Russia and Ukraine might not have common views on foreign policy or their own geographical borders today, but what they do have in common is a problem with endemic corruption in their countries. The higher education system is one of the areas suffering from this problem.
Both countries’ higher education systems were formed under the Soviet Union, where some institutions were responsible for teaching (instituty and universitety) and others for research (akademii nauk). The number of students was determined by the appropriate ministries and every graduate had a guaranteed job placement thanks the system of raspredelenie. Higher education was free, and full-time students who performed well even received a scholarship from the state, giving them the opportunity for a degree of financial independence. The academic profession was highly respected in society and generously remunerated by the state. All of this changed significantly after the collapse of the Soviet Union: the institutions responsible for teaching were expected to conduct high-level research; the system of mandatory job placements for graduates was canceled; some universities had to introduce tuition and fees; a paid scholarship was no longer enough to make a living; and many faculty members had to find second and third jobs, or leave the universities or even the country in order to survive.
Since 1991, both Russian and Ukrainian universities have undergone some significant changes: the dramatic cuts in state financial support that accompanied the adoption of a market economy, the Bologna process and the integration into the European higher education system, as well as the replacement of the old entrance examinations with the Edinyi Gosudarstvennyi Eksamen (EGE) (in English, the Unified State Exam) in Russia and Vneshnee nezavisimoe otsenivanie (VNT) (in English, the External Independent Assessment) in Ukraine, respectively. None of the reforms are fully completed: universities are still dependent on the state,1 there are more universities than needed, and the level of education they offer is sometimes questionable. Another challenge that many universities have to deal with is corruption in many forms, both in university admissions and in teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels, including advanced degrees.2
An attempt to combine parts of the Soviet higher education system of centralization, state-ordered specialists and state-created curriculum with the new market-oriented system of higher education resulted in the weak performance of graduates on the job market.3 Potential employers are concerned about the decreasing educational levels of their job-seekers. Job advertisements frequently name the universities whose graduates they are looking to hire. Some recruiters might not even consider candidates with distance-learning diplomas.
There is an urgent need for more applied, pragmatic remedies for corruption in academia. This was also recently stressed by Elena Panfilova, the chairwoman of TI Russia, who created some initiatives on the transparency and integrity of Russian universities.4 Scholarly research seldom seems to translate into concrete tools and reform, however. One of the main reasons for this is the systematic, longstanding tradition of corruption in almost every area of society: business, politics, and everyday life. Corrupt behavior seems to be a norm rather than a deviation in both countries.
The other reason might be the universities’ high dependence on maintaining a high student enrollment. A typical public university in both Russia and Ukraine receives half of its budget from state money calculated according to the number of students, and half from the students’ tuition and fees. If they expelled underachieving students, the university would lose a substantial part of its budget, which might lead to a decline in its research activities and the laying off of professors and staff. Therefore, many universities and professors have a dilemma between being more tolerant with some students—and sometimes even watering down the course requirements to retain them—or potentially losing their jobs. As long as this dependence exists, any action regarding the transparency and integrity of Russian and Ukrainian universities would be difficult to implement.
1. Ongoing reforms in Ukraine might change this dependence and make universities more self-contained. This is certainly a question, whether universities are ready for this responsibility or not.
2. John Round and Peter Rodgers, “The Problems of Corruption in Post-Soviet Ukraine’s Higher Education Sector,” International Journal of Sociology 39.2 (2009): 80-95; Elena Denisova-Schmidt and Elvira Leontyeva, “The Unified State Exam in Russia: Problems and Perspectives,” International Higher Education 76 (2014): 22-23; Eduard Klein, “Ukraine’s External Independent Testing Innovation,” International Higher Education 75 (2014): 24-25; Ararat L. Osipian, “Transforming University Governance in Ukraine: Collegiums, Bureaucracies, and Political Institutions,” Higher Education Policy 27.1 (2014): 65-84; and Jeremy Morris and Abel Polese, “Informal Health and Education Sector Payments in Russian and Ukrainian Cities: Structuring Welfare from Below,” European Urban and Regional Studies, online first March 26, 2014, 1-16.
3. Michael Bastedo, Batjargal Batkhuyag, Eufrasio Prates and Yaroslav Prytula, “Educational Policies for Integrating College Competencies and Workforce Needs,” Institute for Higher Education Policy Issue Brief, March 2009.