The appointment of a new Minister of Education indicates that Russia’s educational system still needs to be reformed. At the same time, the shakeup could be a tactical move to meet the demands of voters before the 2016 parliamentary elections.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, second left, and new Education Minister Olga Vasilyeva, during a session at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. Photo: RIA Novosti

The dismissal of Russia’s Education Minister, Dmitry Livanov, and his replacement with Olga Vasilyeva, an official who worked in Russia’s Presidential Administration, indicates that Russia’s educational system still is in need of reform. Indeed, there are few people who pass up the opportunity to criticize the country’s educational system; however, it’s important to see that criticism and dissatisfaction as a reflection of the deep-seated problems of Russian society itself.

There are many components of the current educational system that are worthy of criticism, everything from the efficacy of the United Standardized Test to the reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The latter move was intended as a way to shift control over academic institutions to the government, in the form of the Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations (FASO).

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Former Education Minister Livanov had to shoulder all the burden of this criticism. In early 2016 some representatives of Russia’s parliament addressed President Vladimir Putin in an attempt to force Livanov’s resignation for his alleged poor performance. This showed the unpopularity of the former Education Minister among Russia’s Cabinet of Ministers and the parliamentarians.      

However, if one looks at Livanov without political bias, should he really have been accused of failing to reform Russia’s educational system? Could it have been possible to reform this system more effectively and faster in the current situation?

In order to answer these questions, one should remember the fact that Livanov became Education Minister in mid-2012. One of the youngest ministers, he succeeded in bringing together active and enthusiastic teammates, who knew the world’s best educational practices and experiences and were aware of all the ins and outs of Russia’s educational system.

It was Livanov who initiated the reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences in an attempt to root out conservative and outdated practices. He tried to expand the role of the most important Russian universities, including Lomonosov Moscow State University. Moreover, Livanov encouraged Russian universities to actively participate in the international rankings.

These priorities were essential for his team, partly because the Russian educational system was still mired in the 2000s despite the country’s economic heyday. The multifaceted ranking of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) highly evaluated the Soviet educational system in the early 1990s, while in the 2000s it does not even rank in the Top 30.

So, why did it happen and why does Russia struggle to reform its educational system? Partly, it stems from its conservatism, rigidity and inability to respond quickly to modern changes, which is commonplace for many countries. Even Russian high school education, which was pretty sustainable and robust, showed signs of weakness — including low salaries for teachers; the lack of personnel in schools; the absence of good textbooks and united educational standards; the lack of transparency in conducting final exams and the absence of discipline in schools.

Regarding higher education, it was also in bad shape: the emergence of many commercial and dubious universities and the corrupt nature of the entire system led to the depreciation of higher education in the minds of young people.

Low salaries of professors resulted in a brain drain: the most talented and ambitious were leaving universities and preferred other occupations (or countries). Primarily, those who failed to fulfill their potential or retired kept working in universities. And it is still the case: Russian universities bring together many retired professionals.    

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On top of that, Russia’s post-graduate education also showed alarming signs: plagiarism, corruption (paying money to defend dissertations), the obsolete nature of the system, and the absence of key performance indicators. Moreover, the post-graduate departments of universities were overstaffed. To sum up, this is how the Russian educational system looked when Livanov came to office.   

Who is to blame?

The key approach to resolve these challenges was the huge infusion of grant and federal money into the country’s universities as well as giving the autonomy to rectors and dividing universities into two groups, effective and ineffective (this stance was useful for monitoring universities and included independent assessments according to 55 different criteria).

In addition, Livanov tried to follow the international standards in Russian universities and root out the inefficiency of outdated, Soviet-style approaches in some organizations controlled by the Russian Academy of Sciences. Moreover, he tried to make the Russian educational system more inclusive to expand opportunities for disabled persons.       

Under Livanov, the problem of low salaries in universities gained a place on the agenda. The former minister tried to cope with it by increasing paid educational services. At the same time, he tackled the problems facing the country’s higher education: the ex-Minister tried to adjust the Western practice of standardized tests to Russia’s reality; amidst the lack of highly-skilled pedagogues, he made an attempt to improve standards in preparing school teachers.

More broadly, Livanov sought to synchronize three levels of Russia’s education: high school, university and post-graduate. As a part of this initiative, he adopted the federal law that guaranteed free school education to everybody. However, this law was met with a great deal of criticism because it hampered the level of student applicants who lacked necessary knowledge to meet academic standards.          


Russia's former Education Minister Dmitry Livanov during a national youth educational forum in the Tverskaya Region. Photo: RIA Novosti

In a nutshell, Livanov’s team sought to apply international standards in Russian universities, strengthen primary education, reform and modernize universities, and revamp post-graduate and research centers by adjusting them to Western standards.

However, because of the hasty nature of the undertaken reforms, they failed to reach their goals. In short, neither society nor the system was ready to accept and understands these reforms. Finally, the former minister faced a great deal of harsh criticism, which could not help but affect his popularity ratings.     

What does Livanov’s dismissal mean?

The former education minister was seen as a liberal. That’s why his dismissal brought about speculation as to the future of Russia’s educational system. Some even argued that there would be another tightening of the screws with the emergence of the arch-conservative Vasilyeva.

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However, today it is impossible to reverse Livanov’s reforms in the sphere of doctoral education. Likewise, nobody and nothing will prevent Russian universities from participating in international projects, intended to increase their citation level and attract foreign professors. Their implementation has been already scheduled in advance. 

The dismissal of Livanov is likely related to the necessity to change the Education Ministry’s entire team before the 2016 parliamentary elections, as indicated by the recent shakeup in the Kremlin’s political deck.

It also might mean that another blow could be directed to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's team, which is responsible for social and healthcare policy, including the Pension Fund, as well as the labor and welfare ministries. All dismissals and new appointments are taking place behind the scenes, with a great deal of secrecy.

The reshuffle aims at persuading the domestic Russian audience that the authorities are ready to reform the system and dismiss ineffective members of its team. It is a way to shake up Russia’s political elites and it won’t be over until the end of the parliamentary elections.

However, it remains to be seen if it will have a positive impact on Russia’s educational system. After all, Vasilyeva is a teacher of history, with a doctorate in History, working in one of the best Russian universities. Anyway, she has an academic upbringing and enough experience to take on such a position. So far, Vasilyeva targets school teachers and professional pedagogues, who are the most vulnerable in the Russian system of education. 

One of the challenges facing Vasilyeva is tackling the mistakes committed by her unpopular predecessor, who tried to get off the ground the practice of standardized tests in Russia. In addition, she should deal with reforming History education as well as the creation of a standardized History textbook for schools. With the upcoming parliamentary elections, the new Education Minister has a prepared response to the challenges ahead: take the best, cut the worst.

It remains to be seen if she will be able to implement her pre-election pledges and keep pace with the tough deadlines. Yet the major question, which remains unanswered, is who will be the next in the list of candidates for dismissal.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.