Volume:6, Issue: 2

Sep. 1, 2014

“Tough” questions of higher education in Russia
Romm, Tatyana A. [about]

KEY WORDS: higher education, post-industrial society, professional competence, social education, humanism.

ABSTRACT: This article dwells on controversial aspects of higher education development in the context of today’s Russia (ideology, methodology, goal-setting).

Currently, the transformation of higher education is a subject of cross-disciplinary and cross-sectorial discussions. For all the advantages of this approach there are at least three complications. The first one is “availability” of an issue. Discussion of “how to cure,” “how to govern a state,” and “how to teach” falls within everybody’s competence, reducing conversations about the situation in higher education to its public aspects, without reflecting on deeper causes and the demarcation of economic, political, psycho-educational, and management processes. Consequently, the results of such discussions are barely constructive.

The second complication represents a slight redundancy of an issue. During the last few decades, a crisis in education in general, and higher education in particular, has been one of the most popular debated subjects (Ph. Coombs). Since 1992 the perspectives of higher education in a new social environment have been discussed in Russia. “Higher Education in Russia” (together with about 50 other journals, having higher professional education issues under consideration) is the most quoted journal in Russia in the section entitled “Education and Pedagogy” according to the Russian Science Citation Index2. Sometimes, reports on problems in higher education focus on only local issues, and thus bring no proper contribution to their national readers.

The third complication is that current practice in higher education is influenced, if not directly dictated, by various front-office managerial decisions (who use such terms as modernization, optimization, reformation, foresight, etc.), that intensify uncertainty and a stochastic nature of the practice.

In our view, primary concerns should be about changes to the ideology of higher education, which are in turn provoked by changes to the methodological paradigm. The extension of an educational environment, its growing richness and variety, and as a result, a constantly changing type of higher education, as part of social reality, must be acclaimed, while considering ambiguity and variability of a post-industrial society.

Today, higher education can be interpreted in different contexts, in terms of different meanings (anthropological, social, public, professional, governmental), each of which covers a part of this phenomenon. While talking about the subject of higher education, such characteristics as ongoing training, professional education, and fundamental education, etc. have been used. In other words, the essence of higher education is evolving, which in some ways dissolves its tasks and objectives in “an educational lifestyle” (Lifelong Learning). This meets the needs of our modern life, but at the same time it complicates understanding of what exactly higher education is and what kind of specific character it has. For example, one can receive a bachelor degree after graduating from university and also after finishing some college programs. Recently, such terms as applied baccalaureate and academic baccalaureate came to life within the system of higher education. Different types of higher educational institutions allow receiving a higher education diploma. Together with so-called classic universities, there also exist technical and teacher training ones, as well as academies, institutes, etc.

According to A. P. Ogurtsov and V. V. Platonov, education images are historical in different meanings – historical in itself, historical to the extent that they focus on the process of an educational system, and finally historical in their realization [6]. It is evident that the image of today’s higher education originates from the necessity to meet the demands of a post-industrial society with its assets of professionalism, utilitarianism, etc. On the other hand, the intellectual basis of higher education is formed by the range of modern humanitarian and social science ideas with culture-oriented, anthropological, and phenomenological contexts, which represent higher education as a sense-producing activity. This implies a renewed subject orientation of all higher education components. The realization of this content of education has been made possible by the development of a “phenomenological trend” in educational theory (I.D. Demakova; A.F.Zakirova; L.M. Louzina; etc.), which dictates an individual implementation of educators’ cognitive abilities, and “leads to their mindset formation, which is much more important, than the acquisition of rules, forms, facts, and dates” [1, 18]. In this pedagogical direction, education is implemented through the ideas of insight into the social situation and its redefinition. For this purpose, the emphasis in teaching students should be shifted towards an emotional and subjective experience within objective situations.

