Egor Yablokov for Forbes: "The Reform of Higher Education in Russia: Challenges and Prospects"

27 June 2023

Egor Yablokov
Following Russia’s new Reform in Higher Education, which was issued last month, Forbes Russia published a new piece by Egor Yablokov in which he lays out his opinion on the future of higher education in the country.

On the 12th of May, 2023, the Decree of the President of the Russian Federation titled "On Certain Issues of Improving the Higher Education System" set a new direction for universities in Russia. The proposed reform is set to limit the freedom of choice in educational trajectories for Master's degree students and also diminishes opportunities for Russian youth to pursue education at the Master's and doctoral levels abroad.

One of the primary concerns regarding this reform is the abandonment of the Bologna system, a key feature of which is providing students with the opportunity to develop their knowledge in new competencies and choose alternative areas of study after completing their bachelor’s degrees. The new reform would restrict their available options for Master’s degree programs.

The Master's degree does not serve the purpose of retraining individuals who lack sufficient knowledge in their field from their bachelor's degree. Instead, it offers the chance to acquire significantly diverse competencies by opting for a different profile or direction of study, separate from their bachelor's degree. This mechanism enables the development of professionals with a substantially broader range of competencies compared to a single-level system.

In many of the world's leading research universities, it is the Master's program that forms the largest cohort in terms of the number of students. Undergraduates are fully engaged participants in the research process and members of research groups led by more experienced academics.

What is the purpose of such significant changes in the structure of higher education? The stated objectives of the reform include ensuring technological sovereignty, bridging the gap between the labor market and the higher education system, and enhancing the practicality of education. However, by sacrificing the flexibility offered by the Bologna system, which enables the development of professionals with wider skill sets, Russia runs the risk of increased isolation and vulnerability. Moreover, the so-called “sovereign” Russian higher education system will further detach itself from the international community, making it exceedingly difficult for Russian students to pursue Master's and Doctoral degrees overseas.

Neither in the history of Russia nor in the world we saw examples when the isolation of the country became the impetus for its development. For example, the rapid economic growth of recent decades in China, which has become the main role model for Russia, was just made possible by a turn towards openness and economic liberalization.

China began to send students to the world's leading universities actively, and when they returned to their homeland, they brought back knowledge, competencies, and social ties that could not be formed within the country due to the lack of high-quality institutions. Today, China is the world leader in the number of students studying abroad, with more than 1 million international students, which is about 16.5% of the total number in the world. This phenomenon was critical for the subsequent rapid development of science and technology in the country.

If we look at the post-Soviet space, Russia has one of the lowest numbers of full-time students studying abroad relative to its population. With over 143.4 million people, the country has less than 57,600 students studying overseas. In comparison, Kazakhstan (19 million people) sends over 90,300 students abroad for education, and Uzbekistan (34.9 million people) sends more than 85,800 individuals. Consequently, it allows these post-Soviet republics to import knowledge and competencies acquired in developed countries.

Complex socio-economic systems require a complex multi-stage education system with a high level of mobility and variability of trajectories within. There are growing concerns that simplifying the education system and denying students the opportunity to alter their educational trajectories will reinforce the trend of streamlining the national economy.

The precise manner in which the proposed sweeping changes in the education system will enhance the quality of education remains unclear. The current deficiency in competencies and technologies, coupled with the absence of access to the resources and capabilities of technologically advanced nations, is unlikely to be adequately compensated for. Furthermore, the lack of attention towards addressing fundamental issues in higher education signifies a lack of preparedness to resolve these challenges. Consequently, the emergence of world-class research universities in Russia within the next few years seems unlikely.

The original article is available here: