Raiding in Russia’s education system is causing the death of professional education

There is a full-blown struggle for the future of Russian higher education going on. Right now, the professionals are losing. RU

Ирина Писаренко
2 October 2017

The repair of Russian science is carried out so haphazardly that nothing of educational traditions remains . Photo: Nickolas Titkov / Flickr, CC-by-2.0. Some rights rederved.It’s a shame: Russia’s new parents, bouncing their children along in pushchairs, have no idea of what is happening right now in their schools and universities, and how it will affect them for years to come. That is, the fate of Russia’s professional education system is being decided as you read this.

At every stage, these children will be in the hands of professionals — kindergarten, school and university. But where do Russia’s professionals come from? And, most importantly, why are they disappearing in a country with such a rich tradition of education?

Highly educated, highly dangerous

Several years ago, I was struck by a story that, at the time, seemed fantastical: the director of a successful district center for social aid was suddenly fired in a single day. The director had the right education for the job, didn’t accept bribes and received no complaints from either clients or colleagues. In a word, she met the highest professional requirements. It was just that the centre, which she had built from the ground up and which was used by local bureaucrats as an example to their superiors, needed a different director — one who was easier to negotiate with, less strict in observing professional and ethical norms and, I’ll say it straight, less educated. Today, an educated person, it turns out, presents a risk for the Russian state.

The events around the sacking developed quickly: first, there were unambiguous hints that the director should resign from the centre (which she’d built with her own hands), next, the local prosecutor’s office conducted an audit in search of evidence to blackmail the centre with. And then, on the final day of the audit, when the director had to be taken to hospital in an ambulance due to a heart attack, she was threatened over the phone.

If your fingers were light enough, the assets of colleges and schools could guarantee the “new managers” a pleasant enough existence

Lying in hospital, with her future health uncertain, the centre’s director surrendered and wrote her resignation. Then, after returning to health over several months, she found that she couldn’t find a new job in her field. Eventually, the former director did find something through an old colleague, who told her to keep her nose clean while she worked until retirement age. This is how a competent person, a professional, wound up in the gutter of her profession. The center is now quietly falling apart.

I’ll repeat myself: back then, this kind of story seemed fantastical. But today, these situations are happening more and more in Russia, in different fields and cities. We are now dealing with a new trend — raids on Russia’s social sphere. For Russia’s education system, raiding, the process of stealing control over an asset (usually a successful one), is focused on taking jobs that permit financial gain and a rise in professional status. Raiders are usually not interested in research or helping others.

The hegemony of pragmatic interests

Having divided up the industrial base and political posts, the “entrepreneurial” part of Russian society placed its sights on the country’s education resources. Thanks to the Soviet legacy, education institutes and schools were, as a rule, based in large buildings, and if your fingers were light enough, these assets could guarantee the “new managers” a pleasant enough existence. Plus, higher education institutes receive state funding, which guarantees a high level of financial stability. In effect, the annual budget of your average higher education institute in Russia could cover the expenditures of a small town.

The myth that there’s no money for Russia’s education system is gradually evaporating. You just need to look at the sums allocated by the government for the implementation of state contracts in the “humanities” on the Russian state tender website and the annual salaries of the top 50-richest university rectors in Russia. The average monthly income for employees of university rector offices is often between 300,000-500,000 roubles (£3,800-£6,400), so it’s no surprise that people ready to convert their souls into hard cash have gravitated towards these positions.

People from the so-called “human-oriented” spheres should have stronger moral sensibilities. After all, their work involves “developing human capital”

The “new entrepreneurs” also began to work on academic publications (which don’t require serious investment, many publications don’t even have a print version), internet conferences, academic competitions (with a significant administration fee) and so on. The long-running struggle over publishing school textbooks continues, and you can understand why: the Enlightenment publishing house, which publishes a third of all Russian school textbooks, made 4.4 billion roubles (£56m) last year.


School textbooks - profitable business. Photo: Valeriy Ankov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.It seems that people from the so-called “human-oriented” spheres should have stronger moral sensibilities. After all, their work involves translating “cultural codes”, “caring for the vulnerable” and “developing human capital”. Well, at least that’s what they were taught. But where do their professional ethics go when we start talking about material wealth? Apparently, it’s instinct that wins out in the humanities. You only have to find the “golden vein” — the comfortable job or source of funds — and it doesn’t matter how you make your money.

