Alexander Bikbov: The Neoliberal State of Higher Education in Russia

Sociologist Alexander Bikbov
Sociologist Alexander Bikbov

Sociologist Alexander Bikbov: “I’m Inspired by Small University Trade Unions”
Lena Chesnokova
Inde
June 27, 2016

Where fee-based higher education came from, why universities are jockeying for places in the ratings, and what a lecturer should do if she disagrees with her university’s administration

Part of last weekend’s Summer Book Festival was the fourth edition of the lecture series “Theories of Contemporaneity,” a joint project between Inde and the Smena Contemporary Culture Center (Kazan). One of the speakers was Alexander Bikbov, Ph.D., deputy director of the Center for Contemporary Philosophy and Social Sciences at the Philosophy Faculty of Moscow State University, and an editor of the journal Logos. Among Bikbov’s interests are the theory and practice of neoliberal reforms in the fields of education and culture. Inde spoke with Bikbov about the circumstances in which today’s Russian tertiary institutions find themselves, and what “effective management” and the pursuit of profitability could lead to over time.

Neoliberalism
A term used by scholars since the late twentieth century to describe government policies that reduce social spending (on education, culture, health care, and pensions and benefits) and promote universal competition and the free market. However, the rules of the market are set, supposedly, by the state. In theory, such policies should cull inefficient businesses (which, for neoliberal reformers, comprise everything from factories to tertiary institutions, hospitals, and theaters), provide people with a higher quality of services, and make them richer and freer. In reality, neoliberal reforms often exacerbate income equality and lower the overall cultural horizons of a large part of the populace. Neoliberalism, then, is a state of affairs in which liberal values, such as democracy, individual liberty, and freedom of speech and conscience, are subjugated to the principal value: the free market.

_________

In the last five to ten years, great changes have taken place in Russian higher education. Large universities have absorbed smaller ones, and a system for auditing the efficiency and performance of teaching staff has been put in place. When did these neoliberal reforms kick off, and what stages have there been?

State-controlled reforms began after 2003, when the Russian Ministry of Education signed the pan-European Bologna Declaration. From 2003 to 2005, certain universities served as flagships for the reforms by introducing a division between the bachelor’s and the master’s degrees, and ratings to measure student progress and the success of teaching staff. But the new model was adopted nationwide between 2008 and 2012. In 2009, the Unified State Examination (EGE) was made mandatory for school leavers, and nearly all universities abolished their own entrance exams. In 2010, Federal Law No. 83 came into force, which brought all the country’s tertiary institutions under the new economic model.

But if we speak on the whole about the permeation of Russian higher education by the neoliberal rationale, the process got underway much earlier. In 1991−1992, when state financing of tertiary institutions was abruptly slashed, some universities simply had no way to pay the electricity bills. University administrators were forced into crisis management mode, making sure their universities did not go bust as economic units while simultaneously becoming the full-fledged “proprietors” of these institutions. In the early 1990s, it was totally natural for a university lecturer to be working two or three jobs. It was then that the model for the labor relations that the state is now institutionalizing top down were predetermined: relatively unencumbered hiring and redundancy procedures, hourly pay, and precarious forms of employment with no social benefits.

The intermediate stage between the spontaneous reforms and state-driven commercialization happened in the late 1990s and mid 2000s, when universities established a system of fee-based instruction. By the mid 2000s, so-called commercial students accounted for about half of all students. Now the laws have been amended so this percentage can increase further.

What have been the most significant changes over the past ten years?

The most significant change is the new procedure for financing universities. Universities no longer receive core funding from the state and have begun to get vigorously involved in the fight for project and grant monies. Naturally, this leads to an uneven distribution of resources: economically stronger and weaker universities have begun to emerge. The “weak” universities are forced into subordination to the “strong” universities, despite the fact that higher education institutions deemed economically ineffective may be stronger in intellectual terms.

