Remolding Society
No. 1 2014 January/March
Lev Luybimov

Deputy Research Supervisor at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics.

Reforming the Russian Education System

The author would like to thank the participants in the discussion of earlier versions of this report; the participants in the situational analysis “The Russian Education System: State, Role, and Outline of Changes” held on April 6, 2013; and the contributing authors to the Education section of the Strategy XXI report. Strategy XXI is a series of reports prepared by the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

Meaningful and profound reform in education has always improved the quality of society, the economy, and culture. That was the case in Otto von Bismarck’s Germany and in Scandinavian countries, which were transformed through reform into welfare states. Japan, Australia, Singapore, South Korea, and China experienced a surge in growth as a result of education reform.

In the Russian Empire, the reforms of the 1870s resulted in unprecedented economic growth and the intellectual and cultural blossoming of the Silver Age. In the twentieth century, especially in the 1960s, the Soviet Union invested extensively in education and made it an important asset of its strength. Education secured Russia’s impressive achievements in natural sciences and culture, earning the country worldwide renown.

National education in the developed world is recognized as the key factor in preserving statehood along two lines – social (forming the population’s civil position) and economic (training labor potential). This sphere also keeps and develops culture, which is responsible for a politically stable society. Advanced culture, as the pillar of a constant and creative political consciousness, preserves the ideal of national accord.

Today’s Russia is a country with a split society, ineffective market mechanisms, a declining quality of social life, and a unique level of mutual mistrust. This situation prevents the nation from making a decisive turn towards modernization that requires drastic improvement of the quality of human capital.

At the same time, Russia’s intellectuals and teaching community maintain the highest value attitudes. Thus, they could become a crucial factor in the nation’s development and in supporting the government’s efforts to this effect. Can we set a task of a truly historical scope before modern Russian school, which has preserved its high quality in elementary education, but lags behind in secondary and, particularly, higher education?


In the early 1990s, in the new Russia several thousand lycées and grammar schools, institutions were opened that the Soviet government had not promoted despite the achievements of Russian pedagogy. Yet today schools largely continue to operate according to a well-honed model, where the teacher deliverers a monologue while students listen, take notes, and memorize information without learning how to acquire knowledge on their own. From 1991-2013, individual projects substituted for significant education reform. However, those projects changed little; rather, they actually undermined the system that had been functioning for decades.

The situation worsened when the government began to deregulate higher education in the early 1990s. As a result, colleges lost research opportunities, teacher competence plummeted, corruption soared in dissertation committees, and plagiarism flourished in student and doctoral research.

However, the first right step in education has already been made thanks to political decisions by Russian officials, which, hopefully, will prove fruitful. The government’s approval in May 2012 of a new Federal State Education Standard (FSES) for secondary schools was a major breakthrough, which was followed by approval of the FSES in higher education and a new law on education. Despite obvious shortcomings, the FSES fits into the model of education whose basic principles were developed by Russian science. Remarkably, schools in countries that have emerged as world leaders in secondary education have used this model for decades.

The FSES will go into effect after 2020. More competent teachers, school directors, and school administrators are needed to fully implement this program, as well as a more advanced system of personnel training and retraining. But we do not have to start from scratch. The above-mentioned lycées and grammar schools are no worse than secondary schools in countries that are leaders in global education. Significantly, Russia’s education system has acquired experience and that feat deserves recognition. And proactive support for and further advancement of this experience by regional and municipal administrations should become the key criterion of their performance.

Russian teachers have largely preserved their labor and professional ethics. Since the launch of the “Education” national project, teachers have shown the ability to make a quick return on investment. The regions that have seen major positive changes in school financing (particularly with regard to pay increases for teachers) display a noticeable improvement in results in Unified State Exams (EGE) by students who want to pursue a teaching career. As a rule, there are no underachievers among students who chose to enter teachers’ training colleges.


The success of the reforms depends on the quality of all the participants in the education process. The “new” teacher can no longer be a mere instructor in a school subject: s/he must be a true expert with the competence to create a new organizational and academic culture.

Ideally, a twenty-first century teacher must have a master’s degree from a traditional university and a certificate that s/he has completed a six-month psychology/teaching internship. Teachers’ training should be transferred to universities, while colleges should continue to train teachers for primary schools (which, in Russia, are still among best in the world). The best teachers’ training colleges require sufficient resources to be upgraded to traditional universities. Until then, teachers must have the opportunity to take retraining classes, followed by regular advanced training courses at universities.

The ideal school director is a teacher who has a M.A. in Secondary Education Administration. The government should encourage the development of such master’s degree programs at traditional universities and exercise control over the content and level of teaching. Simultaneously, the program has to address special training for school administration staff by launching dedicated training programs for them (of the MBA (MPA)-type).

We have never tried to tap the potential of parents as participants in the education process. Indeed, parents are a powerful resource for creating a new school and civil society. Involving a parent in school life is a social and political task. The school community that brings together teachers, school administrators, and parents can become a local public and cultural center in a neighborhood or a village. So, a new important mission is being assigned to schools: to socialize not only children, but also parents by making them actively involved in school life.

Schools already have formal freedom and responsibility for the content of education, but presently they can neither make use of this freedom nor show responsibility. Traditional universities, therefore, should provide the maximum assistance to schools in accordance with government instructions.

Assistance is foremost needed in the Humanities, which has a direct bearing on the development of an individual personality; this is a mission of literature classes, above all Russian classic literature. Much more attention should also be given to history, which develops in a secondary school student a sense of belonging to the Motherland. This is a way to mold personal social experience.

The guidelines for school trips should be redesigned to include such excursions as hiking across home districts and visits to the Russian capitals of Moscow and St. Petersburg. In this way, students are instilled with the idea of the integrity of the Motherland, whose history is not an abstraction, but a life experience personified by nature and architecture. Having inspired in school students a tangible feeling of the Motherland, we can take the next step; i.e. link the history of Russia’s development with the history of Europe and the East, thereby helping students understand Russia’s inclusion in the global context.

Focusing on the Humanities at school does not mean that the status of natural sciences will be downgraded. In the past fifteen years, school training in natural sciences has declined to an unacceptably low level. The norm for passing Unified State Exams in natural sciences should be set at 40 points, at a minimum, and those who fail to attain this score should only be entitled to a certificate confirming secondary education training without specifying grades.

By the end of 2015, a comprehensive review must be completed of all school curricula. The volume of information in textbooks (currently limited by medical norms – which no other country practices) must only rely on the content of the subject and contain numerous references to websites. A student should be able to find, select, assimilate, and interpret information. This is a crucial prerequisite for a student’s future success in life.

Securing decent salaries for teachers is another important objective. Huge regional differences in teachers’ salaries are not merely an obstacle to school modernization, but they are the main cause behind the decline in secondary education. Moscow’s relatively high salaries attract teachers from the provinces of the Central Federal District. The authorities must consider bringing teachers’ pay to the same level across the country.

Other requirements include the availability of classrooms and facilities for supplementary studies, physical training, and sport events. A state standard must be established for sport equipment and facilities, and the government should provide each school with the necessary equipment.

Each school needs art centers, musical instruments, video and audio equipment, and well-stocked libraries with teaching, fiction, scientific, and reference material. Another priority is securing digital rights to modern and translated literature, informative books, and supplementary material.


The key problems in this sector are the declining quality of education and excessive number of students, largely caused by the deregulation of higher education. Another cause is the mistaken assumption that it is better to keep young people in colleges if the labor market cannot provide jobs. This policy emerged in the 1990s in the face of large-scale unemployment and has survived into the twenty-first century despite the growing demand for labor.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia faced a feverish demand for an entire range of social sciences, which was largely met by copying foreign education programs. For example, more than 300 psychology departments at universities and colleges were created very quickly (whereas only three such departments existed in the Russian part of the Soviet Union). The Higher Attestation Commission (VAK) began to produce doctors whose dissertations were at the level of student term papers. This troubling practice was particularly widespread in economic, sociology, pedagogic, and psychology studies.

The problem can be resolved if Russian professionals, backed by their colleagues from leading world universities, handle it. Russian colleges need foreign education administrators to conduct independent evaluations of their performance. This has been routine practice in Western European universities and is now common in the East.

Key guidelines for modernizing higher vocational education. The global higher education system is quite profound. While keeping the universal features of Wilhelm Humboldt and John Henry Newman’s concept, the education system has undergone a thorough revision due to its popularity and major changes in social demand.

The Soviet higher education system differed from Humboldt’s plan and other successful models used by many Western countries. Colleges had always been insignificant players in research and development (R&D), which was conducted by defense sector and ministerial institutions. The Soviet Academy of Sciences contributed approximately one-quarter of fundamental research. As for colleges, few professors could combine teaching with research. For Western European and modern Eastern professors, research is a way of life, with teaching as the main application. The reverse was true in the Soviet Union.

