For one reason or another higher education seems to be a source of contention in most - if not all - developed lands. The Russia of the 1990s is no exception, indeed her universities and institutes face a crisis scarcely paralleled in the peaceful countries of the west.
The great majority of institutions have found themselves in dire financial straits. Apart from this, young people's interest in higher education sagged - intakes fell from a peak of 635,000 in 1985 to a low of 544,000 in 1993. Dropout figures are not published but they were known to be high. "De-communisation" of the administration and teaching materials was essential, but has caused additional strains.
The financial problems are uppermost. Since 1989 Russia's gross national product has fallen by about a half, and capital investment by more than two thirds. The institutes could not but suffer, as may be seen from what happened in 1994, the last full year for which (mostly inadequate) official figures are available. The government allocation for science and learning then fell by half, to 0.6 per cent of GNP, which is low by comparable international standards. Even so, only 76 per cent of the budgeted figure (2.7 trillion roubles) was paid. The institutes had to find extra money themselves - or manage without.
Staff salaries and student grants - the main element in the budget - were apparently received in full, though with delays and a sharp reduction in value due to rampant inflation. Many teachers now earn a fraction of their pre-perestroika incomes and are understandably resentful. Staff numbers seem to be relatively stable (many have nowhere to go), but there is a worrying ageing process. Postgraduate studies have wilted. The real value of student grants (never generous) has fallen steeply. While there must inevitably have been less help from hard-pressed parents, 90 per cent of all Russian students are now working full or part-time to keep going. Some hostels are said to be like workshops and storerooms as a result.
The priority afforded to salary and grant payments has meant a 60 per cent shortfall for other needs. In 1994 the institutes got less than half of their planned allocation of funds for ever-rising service and maintenance costs, library facilities are suffering and some institutions have had telephone and fax services disconnected. They were paid only a third of what was required for building work, so essential capital repairs have been delayed, and there is a danger of irreversible structural deterioration.
State institutes have been encouraged to develop their own funding, and some 20 per cent of their income is now said to come from private sources, mostly the admission of fee-paying students over and above the ministerial guidelines for state-funded places. Of the 1995 intakes some 10 per cent were said to be in this category. Extensive privatisation of state institutions is out of the question, for despite some decentralisation of decision-making and limited "democratisation" at the institutional level the State Committee for Higher Education, Goskomvuz, will tolerate no real reduction in its empire.
The other big concern is what the post-communist institutes are supposed to teach. In the old days they were mostly designed to train technical and scientific cadres in a docile Marxist-Leninism ready to take orders from above. In this respect higher education was a success story. Now, however, there is a demand for people with independent managerial skills to work in a more competitive environment. Much of the humanistic component of higher education has to be adjusted to exclude nonsensical Marxism/Leninism and re-embrace traditional Russian, and indeed western, cultural values.
About a quarter of all institutions are bringing in new, more flexible course structures, albeit slowly. They are based on BA and MA components and allow more student choice. New humanities programmes are being actively discussed, and about 120 new textbooks have come out annually over the past two or three years. Military training for men (which in some cases took up a day a week) has been largely phased out. The old and grotesquely inefficient method of placing graduates in state-approved jobs has been jettisoned. Attempts to favour "workers and peasants" in admission - always a source of abuse - have been abandoned.
In these difficult circumstances Goskomvuz, though centralist, has done its best to protect its charges. It has fought the ministry of finances for the release of funds, encouraged local authorities to support local institutions (so far with minimal success), protected institutes' property from inordinate privatisation and urged them to use their new freedom to generate private income. The national council of rectors is supposed to offer helpful suggestions from below decks. At the same time Goskomvuz has promoted a new system of attestation and licensing to maintain standards.
An (as yet) feeble private sector has come into being. Goskomvuz has reacted cautiously to a potential rival, so the sector is indigent and precariously balanced. Most of the courses offered are in the humanities and management studies. It garnered an intake of about 5,000 last year: but with tuition costing $1,000 a year or more full-time, who knows how many students will stay the course? The very existence of this sector does, however, underpin the principle of private enterprise in higher education.
Despite the desperate problems, there are some other hopeful signs. Interest in acquiring higher education has picked up again, and the number of applications and intakes has improved for three years running. About 10 per cent of the people admitted to state institutions were paying for their courses. The illusion that job opportunities in the new business sector would obviate the need for a formal degree seems to have receded in the public mind, and some economists suggest that the economy may make a small improvement by 1997.
The communist gains in last December's parliamentary elections clearly raise questions about the future. Most parties promised more funds for education in general, while the communists emphasised a universal right to free education. In my view, increased communist, or communist/nationalist influence need not in the short term be disastrous for Russian universities, though the private sector might suffer. Looking back to Soviet days, one recalls with dismay the active party intrusion, selection processes designed to favour pro-communist candidates, obligatory indoctrination, censorship and restriction of academic freedom, etc. Fortunately under the terms of the constitution considerable power remains with the president: a widespread threat to academic freedom might only arise if a communist should get this post in June. Even so, communist leader Genadii Zyuganov has been somewhat reassuring. The communists, he has intimated, would not re-ideologise the system and would adopt a realistic approach to modern educational needs, provided the less-privileged were not squeezed out.
The new elite must be keen on a vigorous university system. The business, bureaucratic and mafiosi components, already well established, hanker after western lifestyles and training. They have acquired a passion for sending their children abroad, on school trips or expensive higher courses. It is likely that the new, communist members, dressed like everyone else in expensive suits, will adopt much the same accommodating attitudes. Western educational subventions will not necessarily lose their attraction, even in communist eyes: in Russia of all places Geld stinkt niche (There's nothing wrong with money).
Mervyn Matthews is reader in Russian studies at the University of Guildford.