The absence of transparency

Despite the fact that Article 3 of Russia’s Federal Law on Education states that education should be transparent and democratic in nature, higher education institutions — and, indeed, the Ministry of Education and Science itself — don’t always adhere to these principles. The double standards regarding education institutions allow officials not only to apply the law selectively, but interpret it as they see fit. Indeed, the fight against uncooperative institutions often starts with personnel changes mandated from above.

In the beginning, cases where institute directors were fired were rare, and Russia’s pedagogical community honestly tried to find the reasons why. For instance, in 2010, the St Petersburg education system lost one of its most talented managers, the director of the City Palace of Youth Creativity. Despite the protests of palace employees and the director’s significant professional achievements, he was fired. The people behind the decision couldn’t explain why. Rumour had it that the director was fired to smooth the way for certain persons to take ownership of the building in the historic centre of the city.

The palace’s new director, who was appointed from “above”, worked at the palace of creativity for a relatively short period of time, and didn’t have time to destroy it. The building remained, and the employees were lucky enough that one of them eventually took over the institution.

The policy of “secret decisions” is becoming increasingly popular. Moreover, this policy is affecting not only the highest level of Russia’s university system, but dozens of faculties

This kind of “happy ending” is, however, a rarity. Usually, personnel changes clouded in secrecy are able to destroy any education institution in a very short period of time. In spring 2017, for example, Moscow’s teachers were shocked by the forced resignation of a legendary professor at Moscow State Pedagogical University. The professor in question not only ran the first private school in Russia, but institutionalised the practice of tutoring in Russian education — setting up a Tutors Association and training several dozen specialists.

But after the appointment of a new rector at the university, neither this person, nor their ideas, were needed any more. And this in a situation where tutoring could have “fed” Moscow State Pedagogical University financially for many years. It seems the new rector has their own ideas (which are, it should be said, still unknown). Similarly unknown is the direction of many “reformed” education institutions. The Ministry of Education doesn’t consider it necessary to consult the academic community on decisions that will define the direction of their development for many years.

The policy of “secret decisions” is becoming increasingly popular. Moreover, this policy is affecting not only the highest level of Russia’s university system, but dozens of faculties. Across the country, people are drawing up “lawful schemes” to fire faculty heads and deans behind their backs. The many stories published on social media are evidence of this.

“As the head of faculty at an institute in the Moscow region, I received an order not to apply for re-election to my post given that there was another candidate, a dean! The dean was inviting experts from the region where he used to work. The dean thus created a system to pressure us, lobbying his own interests and freeing up posts! This is how ‘manual control’ becomes more interesting than system development!” (Anna)

“The most terrible part of it is that you can see similar things happening at other institutes. People who can work, who loves their profession, sets the bar high for themselves and a high level of work in general — this category of lecturers begins to annoy those above, and people try and get rid of them quickly.” (Tatyana)

EU 3_0.jpg

Meeting in support of the European University, St. Petersburg. Photo: Anna Klepikova. All rights reserved.In situations where, having fired the directors, the Ministry of Education fails to destroy an institute, it tries liquidate the whole university at once. The fight to save the European University at St Petersburg is now in its second year. This institution, which is modern, loved by students and has a strong teaching staff, it seems, is now in the way of Russia’s cultural capital. According to the rector, the reason why certain groups are trying to bring EUSPB down is that it is too independent, and this independence is “perceived as a threat to the existing order in Russia”. But wait: surely this is what our educational standards are aiming for? Doesn’t every educational institution dream of “producing” this kind of individual?

The East-European Institute of Psychoanalysis, one of the oldest institutions of its kind in Russia, found itself in a similar situation. Despite its international authority, experience (4,000 specialists in 26 years), the institute lost its accreditation for a rather strange reason — inaccurate names for classes. If we were talking about an institution that was more loyal to the Ministry of Education, this “violation” would have been dismissed out of hand.

A crisis of competency

Raiding in Russia’s education system occurs according to two main scenarios: one group of academics leave after being humiliated, others stay and continue to work at their new jobs, waiting for better times. It’s not worth condemning either group — there’s often specific circumstances at play. But none of the organisers or those who carry out the raiding schemes even think about the potential and real risks to which they subject an organisation.

When a professional leaves an institute, this is always a problem with the institute management — a problem of how competent its managers are. It means that the administration has put its personal interests and ambitions above those of the professional community. After all, when professionals leave, so do students, and possible partners, which means, in the end, a decline in reputation.

