Two centuries of Russian academic excellence could be squandered in the rush to standardise higher education across Europe, academics have warned.
Leaders of Russia's top universities voiced their opposition to the Bologna process. They fear it will endanger the standards of their country's elite universities.
Viktor Sadovnichy, rector of Moscow State University, Russia's oldest college and alma mater of Alexei Abrikosov and Vitaly Ginzburg, who last week shared the Nobel prize for physics, said the price of standardisation was too high.
In a keynote speech at last week's Salzburg Seminar on the challenges Russia faces in becoming part of the European higher education arena, Professor Sadovnichy said: "University autonomy in Russia has been a hard-won thing. We cannot lose our originality."
Russian higher education has a tradition stretching back to the establishment of Moscow State University in the mid-18th century. The country's universities have endured revolution, repression, war and financial collapse yet have still produced more than 20 Nobel laureates - writers such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Boris Pasternak and pioneers such as Dimitry Mendeleev, inventor of the periodic table, and Ivan Pavlov, without whom a salivating dog would be meaningless.
Cornerstones of the system are inflexible five-year diplomas and higher degrees, with a candidate of science roughly equal to a PhD and a doctor of science attainable only by the elite.
Many academics feel that these qualifications could be undermined by the Bologna Process, which Russia signed up to in September. Professor Sadovnichy said the standardisation of courses, quality assessment and grading was welcome if it furthered the academic equivalence, but not if it meant the demise of the Russian higher degree.
"A three-year course leading to a bachelor degree is something I fail to understand," he said. "I support education that lasts six to eight years.
We need real experts."
Alexander Kiselyov, Russia's first deputy education minister, opened the seminar with an upbeat assessment of the opportunities Bologna offered.
Dimitry Puzankov, rector of St Petersburg Electrotechnical University, defended Bologna. He said the introduction of a two-tier modular degree system designed to provide industry with qualified technicians had worked well.
"We've not had single negative response from local employers," Professor Puzankov said.
Lesley Wilson, secretary-general of the European University Association, said: "The question Russian universities must face is how rapidly the labour market is going to change and whether they will be able to meet the demands of an economy that may not necessarily require periods of training longer than three years."
Professor Abrikosov, who now works at the Argonne National Laboratory, US, told The THES that the four-year American degree allowed students to specialise to a considerable extent.
"The changes in Russia have to be much more radical if they want to reproduce the American education system," he said.