The forthcoming education reform in view of Russia's accession to the so-called Bologna process is an acute problem that is being extensively discussed by Russian society.
In 1999, twenty-nine European nations signed a declaration to achieve convergence in higher education by 2010. Today, 33 out of the 45 European nations have already signed up to the declaration. Russia put pen to paper in September 2003.
The formation of a single education system is a fairly logical move for united Europe, but its specifics are still unclear even for Europeans. At issue is the complete unification of education standards (programmes), the introduction of a single scheme for awarding degrees after clearly defined education phases (BA, MA, PhD), and a single system of assessment involving the accumulation of points (a credit system).
However, is it conceivable that Cambridge University will agree to lower its standards and give up its traditions to become just a European university? Unsurprisingly, there are many sceptics in Europe who think that the consequences of the reform have not been thought through, while nobody has the nerve to claim that the Bologna process will raise the quality of education across the continent.
In Russia, too, some people support the reform, some are in doubt and others disagree with it.
The reform's champions see one major advantage: Russian diplomas will be recognised in Europe. Indeed, the problem of "non-recognition" does exist but everything depends on the rating of one or another Russian university on the labour market. Clearly, a diploma from a Moscow or St. Petersburg university, and many higher educational establishments in Moscow - physics and technical, aviation, and engineering institutes, as well as others - open the way to the West for their graduates. Many higher educational establishments in other cities, including Novosibirsk and Nizhny Novgorod, can be added to this list.
Apparently, it is no coincidence that Russia's accession to the Bologna process is advocated by mostly humanitarian figures but few physicists, biologists, mathematicians and programmers. The positions of rectors of two major Russian universities are a good example. The rector of St. Petersburg University, Lyudmila Verbitskaya, a philologist, supports the idea, while rector of Moscow University, Viktor Sadovnichy, a mathematician, opposes it.
Opponents of Russia's accession to the Bologna process cite various arguments. They are mostly worried about the lowering of Russian education standards.
On the one hand, the Russian system clearly defines the knowledge the student is to be provided with, and thereby reduces his freedom. On the other hand, it is not so formalised as the credit system when a student has to accumulate a certain number of credits (points). Although in this case, a student can choose what and with whom to study, this freedom makes him/her responsible for their education. If students choose easier and more "fashionable" subjects at every stage, their professionalism is doubtful.
The system of degrees - BA (a specialist capable of being an executive manager), MA (a specialist capable of being a leader), PhD (an academic willing to devote himself to research) - also runs counter to the meaning of education in Russian universities. A Russian graduate who has remembered well everything he was taught can choose any of these options. In some institutes, for example, the Moscow Physics and Technical Institute, students begin to work and study in research institutes from the very first years. The so-called limited freedom is retrieved when graduates choose their professional path after university.
The opinion of those in doubt is equally important. Professor Dmitry Bak of the Russian State Humanitarian University has elaborated on the experiment of introducing BA courses at the university in 1992. As soon as the four-year BA cycle ended, he recalls, "Students put their BA certificates on the shelf and went on to study in accordance with the traditional Russian five-year scheme." This experiment was carried out at the faculty of history and philology. Professor Bak believes that Russia "should create an adapter for the European plug, without destroying what we have."
Indeed, Russia, too, needs some adjustments for European diplomas, as not all of them will be highly rated in our country. In particular, this will be important if European sceptics, assuming that the Bologna process will lower the level of education, prove to be correct.
By and large, the Bologna process is designed to make education a market product to the full. But far from everything can be sold. Education is part of the public's spiritual life. The Bologna declaration claims, "The vitality and efficiency of any civilisation can be measured by the appeal that its culture has for other countries." Here European cultural and scientific traditions are described as "extraordinary". As for Russia, a country in the east of Europe, its national culture - literature, music, theatre, arts - can hardly be described as "ordinary." Suffice it to mention just a few names - Tolstoy, Shostakovich, Stanislavsky, Repin... Russian science, especially in the 20th century, confirmed its prominence in space exploration and civil nuclear research (military priorities are irrelevant here, though education played the key role in them as well).
In his book, "University Education. Invitation to Deliberation", rector of Moscow State University Viktor Sadovnichy writes, "It is far more difficult to restore a high level of education after it has been degraded." In the same book, he offers a recipe both for Russia and Europe, "Only don't do any harm! Either by ardently rearranging your own house, or by preserving what should have long been thrown away."