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The development of private higher education in Russia

As we head towards this year’s ICEF Moscow Workshop, we examine the role of private universities in Russia, students’ attitudes, and what the future holds for the private sector.

This research article considers the potential role of private institutions in the development of Russian higher education. After decades of a government centralised higher education system, there is a clear trend towards the privatisation of education institutions and the diversification of education practices. Some commentators consider this to indicate that Russia is losing control of education; others welcome private initiatives, both in formal and informal education.

Russian higher education has also been greatly challenged by the current demographic gap: according to the Minister of Education the total number of secondary school graduates expected in 2012 is 700,000 – half that of 2006 (1,300,000).

This strengthens the competition for the enrolment of students in private and public (federal and municipal) institutions. Based on recent interviews with senior management at a number of provincial private universities, the article suggests possible avenues for private universities to extend into the education market and considers the implications for the future.

The rise of privatisation

Privatisation in education, specifically the reduction of public finance and engagement of private, non-governmental, and other funds is one of the significant features of evolving economies. In the process of privatisation, the influence of governmental bodies on professional training and qualifications gradually decreases to the level of those regulatory functions such as licensing or accreditation. This paves the way for an increase of non-state resources.

It is clear that private investment ensures greater flexibility and adaptability of the learning process in relation to the regularly changing requirements of the labour market.

Financial independence from government, with its system of control and distribution of funds, is no less important, since it creates the conditions to spread innovative technologies into the sphere of education. At the same time, two of the main principles of higher professional schools – university autonomy and assurance of academic freedom – are encouraged.

Privatisation in Russia

Today’s privatisation of professional education in Russia is conditioned by the creation of several hundreds of institutions in the past 10 to 15 years whose financial resources are exclusively private and non-governmental.

They are established not instead of state universities but, as a supplement, enlarging the spectrum of educational services for the Russian population. It is worth mentioning that the process of establishing private universities in the 1990s was spontaneous. The founders struggled to legitimise such institutions, which led to a number of omissions and to a lack of public confidence in their status. Because of this, the emergence of mismatched educational institutions unable to produce specialists with the quality-assured diplomas required was typical. Hence, the image of private (non-government) universities was damaged at that time.

However, a system of private professional and vocational education is starting to take shape; many of these universities have been granted licences and state accreditation, and they compete successfully with the federal and municipal universities. Over the last three years, the number of non-state universities has reached approximately 500–650 according to recent data. Nearly two-thirds hold state accreditation, which allows them to issue state-approved certificates. The total number of students involved in the private sector approaches half a million (an optimistic assessment).

Attitudes of Russian students

Interestingly, the youth population in Russia do not associate personal success with formal education but with other factors. Statistics and surveys confirm that half of young Russians do not work in the profession for which they studied; and every fifth adult did not subsequently follow the speciality obtained at university.

As this shows, theoretical knowledge has little to do with good results in employment, where the possession of specific or relevant skills and practical knowledge are more important. The leaders are those with ‘knowledge of foreign languages’ and of ‘modern information technologies’ (more than 40% of respondents). Next come ‘excellent communication skills’ (39%), ‘readiness for team working’ (27%), ‘good appearance’ (25%) and ‘having healthy ambitions’ (22%).

It is these kinds of attitudes which make the Russians ripe candidates for the study abroad market, since these skills are obtained and refined through international studies.

The potential of privatisation

Currently, with the ‘demographic gap,’ the increase in the number of private institutions has stopped and competition with the state educational institutions has intensified.

The government, represented by educational administrative bodies, has started a policy of protectionism, aimed at supporting budget-funded institutions and limiting private sector activities. Hence, there has been a slowing down of educational modernisation and its rising innovative potential.

On the other hand, in the framework of current government-sponsored education the investment processes of increasing non-budgetary and ‘third-party’ mechanisms have continued.

The opening of paid-for programmes and courses, opportunities to study a second (additional) speciality, first steps towards student loans and greater financial-economic independence of institutions – all these and other steps taken by federal authorities continue to allow the privatisation of higher education.

On a larger canvas, the term privatisation is positively viewed by the overwhelming majority of experts, and partly by the public. With regard to the population, which associates the concepts of ‘paid’ and ‘private’, there is largely agreement to pay for higher, middle and vocational education services.

The private sector’s future

In the next few years private education institutions in Russia will occupy the sphere of non-formal and extra-system education, and will master new spheres of social space and create an innovative educational environment there.

That environment will react to the changing requirements of the labour market in a more sensitive way, and will gradually form a self-adjusting system of preparation, training and employment of an economically active population.

The absence of ‘academic snobbery’ in private universities, and close relations with enterprises and employers, professional unions, associations and corporative societies, will enable them to find a niche in the system of servicing the labour market and, consequently, keeping a place in the competitive race for the central figure of education – the learner.

Source: Wiley Online Library

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