The Ministry of Education is supposedly inspired by the “development of science”, but at the same time, scientific schools are destroyed, successful teams dissipate, interest falls, and so the possibility of research itself disappears. It seems like a good idea to introduce younger personnel into management. But it’s often people from outside who come to manage institutes — and these “effective managers” have no knowledge of the traditions (open and secret) it might have, instead viewing the academy as a cabbage field that needs to be harvested.

This year, students in Irkutsk made a stand — they been through three universities in the course of “amalgamation” and “transformation”. In Kemerovo, another Siberian town, the process of changing rectors in two institutes (Kemerovo State University and Kemerovo Institute of Food Production) turned out to be unexpected for all. One rector just upped and took the place of another, when the latter announced his candidacy for the regional assembly.  

To drag Russia’s education system out of this abyss, we need professionals — people who can see the situation holistically, with an eye on the past and the future


Decisions "from above" remove scientists from their positions and deprive them of the opportunity to work. Photo: Nickolas Titkov / Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0. Some rights reserved.

The Russian State Pedagogical University paid similarly for attempting to preserve its own autonomy. The university’s charter gives the right to elect the rector to its employees, which means they cannot be appointed from outside. For two years, the Ministry of Education still can’t stabilise the situation: the rector elections have dragged on since March 2016, with candidates not being approved by the ministry, or being knocked out of the competition, or being involved in court cases. Employees are leaving en masse: some are going to other institutes, whereas others have decided to work as part of the “new team”. The former administration has dissolved into the faculties, and the new managers are sorting out ongoing problems. The lecturers are still waiting to find out what’s going on, and the struggle for power continues.

Meanwhile, in Ekaterinburg, a similar situation has emerged at two humanities institutes, the Institute of Humanities and Arts and Institute of Social and Political Science at the Ural Federal University. After recent reforms, these institutes will now be merged into the Ural Humanities Institute. As Kommersant writes: “lecturers expect that there will be cuts after the merger, given the university will focus on developing its technical education.” Of course, this blending of “arts” and “politics” can probably be called an “interdisciplinary approach” to teaching students, but I suspect that quite different goals are driving this merger.

To drag Russia’s education system out of this abyss, we need professionals — people who can draw on experience, and that means people who can see the situation holistically, with an eye on the past and the future. The professional is someone who can make decisions relying on academic knowledge. The professional has experience in their own concrete field, and can tell a competent specialist from someone who isn’t. They are someone who will chose in favour of the work, not their own personal interests. But if you look at the people who work at the Ministry of Education (in particular, the “team” of ex-minister Dmitry Livanov), then you can clearly see that the key jobs were taken by people who were very far from the sphere they were invited to manage.


Former Education Minister Dmitry Livanov. Photo (c): Alexey Druzhinin / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

Non-systematic education

Experience shows that you can steal someone else’s territory, but that it's impossible to reproduce its own, specific atmosphere. Every person who has ever created their own humanities project — a lesson, a lecture, whatever — makes it “out of themselves”. In the humanities, working “with yourself” is our profession’s main tool. All great ideas have been born out of the individual. This how Freud, Vygotsky, Montessori worked.

You need decades of work to create a scientific school. Even if you appoint a new rector and give them the right financing, they won’t be able to “order” development from faculties, schools or students. The fabric of academic practice takes years to construct. But when the educational authorities continue to appoint their “own people” as deans of universities rather than the best, or the most competent, they rip this fabric.

There is a need to renew personnel, our concepts of development — and yes, our buildings. But why does this process have to be so opaque?

The Russian government is seriously concerned with raising the ability of our universities to compete. But this concern hasn’t been thought through or planned: endless grants are assigned from the budget to try and get our universities into international ratings; the regulation governing our universities is constantly being “modernised”, leaving paralysis in its wake when documents don’t match up; the numerous conferences and seminars that don’t discuss real problems, but just use up grant money.

There is a need to renew personnel, our concepts of development — and yes, our buildings. But why does this process have to be so opaque? Our government claims to stand for “diversity”, “the individual approach” and “democracy” in education, but then takes the opposite track, focusing on “unification”, “standardisation” and “regulation from above”. Why did they have to merge so many institutes, which led to so many scientific and human losses?

Education is the core of any society. Everything is built upon it — the economy, science and culture. When this core comes under attack, Russia loses more than the field of education. It loses its values that give our country its uniqueness.

The education system is one of the few fields that touches nearly every individual. This is why Russian society, and its professionals, need to take a hard look at its education system today — and why we don’t need more stagnation-inducing regulation from above.

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