Until today, unfortunately, the style of Russian educational thinking can be characterized as “prescriptive and reproductive” (V.A. Slastenin), affected by a positivist and scientist policy domination. Being scrutinized by social anthropology, phenomenology, knowledge engineering, cultural studies, semiotics, informatics, provisions of modern humanitarian context concerning Human Nature and its development are poorly elaborated in higher education theory and practice. As a result, there exists a serious gap between a proclaimed policy that sets the concept and aims of higher education and its implementation. For example, we announce and claim “understanding methods in didactics,” “an individual with all of his/her essences,” “personality-aimed centration,” etc., but on the other hand, we continue to implement the same systemic and activity approach, based on behaviorism, causality, and a reactive behavior of students. This illustrates a deep-rooted commitment to a subject-object education paradigm in the minds of educators in Russian higher education institutions.

It is evident that uncertainty within higher education ideology does not help to answer fundamental questions: What are the aims of higher education? Is higher education “a professional training” or an “education in culture?”  Who should we expect from a university graduate: an expert or “a man of education”?

On the one hand, there is a job training orientation. In this post-industrial stage of civilized development there is a necessity of not only enhancing the quality of education, but also developing a different kind of intellect, thinking, an attitude towards rapidly transforming industrial and technical, social, and informational realities. The primary value of this concept is a professional competence orientation and organization of training in accordance with market demands and social procurement of a modern society. On the other hand, narrow specialization and fundamentality of education tend to outrun themselves. Since the first stage of education is a specific and crucial period of life, we should proceed from the fact that young people need to be prepared for a universal activity, awaiting them in the rapidly changing “practical” world. This means they should learn how to work with constantly changing and not always sound information.

Finding an answer to this question points to the problem of making higher education more Humanities- oriented. According to M. Mamardashvili, an individual cannot advance significantly in one area, being unsuccessful in others. This statement is also true if applied to the society in general. It is impossible to develop or adopt advanced technologies within poor humanitarian or political culture.

The goals and objectives of education have also changed, and there are multiple reasons for this, one of which is the modern society. Considering changes in education is impossible without modifying the primary pedagogical reality subject – A Human Being, or more precisely, a Student. Ignoring all the changes happening at psychophysiological and social levels has created the basis for the contradictions in today’s training and education.

We are compelled to note, that modern students are not able to evaluate, develop and analyze the interaction, offered by any higher educational institution. Besides, they are not able to rise to the level of educational objectives and to exercise their roles in the professional community. However, this is also due to the socio-psychological and age status of children and teenagers: the frames and norms of a developmental age are changing and moving higher; modern psychologists and physiologists repeatedly refer to the fact, that many social models and behaviors are now applicable to younger generations [10]. We must recognize that modern students are not within standards that were typical 10-20 years ago. They vary not only at the level of mental processes but also in their psychological and social development. We can witness a widespread socio-psychological infantilism, social retreatism, and regression. This is bound to affect the value component of education. At least the value gap in education in terms of formation according to educational actors has been advancing. Quite often the level of accepting educational objectives, (that we as university faculty are expecting), has not been developed. This statement is supported by the analysis of university freshmen’s fears (N.N. Kiselev): young people are afraid of an unfamiliar and unexplored environment, of their undeveloped professional, social, and personal identity, incompatible expectations, and lack of practical skills in studying at the university; they are also scared with new classmates and the need to get used to them, with the lack of interaction experience with university faculty, etc. [3, 194]. All of the above characterize the most common state of a freshman’s mind, and at the same time the expectations are high: not only is he/she required to study effectively, but also he/she should meet the objectives and expectations of the post-industrial era – a sense of responsibility, success, and rationality.

A goal-setting methodology implies actualization of all educational actors’ positions, goals, and objectives’ analysis in terms of their needs and capacities. There are at least three agents in the goal-setting process: a society, a student, and an educator. Social procurement of a modern society in a higher education context is widely discussed (competence model, professionalism, standardization, network, information and communication competence, etc.). It should be noted that governmental interests limit or even substitute for society needs and interests in higher education. But there exists an employer, a scientific approach, students’ parents, and the general public. Besides, in the goal-setting process an educator’s needs and capacities must be taken into account, as they hold a key position in improvement of the higher education content, (proved by history). But the study of expectations and aspirations of all the participants of higher educational institutions demonstrates how seldom they coincide [8]. Thus, there is a two-tier system in higher education (undergraduate and graduate programs issuing Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees), but the professional differences between the pedagogical graduates of the two levels are still unclear for the employer (e.g., a school principal).

Another group of issues is related to higher education methodology. Traditionally, the range of issues concerning theory and training practice (E.V. Andrienko, E.P.Belozertsev, A.A. Derkach, V.A. Slastenin etc.) was based on the conception, according to which one’s education should ensure the personality development via organizing different activities (A.N. Leontyev, S.L. Rubinshtein), and training. However, during Soviet times, the reality of higher education depended upon the institution. For example, there were unique teacher-training programs in Schools of History and Education in Kostroma, Novosibirsk, Kursk, Chelyabinsk, and Voronezh universities. In these places the emphasis was put on developing emotional and individual sides of professional training [9]. In the current situation professional development should be linked with building an educator's worldview based on values where the values' orientation towards understanding, personal knowledge, and dialogue are the most important. To solve these problems, it is relevant to develop such strategies as case methods, supervision, etc., that are focused on enhancing students' motivation for learning. All of these make the social education objectives of university training more important. Social education is directed to the resolution of professional socialization problems by psychological and educational instruments, which may include the existing system of organizational traditions, collaboration with social and professional institutions, active social students’ activities (volunteering), symbolic culture, “events pedagogy”, collective work, etc., which form a subjective meaningful system of professional, personal, and social values [7]. Social education at a university solves the following problems:

  • Adaptation to new living conditions (habitat and learning environments).
  • Compensation for primary socialization shortcomings (including those of young people’s sociality).
  • Development of professionalism (formation of social interaction skills within a profession, familiarity with professional conduct rules and standards).
  • Contribution to enculturation, which helps to develop a cultural potential of a university and social environment.

Effectiveness of such a socio-educational approach is proved by the forty years of tradition of freshmen’s orientation gathering at the History, Humanities, and Social Education Institute (previously, the History School) of Novosibirsk State Pedagogical University [3]. The proactive orientation-adaptation strategy (the gathering takes place before the university formally begins) is shaped by demonstrating a collective and unified image (in the form of activities, information, styles of relationships, etc.) by senior students, and Institute faculty. This type of activities helps to reduce the distortion of information (from some peers or instructors) and shape a generally positive image of the institution, instruction process, and personal perspectives.

Thus, higher education in Russia has been developing within the boundaries of the dominant educational paradigm shift, developed globally, (a crisis of the classic model and educational system, new fundamental ideas in philosophy, educational sociology and the Humanities, an establishment of pilot and alternative schools), at the same time preserving traditions of Russian higher education, which remain topical while formulating modern objectives of education.

… While reading the headings and discussions of different education issues in professional and popular publications, their pessimistic mood becomes evident when seen through the lens of the “higher education crisis.” The “risk phenomenon” is enhanced by the global instability. The recognition of a state of crisis in education and its structures, driven by financial shortages, is objective. However, from the point of view of historical and comparative analysis, it is a rare society that has ever been satisfied with its educational system. Even during good times there were discussions of an educational crisis, a gap between education and life demands, and diminished interest in the acquisition of knowledge. Moreover, when people were not satisfied with the current domestic educational system, they would highly appreciate systems of education in other countries (e.g., discussions about the neglect of education in Japan, a criticism of a rising tide of mediocrity in the United States, etc.). This is exactly the trend we are witnessing in Russian today.

The word “crisis”, in accordance with the dictionary explanation, means a sudden change and a turning point, when inadequate means of achieving certain goals bring up unpredictable challenges. In this respect, the educational crisis is not only a consequence of financial shortages, but it is also a result of a misunderstanding of the meaning and role of education in providing a social progress with its emphasis on humanism. One last note. The word “crisis” is expressed in the Chinese language by two characters that mean “danger” or “fear”, and “opportunity.” This raises our hope that the crisis in higher education in Russia can be perceived not only as potentially dangerous but also as a challenge and an opportunity for the future.


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1 This paper was supported by the Russian Federation President Grant to support leading research schools, project No НШ 2486-2014.6.

2 See: http://elibrary.ru

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