A very important date on the timeline of reforms is late 2008, when the government abolished the unified wage rate scale. This was a real revolution that instantaneously rocked the entire state sector, including medical care, culture, and secondary and higher education. The original version of the unified scale was adopted way back in 1936. It had evolved over the entire Soviet period and had continued to exist in the post-Soviet period. The Soviet system assumed an individual who worked at his or her job for a long time was a priori competent to perform that job. The older the lecturer, the more serious was his or her academic title, the higher was his or her pay grade, and the more he or she earned.

The new mode of compensation was introduced very quickly, literally in a couple of months. People were summoned one by one to the boss’s office and confronted with a choice: either they signed a new contract or they went looking for a new job. People who had previously been considered valuable employees lost all their privileges. According to the new rules, they are on a par with inexperienced employees and must annually certify their competence. I am not saying the old system was flawless. Obviously, it did not always guarantee the competence of teaching staff and a high quality of education. It had to be changed. But it is just as obvious that the new reforms are excessively radical. One extreme system has been replaced by another, without any steps in between.

In parallel with the new system of wages, a system of Key Performance Indicators, including publication citation indices, student attendance, and so on have been introduced. The duration of contracts has been reduced. The experiments are still underway, but permanent contracts no longer exist at most universities. Rigid market-based relations have now come to higher education.

Does the pan-European Bologna Process assume that changes follow the same scenario everywhere, or does each country go its own way? 

There is definitely no common way. In France, for example, the transition to the new labor relations was smoother: lecturers who already had permanent contracts when the reforms were adopted kept them. In Italy, however, junior lecturers can work for years without being paid, because they are listed as trainees. The Russian approach is radical, and I am guessing that, as time goes by, it will experience more and more serious glitches. Permanent confirmation of competencies makes winners of those who are better at playing the game, for example, who are better at writing reports in bureaucratic newspeak or filling out applications for salary bonuses. This does not always mean the person has a profound knowledge of his or her subject or is a skilled teacher.  In addition, lecturers have been subjected to a new set of conflicting rules. On the one hand, the recommended number of instructional hours has been raised from 750 to 900 hours a year. On the other hand, lecturers need to demonstrate high citation indices annually. But when is a lecturer supposed to do her own research when she spends more and more work time on classes, on preparing for them and checking homework assignments?

Are there any universities left in Russia that have either bucked the trend completely or follow the new rules only in part?

Yes, but things are not simple in those places, either. One of the flagships of the reforms, the Higher School of Economics, has full professorships. Full professors are the most protected category of employees. They sign permanent contracts with the university, and collegial methods of decision-making operate within their community. They elect each other, and they solve many problems without interference from the administration. Yet this special regime in which full professors exist is made possible by discriminating against the rest of the teaching staff. Less protected than the full professors, they are involved in the struggle for classroom hours. Their benefits and bonuses are cut, and the administration may suddenly refuse to renew their contracts.

Why have all these changes taken root so quickly in Russian universities? It’s hard to believe no one has protested.

One would imagine that if it is an international reform aimed at uniformity, its aftermath would be similar in all the participating countries. But it turns out that a fairly successful resistance has been mounted against it in France, while in Germany tuition fees were abolished. In Russia, however, the commercial model indeed became dominant quickly and triumphantly.  The short answer to the question of why this happened is that collegial organizations and social bonds among teachers have been traditionally weak in Russia. This was a legacy of the Soviet period, and it was exacerbated by the “crisis management” of the 1990s. Such organizations exist in Western European universities. For example, there was a months-long university strike in France in 2009 in which over two thirds of the country’s universities were involved. Decisions to close universities were approved by vote at general assemblies. There were street demos, and medical workers, postal workers, and other state-sector workers who were going through similar circumstances supported the university lecturers. At the same time, unofficial classes, organized by students themselves, continued on the campuses of certain universities. They invited intellectuals and lecturers they found interesting. The students insisted the strike should not be a period of inactivity. Unfortunately, the strike did not lead to a complete halt of the reforms, but protesters did cushion some of the commercial pressures.

With the raising of neoliberalism to the rank of state doctrine, independent quasi trade unions have also popped up at Russian universities. They are not like the trade unions that existed formally in the Soviet years and arranged trips to health spas. Instead, they are capable of saying a collective no to state-driven lawlessness. They interact with rectors, putting pressure on them and trying to ensure that university administrations negotiate more acceptable conditions with the state as embodied by the Ministry of Education.

Where are these quasi trade unions operating in Russia? Have they achieved any results?

In the late 2000s, an independent organization known as the MSU Pressure Group (Initsiativnaia gruppa MGU) emerged at Moscow State University.  Initially, its members fought for the right to free entry to the dormitories and the abolition of silly prohibitions concerning the use of lecture halls. Basically, they tried to solve very practical issues. The more often the activists got what they had set out to achiever, the stronger they felt. Nowadays, the Pressure Group is part of University Solidarity, a independent nationwide trade union.  All over the country, members of University Solidarity have been defending the rights of lecturers to legal employment contracts. At the Russian State Universities for the Humanities, for example, members have been fighting to abolish the practice of dismissing lecturers for the summer so the administration does not have to give them holiday pay.

Do such organizations exist in the regions?

They do, but they are not as active as in the capitals. Early experience of involvement is vital to civic and professional activism. The conditions for this have to exist. If a university administrations cracks down too harshly on students who make demands, the desire to defend rights and engage in vigorous protest is lost at the time in people’s lives when they are university students or postgraduates. For now independent trade unions have thus been emerging in cities with a traditionally strong culture of activism. I know for sure that, aside from Moscow and Saint Petersburg, such organizations exist in Yekaterinburg and Voronezh.

Given the circumstances, what tactics should lecturers and students choose? What is more effective: joining the new trade unions, starting a rebellion or switching to another line of work?

I am inspired by the small university trade unions, despite the fact they often admit to achieving limited results themselves. But any effective union is a voluntary association of professionals, and the more lecturers and students who are involved in it, the more it is capable of achieving. True, it is not all that simple. We can blame lecturers as much as we like for sluggishness and timidity, but 900 instructional hours a year and the need to think constantly about additional sources of income simply do not encourage many people to make the time to actively pursue their rights or, often, even just contemplate this possibility.

Do the reforms we have been talking about always entail a change of university leadership? In Kazan, for example, the scholar who had been elected to the post of rector was replaced by an appointed manager.

The federal universities tend to have a geopolitical function, and they are structured according to the same rationale that defines relations between Moscow and the regions. The government regards the old universities as platforms for professional and political loyalty where exceedingly abrupt shake-ups can produce uncontrolled change. If a university has a direct line to the ministry or the presidential administration, the changes are likely to be milder. Otherwise, the university faces an abrupt change in management. I gather that regional universities often find themselves in these circumstances.

Can we regard this round of reforms as completed, or are there more shocks on the way?

I have already mentioned the foundations for the situation we are now experiencing were laid in the early 1990s. Back then, Yeltsin’s reformers wanted to shift tertiary institutions to full self-financing, meaning one hundred percent commercial self-sufficiency. This bar has not yet been achieved, although in this instance Russian universities have considerably outstripped their European counterparts: at least half of their costs are covered by extra-budgetary resources. (This figure ranges from ten to twenty-five percent at different European universities.) I doubt the radical dream of full commercial self-sufficiency will ever be realized, because that would be tantamount to a total collapse of the higher education system.

The current leadership sees the universities as economic enterprises that should be cost-effective. This is not specific to Russia: England and Germany continue vigorously slashing “loss-making” departments and programs in philosophy, philology, and Slavic studies. There are also regions in Russia where such things are happening. Another consequence of this take on the problem is the constant desire on the part of university administrators to drastically reduce labor costs. Experiments with forms of employment will thus continue. So-called performance contracts have already been introduced: a lecturer’s salary and continued employment now depend on whether he performs a precise list of official obligations. In addition to giving lectures, the list includes getting published in highly ranked academic journals (there should be no fewer than a certain number of such publications per year), obtaining external financing, performing an extracurricular workload, and other factors that used to be more a matter of valor than obligation for educators.

In the early 2010s, some universities discussed introducing a system under which all lecturers would be casualized and hired under temporary contracts for ongoing projects, for example, for a semester-long or yearlong academic module. It is only at the idea stage for the time being, but it suggests that movement in this direction will continue.

What could be the long-term consequences of these reforms?

A shift to increasingly short-term and precarious contracts with lecturers will produce increased social insecurity. Further reduction of all “unprofitable” spending will increase inequality in academia. In addition, the gap in the quality of education will grown between individual universities and departments.

It is important to understand that a university’s intellectual level is inseparable from the social and financial standing of its teaching staff and the patterns of their employment. An individual who constantly changes the subjects she teaches, regularly experiences periods of unemployment, and is forced all the time to worry about maintaining at least a minimum income, ceases to see high-quality, creative teaching as a priority.

Universities have sought to increase the ratio of students to lecturers, class sizes have been growing, seminar hours have been reduced, and advanced optional courses are often not counted as part of the instructional load. The outcome is that a meaningful dialogue between students and lecturers has been rendered almost impossible. They find themselves in the positions of suppliers and consumers of standardized services, which are delivered along with increased formal monitoring of discipline on the part of both groups.

The draft federal budget for 2016 has again shown that spending on education is slated for cuts. This means the burden on family budgets will grow, and tertiary institutions are going the way of primary and secondary schools, where money for repairs, computers, and other necessities are collected from pupils’ parents. Such levies can be direct, but they can take the shape of rising tuition fees. In any case, the focus of the reforms is slashing the number of full-ride scholarships.

I have already talked about the closure and merger of unprofitable humanities departments. The trend has been deepening. Often, even if a department is kept open, its program is commercialized. A good number of liberal arts teachers even now can allow themselves to work only because they have other sources of income in addition to their university salaries. It is the same with students. The choice of a humanities specialization is often determined by the availability of free time and the absence of the need to start contributing to the family budget immediately. In ten years or so, philosophy and philology will probably become bourgeois disciplines, not in the Soviet sense of the word bourgeois, but in the sense that only wealthy people will be able to study them.

Tertiary institutions have already begun competing with each other for students and financing. The same rationale will probably penetrate even deeper. Departments and programs will begin competing amongst themselves for pieces of the university budget, and universities will open resource centers that will rent space to their own schools and departments for academic conferences.

Are the neoliberal reforms reversible at the national level? Are there forces within the system capable of slowing down the process?

I believe the only potentially effective force are lecturers themselves, united to defend their professional interests, the quality of their work, and the quality of education. That is why independent university unions are so important now.

There is also an alternative within the system, but it is a variety of neoliberalism. This is neomercantilism. The state’s rationale in this case is not extracting as much profit as possible from students, but keeping young people in the area, tethering their consumption to the local market, and protecting borders. Because the major federal universities, which were established in a dozen or so cities around the country, are basically a geopolitical project.

But then you might want to create a better environment for teachers and students?

Right. And here we approach the neoliberal model’s most important and intrinsic internal contradiction. The demands of reformers contain conflicting codes right from the get-go. For example, one neoliberal slogan is the absolute flexibility of skills and expertise that individuals build up over an entire lifetime. But this is contrary to reducing the time to the degree. In the Russian recension, the approach of neoliberal officials goes like this: we have too many people getting a higher education, but nobody to put to work in the real sector of the economy. Yet the assumption is that people employed in the real sector should be sufficiently competent. And there are more than one or two such fatal contradictions.

You ask why the reformers are so persistent in ploughing ahead with the changes. Don’t these contradictions bother them? But the fact of the matter is the neoliberal model is not a well-shaped ideology, but a technique for governing. It is almost impossible to imagine it as a consummate, consistent set of rules that could be checked for internal consistency. So that is why it is impossible to fully implement it in practice. But this is a challenge and incentive for commercially minded officials, who see the educational field as unnecessarily complicated, confusing, weak, dependent, and unproductive. I think reformers will keep trying to tame it for a long time to come.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade VT for the heads-up

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