Bologna meets Russia: a case of ‘identity crisis’ over Europe?

patricialeon.jpg Editor’s note: This entry has kindly been prepared by Patricia Leon, Department of Politics, International and Policy Studies (PIPS), University of Surrey, UK. The entry is the first contribution in a new series in 2008 that GlobalHigherEd will be running on the Bologna Process reforms in European higher education. Patricia is doing a PhD on the effects of globalisation on Russian higher education. She is concentrating on Putin’s latest reforms of higher education, which include its ‘Europeanisation’, and the clash with the Soviet-style system. A former journalist, Patricia worked for many years in various capacities at The Times Higher Education Supplement, among other publications. Her interest is Russia stems from years spent in Cuba working for a news agency and a current affairs magazine. [Editor -Susan Robertson]


Russia is the quintessential Eurasian superpower yet in 2003 the former Communist state joined the Bologna process, which aims to create a European higher education area. Since then the Putin government has gradually but firmly moved universities towards harmonization with their European counterparts in matters such as degree structure, standards and comparability, credit transfer systems, quality assurance, lifelong learning strategies, and student/academic mobility and exchange, particularly in research.

Why has Russia, with borders that stretch from the Baltic to the Pacific, decided to throw in its lot with Europe on higher education? The answer is both simple and complex. At a geopolitical level, European higher education is in direct competition with the United States, the nemesis of the Russian-dominated former Soviet Union. But Europe also has other competitors, such as Australia and Canada. Where do they fit in?

The reality is that Europe is Russia’s major trading partner despite the federation’s initial flirtation with the US following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The trauma of transition to a market economy under Yeltsin tarnished the image of the US system for many Russians.

Another likely answer is the historic affinity of Russian elites with Europe. The origins of Russian higher education lie in mercantile capitalism and the European Enlightenment. As Russia under the czars emerged as a nation state and imperialist power, it looked westwards for trade, industry and ideas while expanding frontiers eastwards. The first universities were founded.

It is ironic that the seeds of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution were sown in the debates about society and the individual that obsessed Enlightenment thinkers. That revolution and founding of the Soviet Union emphasized the non-European, or Eastern, aspect of Russian identity, historically present in its religious orthodoxy and pan-Slavism.

Citizens from all 15 Soviet republics were educated under a standardized system of higher education. The principles underlying all education were based on a messianic belief – present in orthodoxy where Moscow is seen as the Third Rome – that the Soviet Union was the vanguard for a worldwide conversion to communism. Soviet society was creating new man (and woman).

The effect of the collapse of such idealized view of Soviet society on the Russian psyche should not be underestimated, especially now that the motives that drove “new” capitalist Russia towards Europe post-1991 are changing. Russia’s economy is booming and confidence growing on the basis of country’s huge energy and natural mineral wealth.

And what of the common history with the former Soviet republics, many of which are members of the Commonwealth of Independent States? Cesar De Prado Yepes (2006:9) suggests that the renewed vigour with which Russia under Putin has pursued bilateral agreements within the CIS might even create another higher education regional process in the Eurasian landmass.

The entry and adherence of Russia to the Bologna process, therefore, is intriguing given the pull of geography, history, politics and economic interests. The fact is that Bologna dovetails nicely into the federal government’s ten-year reform plan for the “modernization” of education to improve Russia’s competitive advantage.

In the preface to the 2004 UNDP report on Russia, Andrei Fursenko, the education and science minister, wrote:

Russia must leverage its unique cultural and scientific assets to remain a clear player in the global market. Our accomplishments should be made available to all, paying the way for Russia’s full integration into the world community.

One major thrust of the modernization project is to reassert government control over higher education, particularly through funding mechanisms. Under Yeltsin, universities were starved of public funds and had to fend for themselves. This gave universities greater autonomy but it led to unbridled expansion of both public and private sector provision, which affected student access, course quality and efficiency.

The modernization reforms include:

  • establishing for the first time a national state school-leaving examination that doubles as an entrance qualification for higher education;
  • the introduction of student vouchers to pay for degree courses; tighter quality assurance through the use of licensing to squeeze out substandard institutions;
  • the creation of a state-funded super league of universities; and
  • the whole-scale transition by 2010 to a two-tier degree structure and credit transfer system comparable to other Bologna signatories, thus encouraging greater collaboration and exchange of staff and students.

The degree reform, which comes into effect in September 2008, rankles traditionalists. They believe that a shorter three or four-year bachelors is a devalued degree compared with the five-year “Soviet” degree, which incorporated a professional qualification for the workplace. But Bologna supporters, such as Yaroslav Kuzminov, rector of the Higher School of Economics, argue that it is a cost-effective way for the state to educate more students. The government is aiming to cover 95 per cent of education costs by 2010.

Mobility and exchange with Bologna signatories may suffer because of lack of funding, visa problems and poor infrastructure on the Russian side. Although an increasing number of Russians study abroad, the majority of the 200,000 overseas students in Russia come from former Soviet states in the East or developing countries.

Knowledge exchange with Europe under the Lisbon strategy may also prove tricky as much Russian research is conducted under the auspices of the Russian (former Soviet) Academy of Science. Although state-funded, the academy operates with relative autonomy and comprises 400 affiliated institutes that employ 220,000 people. The education ministry is struggling to assert state control over the 1,200 elected academicians.

The assertive role of the state under Putin has proved crucial to forcing through radical reforms. Putin, whose presidency ends in March 2008, saw stability as what most people wanted after the 1990s. The growth of state control over the economy and the media, as well as a clampdown on opposition, has led to accusations that Putin and his supporters are anti-democratic and turning the clock back to Soviet times. The question is whether more state funding and regulation will stifle academic freedom and autonomy or provide the wherewithal for Russia to play a greater role in global higher education.

Patricia Leon

3 thoughts on “Bologna meets Russia: a case of ‘identity crisis’ over Europe?

  1. Pingback: Bologna and Lisbon – two processes or one? « GlobalHigherEd

  2. Pingback: Some considerations on the implementation of the Bologna process in Portugal « GlobalHigherEd

  3. Pingback: The Bologna Process: a case of aspiration and inspiration in Africa? « GlobalHigherEd

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