a life that is rich in events and impressions, which at present is impossible without a decent income level. Even if university instructors manage to accumulate all the positive qualities listed above, a low standard of living, as a rule, leaves them inadequate in many cases, which automatically devalues all their scientific baggage. In this connection, we should mention the tendency (already a tradition in Russia) for elderly professors to continue teaching even if their age makes them incompetent in many circumstances and unable to command their students’ respect. In all the developed countries of the world, any professor—even a Nobel laureate—must resign at sixty-five. If a particular individual is really still quite capable of work and valuable as a bearer of unique scientific knowledge and experience, his or her institution will offer the opportunity to continue as, for example, a senior research fellow. Russia does not follow this progressive tradition because, first, it simply does not have enough experienced professors and, second, its mutant higher educational institutions do not organize research, so there is nowhere for retired professors to work.

In this sense, we are now observing a peculiar institutional conflict between university subsystems: the professors and the students. These two institutions must establish an effective, cooperative relationship, but in reality, they have no stable ties, which leads to confrontation and struggle.

The False Freedom of Russian Higher Educational Institutions

Some people believe that the freedom given to present-day universities is gradually turning them into “states within a state.” This is only partially true. First, as noted above, strict limits are placed on the list of the courses universities can teach—the lion’s share is filled with standard courses. Second, many state-run higher educational institutions suffer from internal bureaucracy even more now than they did in the Soviet period. University libraries offer a typical example.

The general public naturally assumes that university libraries can buy whatever scholarly books they want, but this is not true. They can buy mainly textbooks—those that have a seal from the Ministry of Education and Science or a Teaching Methodology Department (of which the country has only a few) attesting that the textbook in question has been recommended for use in education. Higher educational institutions do not much like scholarly monographs or textbooks without the appropriate seal of approval. This practice cuts off higher educational institutions almost completely from advanced scholarly literature.

There are also obvious anomalies in university library procedures. When I, for example, tried to give my book to the university where I teach, I encountered a surprising problem. It turned out that the university cannot accept just any book as a gift. I would have to submit a set of complicated documents before the library could take my book. I encountered a similar problem at another university, where the department library would not accept my book, pointing out that such gifts had to go through the central office, which is located somewhere else. Such institutional restrictions on forming research collections grow directly from the control that higher entities, such as the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation, have over universities. In this context, it would not be an exaggeration to say that poor work by university libraries because of their entrenched internal bureaucracy is the first step toward the destruction of the universities themselves as national centers of education and scholarship.

The “Technical” Theory of Russian Universities

The sum total of the causes and effects we have described has logically led to the development of a curious attitude toward universities. The overwhelming majority of Russian citizens see a university as its corresponding material value. A university is a space, the sum total of university buildings and resources. At best, it includes teaching, with its characteristic movement of individuals along university corridors. The greater the “wealth” of a university, the better and more significant the university itself is. In fact, society has a oddly, fundamentally “technical” view of the university.

Quite a different idea prevails in the West. There a university is, above all, people: professors and students. The better those people are, the stronger the university is. The reputation of any Western university is based on names: the talented and outstanding people it has graduated, the famous scholars and scientists who have worked there, the interesting theories and ideas developed within its halls. A university is not walls but professors. People do not deny the significance of material wealth, but that wealth serves only as a means to ensure the university’s leadership in terms of recruiting scholars. The view of universities in present-day Russia is the exact opposite: a university is not professors but walls.

As a result, Russian state universities are convinced that the most important thing is to have numerous departments with impressive names, while it does not matter who heads the departments and who teaches in them. The most vivid manifestation of the “technical” nature of Russian higher education is the activity of private institutions. They have hardly any permanent teaching personnel. At best, the staff of a private college consists of a president, a chief accountant, and several vice-presidents, who usually hold other jobs as deans of the appropriate faculties or department heads. The illustrious faculties and departments have no organizational form. Nor do they have any professors. Some private institutions do not even pretend to have departments. So how do they function? It is simple: they hire professors from state universities on a contractual basis. Naturally, this type of teaching is extremely convenient for the institutions; the only problem is that they cannot claim to play the role of research centers.

The following example offers a classic illustration of the dialectic between inept instructors and modern courses with impressive names. When the dean of a Moscow university asked his colleague if he could teach a course in strategic management, the colleague said yes. He responded with an aphorism: “It doesn’t matter what you call a course. Call it whatever you like. I’ll teach the things I’ve taught all my life anyway.” Hence, the showy names for the most part hide shallow content.

An utterly cynical but essentially accurate expression of a university administration’s current strategy came from a president of a private university: “What’s important is money; we can always hire that trash [professors—E. B.].” They do hire them—and they are indeed trash.

The Mass Nature of Higher Education

Yet another problem for Russia’s universities is the extensive growth in higher education. Based on available data, in 2002, 35 percent of young people in Russia had a higher education, as compared to 18 percent in 1995. In France, Germany, Italy, and Scandinavia, this indicator is a little higher than 30 percent [2]. This means that in Russia we can see a tendency to turn higher education not just into a mass phenomenon but into a certain mandatory attribute of a contemporary person. If this tendency persists, by 2010 more than half of Russian youth in this age group will have a college degree.

Given that a mass product by definition cannot be exclusive, the objective quality of higher education in Russia will decline. Under such conditions, universities are interested in securing and maximizing their positions in the educational services market. To achieve this, they must mass-produce students and graduates, which they cannot do without a loss of quality. Yet another institutional conflict is obvious here: between the expanding educational services market and the need to ensure educational quality. In contrast to the preceding conflicts, which were peculiar to Russia, this conflict is common to all the developed countries.

What Is the Solution?

So what is happening now to the Russian system of higher education in terms of general systemic positions? Here we should distinguish two aspects of the phenomenon: the economic (resource) aspect and the psychological (institutional) one.

The economic aspect has to do with fundamental restructuring in the system of higher education. The relatively simple Soviet system of higher educational institutions did not require large administrative outlays to support their activity, which enabled them to focus on their ultimate goal—training specialists. Now demand for specialists has dissipated, even as the mutant higher educational institutions that have developed incur enormous expenses to ensure their own existence. University employees have to spend great time and effort to support complex internal connections. They must create the appearance of normal work for the surrounding world to see, to improve their rating and increase the number of prospective students, and so on. As soon as they loosen their grip and let events take their natural course, the real essence of the higher educational institution will become clear. At the level of the system as a whole, such unproductive expenses are huge and automatically decrease the public wealth. The institutional trap that has developed in the form of numerous mutant higher educational institutions is pumping out society’s economic resources and impedes the principal goal of a normal university: to provide the younger generation with knowledge. Public energy, time, money, and knowledge are being spent not to produce anything outside the system of higher education but rather to prop up its intrasystemic connections. As a result, the system promotes not positive social transformation but merely its own existence.

The psychological aspect refers to the subtle dialectic of norms (institutions). As a rule, society always has certain norms, and pathology is a deviation from these norms. Institutional theory distinguishes between a main, official, or formal norm and one that is alternative, unofficial, or informal [3]. The dialectic between norm and pathology is such that when pathology and norm enjoy equal rights, the norm is destroyed [4].

In the present case, the norm is intense study at a higher educational institution to obtain appropriate knowledge, and the pathology is unproductive time spent at such an institution without obtaining appropriate knowledge. This is the way it has always been and the way people still see it. The problem is that the norm previously had institutional guarantees: society had created an administrative legal framework to realize the norm. Those who deviated lost the right to continue their studies and did not receive a higher education. Those who met all the requirements graduated with a certain minimum knowledge. At present, fulfillment of the norm has no institutional guarantees, and its violation incurs no penalty. A violator can receive a diploma anyway and be considered a fully qualified specialist. Thus, the mode of unproductive time spent at a higher educational institution without obtaining appropriate knowledge is no longer a pathology but has gradually become a norm to which many members of society adhere. When the pathology and the norm enjoy equal rights, however, the norm is destroyed. If the untraditional (pathological) strategy has become universally acceptable, why would anyone stick to the traditional strategy, especially when it involves a large investment of time and effort? Psychologically, all the pluses can be found on the side of the untraditional, “new” strategy. If the new strategy becomes dominant—and that is exactly what is happening now—one can speak about the formation of a powerful institutional trap, one from which any exit carries significant socioeconomic costs.

The moral and psychological inversion of the normal educational process affects not only the students but the professors as well. The professors, too, face a dilemma: to do a good job or to teach just anyhow. Here, too, the second choice is preferable because it requires less effort and incurs lower costs. If it receives appropriate institutional reinforcement (and it does!), the choice is predetermined.

In this way, two kinds of institutional traps have formed in society. The first (organizational) trap is an ineffective but stable system of mutant higher educational institutions that do not provide a real education; the second (mental) trap is an ineffective but stable moral system that discourages students from obtaining knowledge. At this moment, most of the country’s population is quite happy with the current organization of higher educational institutions and with the “new” educational morality. If this situation persists for another decade, the decline of higher education may become irreversible.

There are always exceptions to the rule. There are unique professors with exceptional scholarly potential who are selflessly passing on their gifts to the younger generation. There are students with inquisitive minds who selflessly immerse themselves in the depths of scholarship. There are universities that are doing much to separate the grains from the chaff. The situation is less critical in some academic disciplines than in others. But these are exceptions; the situation as a whole is not encouraging, and this is exactly where we need to begin.

Can anything be done to overcome the negative trends? Above all, it is clear that no restructuring of higher education will achieve results unless the labor-market situation changes radically. To quote [composer Nikolai] Rimsky-Korsakov, “No one can teach anybody anything, because everybody learns on his own.” We cannot make today’s students study well and effectively absorb knowledge that they do not need. To motivate students, we must first create an appropriate economy that demands highly qualified workers. This goal lies beyond the framework of higher education per se. Judging by all the facts, it is also a goal for the remote future.

But what should be done about today’s universities, while the labor market is slowly improving its quality?

These days, Russian colleges and universities are solving an important strategic goal, if at a rather low level: they are ensuring mass higher education. We should probably not disrupt this process without giving the country something substantial in its stead. A better solution, most likely, would be to supplement the current trend with a small component oriented toward the preparation of elite specialists. This idea has already been voiced in the literature [5]. We believe that here we need only follow a simple outline: the creation, within large universities, of elite departments charged with preparing more highly qualified specialists throughout a student’s years of study. Both the employees and the students of such departments must receive privileged treatment in everything: earnings, work schedule, social benefits, status, and so on. The institutional reinforcement of the status of these elite subdivisions is crucial. One way to do this would be by introducing separate degrees. Employers could easily identify the elite specialists by their credentials, which would make it possible for them to secure better jobs in the future. The universities themselves must take part in branding and promoting these specialists to build up the “employment history” of their elite graduates and to develop their reputations. Of course, this measure will not magically solve the accumulated problems of higher education, but perhaps it will push the situation off dead center and pull the rest of the system with it.


  1. See V.M.Polterovich, “Institutsional’nye lovushki i ekonomicheskie reformy,” Ekonomika i matematicheskie metody, 1999, no. 2, p. 12.
  2. O.G.Golichenko, “Vysshee obrazovanie i nauka: integratsiia ili partnerstvo,” Ekonomika i matematicheskie metody, 2005, no. 1, p. 121.
  3. Sometimes, the literature separates old from new norms (institutions). See, for example, E.V.Balatskii, “Funktsional’nye svoistva institutsional’nykh lovushek,” Ekonomika i matematicheskie metody, 2005, no. 3, p. 55.
  4. See M.Veller, Kassandra (St. Petersburg, 2003), p. 131.
  5. See Golichenko, “Vysshee obrazovanie i nauka.”
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