Now that government agencies and the defense sector have lost the leading role in research and the Russian Academy of Sciences has been degraded, the authorities and society have turned to colleges as the main R&D engine. This has been an important, but largely theoretical switch. The situation has improved for universities as educational institutions (with the introduction of loans, ratings, and other Bologna System elements), whereas R&D is now faring much worse.

The modern world requires from universities a decisive contribution to the local (regional) economy and the development of local society. As a rule, U.S. state universities are funded by the states and are expected to contribute to the economy of the funding state. Regionalization of universities’ applied functions has become the dominant policy in Europe too. In fact, this is a widespread practice in South Korea and is gaining momentum in China.

An overwhelming majority of Russian colleges are now under federal control; in essence, they are shut off from regional authorities and the local economy. This situation is convenient for senior college administration officials who actually are not responsible to anyone, which is why officials are eager to accept top university administrative positions. College teaching staff is unaware that a director’s salary compares to that of a top banker, while a professor’s salary is often lower than a schoolteacher’s.

Federal colleges located in regions should return to local jurisdiction while keeping their national status. Financial and other resources at these colleges have to be handed over to the regions, and their directors must publish annual tax declarations.

Rosobrnadzor, the federal education and science watchdog, should be subordinate to the government and absolutely independent from the Education and Science Ministry. A law on administrative penalties for legislators, governors, and other VIPs would ensure against attempts to lobby the interests of a particular college in Rosobrnadzor.

National monitoring of colleges should be carried through and continued on regular basis, and involve professionals from abroad. Education reform should not be handled by those who oppose it. Russia needs quality college efficiency criteria matching that of it foreign counterparts.

Widespread higher education comparable to the U.S. and Europe does more harm than good to Russia. The real level for Russia is still slightly lower than in Brazil, i.e. not more than 25 percent of each group of young people. In China, a country that makes huge financial injections in education, students must pay for all higher education. Neither the economy nor society needs a larger share of college graduates, since that would only provoke further imitation and degrade higher education. But amid cuts in state-subsidized spots in colleges to a level where it possible to maintain and improve the quality of higher education, provinces should not be denied their share of funding. Their interests have priority.

The massive spread of higher education cannot be reversed. This has to be acknowledged and a solution must be found to avoid imitation. In Western countries, education is part of the new generation’s lifestyle, is a universal set, and hence a value. It is natural that the demands of the elite gradually become the demands of the lower strata of the population. This has been the case for millennia. In the twentieth century secondary education became a universal consumer good. And higher education is next in line. A “university badge” as proof of belonging to the educated class has already become a symbol of prosperity.

Since genuine higher education can only be mastered by about 25 percent of young students, university programs for the rest of the student population should also be considered. Such programs should be custom-made truncated version of university courses, as opposed to the ubiquitous poor quality copies we now have. They should be tailored to match the education potential of the bulk of school graduates, while meeting the requirements of most jobs.

To acquire the skills needed to become an accountant, aid worker, sales manager, or hotel employee, a student does not have to complete a bachelor’s degree, not to mention a master’s degree (i.e. four plus two years of training): two or three years of study is sufficient. Such programs abound at universities in Europe, Asia, the U.S., and Australia that offer work-focused degrees to fit into college hierarchies and bestow on the student a “university badge.” Mulling this approach is important in Russia where the bulk of the younger generation, encouraged by their parents, is eager to get “the badge” – while receiving instead a replica of a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Applied bachelor’s degree courses can resolve the problem of forming social and human capital for many kinds of professions that do not require academic knowledge.

Universities should be divided into those that conduct research and those that provide training. The first create new knowledge and a professional elite, who compete at the world level and have powerful federal support. The second group relays existing knowledge to the local and regional level.

The Higher Attestation Commission (VAK) must be reshuffled, and its operation principles and mechanism of training top qualification personnel must be revised. Post-graduate courses in the Soviet Union and Russia have no “doctorate” (post-graduate) education programs. Many of the best Western and Eastern universities offer a two-year program whose quality and content is higher than M.A. programs. Such programs require several dozen rigorous examinations, after which a student secures a master’s degree in philosophy.

Not only professors from a given university, but also professors from the international pool of top rank scientists teach at these programs. Of the three “post-graduate” examinations in Russia, just one is taken in a student’s specialty. The second is philosophy, of which almost 100 percent of applicants have no knowledge, yet they are allowed to pass this examination to keep “the occupation” and prestige of college-based philosophers. The third examination, which is in a foreign language, is taken in a “relaxed” mode instead of forcing an applicant to work harder in order to earn an international foreign language certificate. No one should be regarded as a professional with a university education without being fluent in English, which is now the world’s universal means of communication.

VAK’s decisions on awarding academic degrees in economy, law, psychology, sociology, and pedagogy in the past two decades should be revised. Allowing universities to keep thousands of sham PhDs and Doctors would mean that Russia would lose irrevocably the opportunity to upgrade its higher education system.

University departments and education programs also need a thorough revision. The title of ‘university’ should remain only with those institutions that conduct fundamental research. Agricultural, medical, technical, and transport colleges should close all non-core departments and programs. Those colleges belong to the sphere of vocational education; i.e. they cannot be called universities by definition.

Russia has to reanimate college-based engineering schools and bring them to a world level by 2025-2030. Those institutions will be the hub of research and industry clusters in industrial production centers.

All the guidelines for higher vocational education matching the West’s definition of “tertiary” education (the standard for all universities worldwide) have to be reconsidered for expediency of the second level (master’s degree). Independent professionals, preferably foreign ones, need to revise all majors. Lastly, a clear division must be made between B.A. and M.A. diplomas: B.S. (Bachelor of Science), B.A. (Bachelor of Arts), M.S. (Master of Science), and M.A. (Master of Arts). Just 25 percent of colleges will retain master degree programs, especially master courses.

Universities need a gradual organizational restructuring. The Internet is unrivaled as a source of information. The professor only retains a monopoly on the latest knowledge obtained personally or by his/her colleagues, as well as through his/her unique research and teaching methods. A professor’s job henceforth is not to elaborate on accumulated knowledge, but teach students the things in which s/he is indispensable: research competence, analysis, gathering knowledge, putting together teams to study problems, and the ability to work effectively and without conflict in such teams. A student should not spend more than eight to ten hours in class in a week. The remaining time should be devoted to the study of reference materials, writing tests, doing research, etc.

Social and professional support for teaching staff requires drastic changes. Salaries should be increased several-fold (at the expense of cuts in the number of teaching programs and state-funded positions). Professors need consolidation and proper rights in order to control university director’s offices. Each teacher must have an office with office equipment where s/he can work throughout a day and instruct students individually. Every college department needs a laboratory of its own where students can be involved in research.

Research will not become the main mission of universities until a teacher’s workload is reduced to 150-250 hours per year (at present it is three times that amount).

On the global scale, universities understand higher education as comprising liberal higher education and vocational higher education. In the former, no profession is taught, yet the institute develops research skills and fosters creative thinking, forming the intellectual elites, such as experts in classical science and teachers. In fact, that is the realm of classic education.

Colleges of the second type (vocational higher education) train agronomists, electricians, doctors, etc.

This distinction is crucial for introducing B.S., B.A., M.S., and M.A. degrees, otherwise a Master of Arts degree from the Russian Economic School (RESh) will formally carry the same weight as degree in economics issued by a regional institute, such as the Nizhny Novgorod Water Transport Academy.

At the same time, the group of federal colleges should be preserved, but their selection should be based on the quality of available potential as well as on the idea that the government commits them (by political instruction) to evolving into institutions of truly federal significance. The purpose of such institutions is to train the intellectual academic and professional elite for the entire country or for a mega region that has a special development plan. Colleges should accept an equal number of new students in bachelor and master degree programs, offer a five-year post-graduate course (a doctoral program that meets international standards), have adequate R&D funding, and ensure the mobility of professors and students.

Keeping national research colleges as candidates for federal status would be useful. The performance of both should be reviewed on a regular basis (at least once every three years) according to strict criteria in independent expert examinations, including those involving foreign specialists.

Lastly, all colleges should be tasked with joining European and world single-discipline associations and accreditation institutions in their respective fields. Membership in such organizations is crucial for any form of state attestation or denial as an educational institution, as well as for selection to special status groups. The internationalization of university life should become one of its main features.


All the above measures are aimed at reviving and developing the Russian education system, returning it to the international context, and raising education to a global standard. However, that is not possible without the complete and irrevocable adoption of a lifelong education philosophy. Education does not begin at school nor does it end at university. Preschool education can and should become the place to launch education practices, while the post-graduation period implies constant retraining and self-education.

Pre-school education. At last, the 2012 Law on Education turned the preschool phase into a full-fledged education level. There is a risk, however, that the subsequent frenzied activity pursuant to the law will again turn into imitation, especially considering the mass drive to turn nurseries into schools and replace the socialization of a child’s personality with teaching a child to read, learn math, and even write, as far as attempts to develop a Unified State Exam for preschoolers.

Preschool education is one of the most promising ways to develop human capital and the advanced countries of the East pay huge attention to such education.

Russia needs a long-term program to develop this level of education. Employing the achievements of Soviet psychology luminaries such as Lev Vygotsky, Alexei Leontyev, Alexander Zaporozhets, and Daniil Elkonin is crucial, along with new concepts of different branches of the “child industry” (construction, book publishing, animation, film, games, children’s clothes, foodstuffs, etc.) The basis of this doctrine is political child centrism as the criterion to evaluate any decision made in this sector. It relies on the idea of Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, who argues that the return on public investment in preschool socialization programs is 2:1, compared to the return on investment in secondary and higher education.

Russia needs a Federal State Standard for preschool education, i.e. a series of state guarantees and requirements for programs, terms, and results of free high-quality education that is available to all.

Special attention has to be paid to education programs for handicapped children. The education and social potential of this group of children in Russia is very uneven. A majority of regions lack skillful speech pathologists (who have completed university programs), speech therapists, and child psychologists. The Soviet legacy is only made up of a number of speech pathology departments at teachers’ training colleges. To tackle the problem, Russia has to start from a very low level, setting up speech pathology departments and psychology/pedagogic and correction centers in the regions, developing research and teaching methods, and produce the necessary equipment. The Federation Council, or the upper house of the Russian parliament, under the guidance of Speaker Valentina Matviyenko, has already sponsored a monitoring center for an extensive long-term federal program in this area.

Adult education. Since the breakdown of the Soviet system made millions of workers redundant, the market had to quickly create new jobs. However, the skills of those who lost their Soviet-era occupation were not up to market requirements. And Soviet-style higher vocational training found the usual way out – through a large-scale mass imitation of retraining. Eighty to ninety percent of colleges offered a second higher education. The authorities “aided” the process by introducing a commission for a second higher education certificate. It was a profitable business that enabled colleges to partially compensate for the lack of federal funding in the 1990s. The country was inundated with certificates awarded for 500 hours of training instead of 5,000.

Next came the second wave as traditional or technical college graduates immediately started procuring a second higher education certificate in economics, management, etc., entertaining the illusion that such a certificate was a symbol of a successful career.

MBA programs for individuals with work experience quickly followed and around a hundred business schools opened. A Business Education Association was set up to control the quality of training, but it soon gave up. Today, some ten such schools meet average European standards with the latter below average U.S. standards.

In 1997, a presidential program for training business people was developed which has somehow survived to the present day. Technical colleges were quick to exploit it by launching imitation courses.

The 2000s were a boom time for college programs for government and municipal management (four years of study plus two years of training) and the revival of a vast network of professional schools that taught crash courses in Government and Municipal Administration (GMU) under the aegis of the pretentious Russian Academy of Civil Service (RAGS). With rare exceptions, these were complete sacrileges to education. The Academy of Civil Services was a virtual print shop of certificates, even though it had professors with decent knowledge. Unsurprisingly, large businesses had to launch corporate education programs. Yet it is too early to judge how effective corporate education is.

Therefore, the situation with adult education is even worse than higher vocational education. Long-term goals in this sphere are:

Reform of secondary higher education programs (bachelor’s course) with a sufficient academic workload (at least 1,500 classroom hours) and a graduation qualification paper and practice (if the student works in other profession). All non-core courses need monitoring and financial bailouts.

The government must monitor MBA programs and their counterparts. All business schools should become members of international associations and be subject to mandatory evaluation procedures.

Higher education in state and municipal administration must be downgraded to the status of management. The standard will be reconsidered using the experience of Public Administration programs (preferably programs designed by France’s National School of Administration). This will require permanent quality control involving foreign professors.

The best experts at university training centers should control the Academy of Civil Service’s system of educational services.

Corporate education should offer its graduates only rights effective in this corporation or rights effective in an association of corporations.

* * *

Russian society needs courage to remold itself. This remolding can be ensured by the reform of the education system. Education reproduces or crafts culture; that is, it creates behavioral programs, mutual relations, interaction within society, and its value matrix.

The proposed measures are already being implemented at the micro-level in individual schools (in hundreds of schools) that can serve as an example. But these efforts will not be successful without leadership from the federal government. Russia’s semi-archaic society still prefers to see one man personifying all government power; therefore, a pro-active role by the President is indispensable.

In Russia’s long-term strategy, neither economic nor even institutional projects will play the decisive role. In order to avoid further demographic and intellectual losses that are critically dangerous to its future, Russia should foremost work to implement human and cultural projects. The first project implies crafting a new citizen who shares a feeling of patriotism for the country, while the second advocates a profound reform of the education system. In fact, education is a “factory” for both projects.