Higher education reform, challenges and opportunities

By Dr Serguei Mikhailitchenko, PhD

Under the current circumstances with a war in Ukraine, the Western hostilities, and a long list of internal problems in the Russian Federation, Higher Education might seem not to be the top priority for the Russian government. However, if one looks at the matter from a broader perspective and considers the potentials of direct impact and spill over effects of education to the economy and the social development of a country, the views might radically change. Indeed, the only period of time when the USSR was able to outperform the United States was associated with the accessibility reforms in the Soviet higher educational sector and a boost in the number of graduates from the tertiary institutions. It was the economic performance of the USSR at that time and not the generosity of Uncle Sam that made the West open the doors to education for their disadvantaged compatriots.

At the moment the Russian higher education is one of the leaders in terms of corruption along with Medical Services and the Police. The root of the current situation is in the Soviet era education that employed mostly oral examinations to determine the level of gained skills and knowledge by the students and inherited by the modern Russian universities and colleges. In an absence of evidence that could provide the grounds for later appeals, if a student was treated unfairly by the teacher, or for an internal investigation, if the marks are simply allocated according to the amount of bribe paid, academics are free to act as the like to maximise their economic wellbeing at the expense of the quality of their graduates. Given all that, the younger generation learns the corrupt and inefficient ways of conducting business and is getting used to the system that doesn't reward a genuine work effort. Overall, at the moment the Russian tertiary education produces a large proportion of Degrees and Diplomas that do not worth the paper they are printed on.

There is no need to be ashamed too much about this though. First of all, the Western universities are not doing much better than their Russian counterparts despite having most of their exams in a written form. Western academics also cheat and on a grand scale. At the same time, there is almost nothing in the academic literature that describes how academics cheat and the extent of the cheating practice, which is quite understandable. Why would anyone confess? An insider though like myself can shed some light on academic cheating by lecturers and tutors. This needs to be done not for the sake of criticising the West or making Russian academics more comfortable with what they are doing. The corrupt practices of the Western institutions should be looked at for the sake of preventing us from repeating their mistakes in the future. Too often we are following something that is better than what we've got at the moment but must give way to the emerging modern practices.

The most common way for a Western academic to cheat is to downgrade the subject to an absolutely rudimentary level and recycle the exam papers from one semester to another. This minimises time for material preparation and ensures that the expectations about the workload and the required learning effort are passed to the new students by those who already completed the subject. Further, many Western universities apply a so-called normalisation process to the final marks and simply pass and fail the proportion of students specified by the Dean. Other institutions simply achieve the targeted passing rate by inflating the marks to the students most close to the pass mark.

From the internal records that I had being in charge of courses, universities accredited with the Association of Advance Collegiate of Business Colleges (AACBS), which is one of the most respected accreditation organisations in Education, pass between 15 and 30 percent of students who failed to achieve a passing mark. This could be easily verified by construction a histogram with narrow classes and observing (or not observing) the absence of marks immediately below the passing line. However, it is more likely that one will lose his job after making a suggestion like that. For obvious reasons, our cheating colleagues do not want to get caught and the government do not want to find out that for years they have been wasting a large proportion of their educational budget. 

So, both educational systems, the Russian and the Western, are corrupt. The difference is that the Western academics are driven mostly by the need to minimise their work load and to protect their positions that come under threat from academic administrators demanding a certain average result and a certain passing rate, rather than enriching themselves the Russian way. However, the issue remains the same and the quality is suffering everywhere, just to a different extent.

Clearly, there is a process underway to improve the quality of education in many countries across the world. The academic disciplines are trying to establish standards of course content and learning outcomes, give more weight to written exams, and engage academic quality insurance bodies to monitor the quality. However, setting these objective is not sufficient if not enough attention is being paid to the constraints in higher education. Leaving the financial stress of educational institutions aside, there are two most important difficulties that any education will face should he or she decide to do the right thing and give a quality output.

The first constraint is poor academic background of the enrolled students, especially in mathematics. In Australia, for example, the math level of the majority of school leavers was so low that universities had no option but to drop the math prerequisites from subjects like finance, economics and statistics. Nevertheless, teachers had to achieve a passing rate of 85% to allow universities maintaining the enrolment numbers and the level of the government funding. Hard to blame those academic who cheat because the quality objective cannot be reached no matter how hard they try. How can one teach the math content normally taught over 5 years of high school within a 3.5 months university semester?

