December 29, 2014

Doctoral Education in Russia: Reforms and pending challenges

By Anya Klyukanova & Roxana Chiappa

In the last decade, the Russian government has been reforming its university system with the goal of increasing its international positioning. In 2013, the government launched the 5/100 initiative to position at least five of the Russian universities into the top 100 universities. This goal relates directly to improving the institutional capacity of universities through strengthening their research capacity, in which doctoral education plays a critical role. In the process, certain universities are attempting to reform doctoral programs by including a structured curriculum, incorporating international advisers in the dissertation process, and sending their doctoral students to spend one semester in a foreign university. These changes have happened at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics (HSE) established in 1992.

CIRGE had the opportunity to interview Dr. Igor Chirikov, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Education (Higher School of Economics, Moscow) and SERU-I Managing Director at CSHE (UC Berkeley), who helped us to illustrate the ongoing reforms and pending challenges in Russian doctoral education.


Dr. Igor Chirikov from the National Research University – Higher School of Economics

To my view there are several challenges for doctoral education in Russia. The first and major one is poor academic market: faculty salaries are generally low (leading universities, such as HSE, are exception), universities tend to hire their own graduates, and the level of faculty mobility is very low. As a consequence, doctoral programs are not very selective. Universities don’t have a large pool of PhD applicants to choose from, prospective students are not highly motivated for their studies. A certain portion of male PhD students just try to avoid military service by enrolling to doctoral program.

Second, there are more and more questions about the quality of Russian doctoral education. Being designed after German apprentice model of pursuing a PhD, doctoral programs in Russia have very limited training component. It is expected that student primarily works on her or his thesis under the supervision of senior faculty member, contributing to the development of particular “school of thought”. Given that universities hire their own graduates, the focus in doctoral education is shifting from the development of good and universal academic skills to socialization and internalization of rules and practices of a particular department or university.

Third, doctoral education in Russia suffers from plagiarism. This is especially true for social sciences and humanities, where professional academic communities are still fragmented and have different views on research ethics and standards. Despite numerous cases of corrupt academic behavior and plagiarism (some of these cases were even covered by media) it is hard to say that the policy of zero tolerance for plagiarism was implemented on national or even institutional levels. The situation is changing, but very slowly.

Fourth, at present doctoral degrees are awarded by the state agency called Higher Attestation Committee (VAK), and not by universities themselves. And technically all degrees are equal to each other: it doesn’t matter where a person did her of his PhD. Such system doesn’t stimulate universities to care about the quality of doctoral programs as their reputation does not depend on the quality of their doctoral graduates.

And fifth there are some unresolved structural issues that decrease the international competitiveness of Russian doctoral education. People with foreign PhDs have certain difficulties in acceptance of their degrees to work at Russian universities. Russia still has two-tier system of Candidate of Science (similar to PhD) and Doctor of Science (similar to German Habilitation) degrees and thus Russian academics have similar problems with recognition of their qualifications abroad. Last year two universities were given the right to award their own PhD degrees as part of the experiment, but in certain disciplines only and in addition to Candidate or Doctor of Science degrees.


The National Research University – Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Russia

I believe it is exciting to engage data in the decision-making process in order to improve university services, student and faculty experience. In many Russian universities, the decision-making process isn’t managed well and rectors rely on everything but data: they favor their personal experiences and some expert opinions, but not the data. They don’t turn to university statistics nor do they ask students or faculty about their experiences and views. At the same time leading universities have begun to recognize the value of institutional research. HSE developed a fairly large institutional research office with eight people and we are in the process of improving the quality of our university by supporting its strategy and decision making process. The IR office provides leadership with various analytical reports based on data that we collect and analyze.

In the case of doctoral education, institutional research office assisted in the analysis of doctoral students experience based on university-wide PhD student survey. One of the goals was to understand how we can improve completion rate, which by 2011 was quite low: only around 20% of students defended their dissertation on time (within 4 years). It is a challenge how to shorten the time to degree and at the same time retain the highest quality of our dissertations. The other challenge was to make our doctoral programs more internationally competitive, attract more talents on national and global levels.

How has HSE addressed these challenges?

The major reform of our doctoral programs started in 2010. HSE became one of the first Russian universities to introduce structured PhD program design. All students enrolled in these programs receive sufficient scholarship that allows them not to look for a job outside of the university and focus on their studies (having a full-time job is one of the main reasons to drop out from doctoral program). Then our structured PhD programs include intensive training component: courses in research methodology, academic writing, advanced discipline-specific courses. In addition to that students have the opportunity to work with an international advisor and spend a semester at any university of their choice abroad, to discuss their research finding. The university is covering all the costs.

All these elements might not be surprising for a western scholar or student, who expects to find many of those in any good doctoral program. But for Russian doctoral education the introduction of structured programs is a huge step forward on the way to increasing quality and global competitiveness. Such design creates a very stimulating research environment, increases student engagement and motivation.

In systems where research takes place in universities increasing international positioning in university rankings is normally associated with quality and capacity of research production and thus with doctoral education. In the past, in Russia research was produced in academies. Has this changed? How do you expect that Russian doctoral education will change as result of the 5/100 government plan?

Right. I think doctoral education will change tremendously because universities will become more research oriented. Traditionally, research was done not in universities but in academies of science and many universities don’t have a long tradition of doing research. Now there is a push and support from the government for universities to become more research-oriented and more international. I think this thrust will mean a lot for developing graduate education because developing a research capacity means producing more doctorates. The next step is to develop more transparent and dynamic academic market, provide doctoral graduates with competitive salaries and more opportunities to work at university outside of their own.

“>According to the Shanghai Ranking 2013, two Russian universities appear among the 500 top universities. The University of Moscow is number 79, while the Saint Petersburg State University is located between 301-400. The Higher School of Economics is ranked 501-550 (232 in Social Sciences and Management) by QS World University Rankings.