The second constraint is the diversity within the student population. An academic has to deliver classes where some of the students covered almost the entire material of the course at school and achieved high results, while a large proportion had no prior or even the prerequisite knowledge of the subject. Yet, both cohorts must spend nearly the same amount of time in class. The most common and counterproductive approach is to target an average student and deliver the material in a way that gives some challenge to the advance students and provides some help to the struggling ones. The usual result of this is that the advanced students start skipping classes because classes are boring, while the struggling students start by making some effort at the beginning soon realise that they are too far behind, have no chance to pass and attending classes makes no sense. Believe it or not, a large number of advanced students will also fail a mathematical subject because they do remember that they knew the material while at school but do not realise that they have already forgot it. This phenomenon can be also checked statistically by constructing a histogram of the final results. Usually they are bimodal and, in fact, represent 2 student types, one who attended most classes and the other who missed most of them.

Well, what do we do? Is there an educational system that prevents corruption in the academia and produces a quality output? I am not an expert in all disciplines but what I know about Western Business degrees allows me to say that such a system will be developed in the nearest future either in Russia or anywhere else. The pioneers though will be able to reap off some financial as well as political rewards for that. Firstly, most business degrees are already standardised, meaning that most of them contain the same list of core and major subjects allowing some variations for minors and electives. Most core, major and minor subjects themselves are also standard and are taught using textbooks from a relatively short list. In fact, within the short list of texts, most of them refer to one or two really influential, while the rest were written mostly for the sake of authors' academic careers.

Secondly, the Russian government and the Russian Ministry of Education appear to be sincerely concerned about the quality of education and might be happy to provide serious support for a reform, especially if there are little or no government outlays. In fact, under the proposed reform, there is no need for public subsidies in tertiary education due to the expected drop in the cost per subject.  All the government needs to do is to introduce a regulation making written exams developed by a central examining body or randomly selected from a trusted test bank compulsory. The Russians have already introduced the unified state exam (Ediniy GosExamen) for the secondary school and can make a further step forward by doing the same for the tertiary educational sector. I have noticed that there is a growing opposition to Ediniy GosExamen but hope there is enough political will within the Russian government to keep it as the only reliable quality control instrument.

The centralised written exams might sound a little bit too much in the first instance and require further clarification. With education moving on-line and with a high degree of similarity in Business programs and courses, is there really a need for tens of thousands of universities that exist in the world right now? A logical answer for this question is NO. The future of the world tertiary educational market is oligopoly meaning that there are just a few central providers of educational programs such as Harward, Oxford, or Moscow State University. The rest of the universities should be transformed into research institutions and/or provide service teaching to the leaders.

It is not difficult to predict strong resistance from the practising academics. Indeed, some of the academics, especially professors who taught introductory level subjects throughout their entire career, should go. However, given a lack of educational background of the students, there is a lot of service work to be conducted in order to bring the students to the level required for success in their studies. The work of academics and their abilities will be measured by the students' final results and not by their senior, - and not always honest, - colleagues behind the closed doors. The educational sector will finally open the doors to the new teaching methodologies that allow struggling students to catch up instead of just passing them. 

Most educational material such as lectures and examples will go on-line with no need to attend a class in person but watching the lecture at the most convenient time and place. The students themselves will decide if they need some extra teaching time and will arrange for face-to-face classes, as necessary. See the difference? The student decides if a class is needed and not the teacher. The extra classes can be paid by the student, which will be greatly offset by a decrease in the cost of the course itself. To a large extent, there will be no need for the real estate currently owned by the universities across the world. Only some of these facilities will be needed for teaching and as examination centres.

The responsibilities of the universities will be limited to the provision of an eLearning platform such as Moodle or Blackboard and controlling the integrity of the examination process. Therefore, the costs of the educational services per student will significantly decrease. With a dramatic decrease in costs of education, it might become affordable even in countries where the majority of young generation cannot even dream about it today. It might result in a dramatic increase in the number of tertiary students across the world. No need for large amount of money that normally comes from parents' savings or the government support schemes such as HECS and PELS. Students can work in McDonalds and save enough for their studies, which provides them with an incentive to study well.

The new tertiary educational system overcomes corruption across the board, not only in education itself but also in virtually all other spheres where university graduates are heading after completing their degrees. The reform can move Russia forward in its economic development by giving the Russian educational system a leading role at the global stage and making Russian educational services a major export item. The reform itself requires very little initial public investment as a catalyst for the start but brings prosperity and stability to the country by allocating the resources where they most needed and can be used most efficiently.

This tertiary education reform can take place anywhere. Why not in Russia? Our government is strong and can overcome the resistance groups who prefer a status quo. English is a problem? The materials can be developed and even translated into Russian by the academics working in the US, UK or Australia. In any case, English has become the language of Business and it won't hurt if the Business degree will be taught in English, at least most subjects. If not in English, in Russian could be a good start anyway. Too much money and effort has been spent on education that, to a large extent, was not an education at all but was a system of diverting the public money and resourced towards wasteful activities. The opportunity is there. Let's act.

Dr Serguei Mikhailitchenko

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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov