The university community in Russia has widely discussed a recent proposal of the Ministry of Education and Science to introduce obligatory professional qualification exams for all university graduates. While such systems exist in a number of countries, for Russia this idea is new and for some universities, scary. It is every teacher’s nightmare that he or she will be accountable for their students’ results as the exam seems certain to be implemented. Why does the Russian Minister of Education and Science, Andrei Fursenko, believe that this measure to be a promising one and why is now best time to introduce it?
The idea of external qualification exams for university graduates is rather alien for Russian higher education system and the attitude has deep historical roots. Indeed, the qualification exams instituted in tsarist Russia at the end of the nineteenth century were replaced by a system of tight centralized control over the curriculum content of all educational programs. Not much changed in this respect since then.
So why might Russians want to change the system now? The main task is to change rules and conditions that diminish the overall quality of they university system. One current impediment to improvement is that public funding is not yet related to the quality of education. Private support to higher education is concentrated mostly in degree programs in the areas of economics, humanities and social studies, areas that are believed to be what employers prefer when hiring. Yet statistical data show that graduates of these programs are unlikely to work in these fields and tend not to have very high wages but rather that the attractiveness of these programs is driven by the proliferation of success stories about office personnel in large cities, etc.). While there is no real incentive for universities to improve quality the whole bouquet of adverse consequences flourish – low quality, zero additional human capital after graduation, outdated professional skills among them.
It is important to introduce mechanisms for public funding that take into account and stimulate the quality of “educational output”. For example, providing more funding to better universities. For such meritocratic discrimination to be possible, one needs objective information on quality that is not provided by universities themselves. One alternative is to collect information about the integration of university graduates into the labor market but this is not currently possible given the lack of any ties between the university sector and the labor market that would provide accurate or complete data. Indeed, there is a huge disconnect between these sectors, aggravated largely by the outdated skills that many universities provide to students. Moreover, the majority of universities are undistinguishable for employers, and rankings based on employer opinion would be a poor instrument for assessing quality at each particular university.
So university rankings based on graduates’ test scores may provide a better alternative. Positive results can be achieved not only in public university sector but from the private sector as well. Information revealed by this mechanism could be also used as a basis for state support to private higher education institutions.
Right things to be done in right time
So the idea is to motivate universities to focus on quality. The proposed measures are painful since they will clearly push some institutions out the market entirely. However, while painful for weaker institutions the disappearance of these institutions will not impact access to higher education. Indeed demographic conditions recently are such that shrinking size of the university-age age cohort (babies born during the turbulent 1990s) provides a ‘natural’ opportunity to reduce places and close down or merge universities.
What might the long-term consequences of an exam system be?
While important reforms always bring unexpected consequences some of them can be predicted. One can expect that a reformed system will allow:
- the introduction of a new financial model of public funding based on university quality not merely number of students;
- a reorientation of lower-quality universities to serving some other markets (vocational training, etc.) or even force closures, given that they won’t receive much public funding;
- a basis for better comparisons (and hence facilitate better informed choice by prospective students and employers) between universities (rankings based on graduate test scores);
- the improvement of the quality of the private sector of higher education system with State support for best private institutions.
Are there any risks and negative consequences?
While there is potential positive impact of such a measure, there are still some risks to consider. The first is a formality. We already have graduate testing (state examinations) administered by the universities themselves which in reality is merely an internal exam – one among many. Results of this exam give no objective information of the quality of teaching. Another problem might be a tendency to teach to the test. There is always a risk of provincialism and testing irrelevant knowledge given no public consensus about what should be taught at universities and extreme caution about any “foreign” ideas and influences. Finally, there is the possibility of an even greater divergence between university output and the labor market, unless examinations are developed in conjunction with economists capable of assessing the future employment needs of the market.
So, there are many arguments that support the idea of obligatory professional exams and there are also valid concerns associated with such a measure. However opponents do not yet offer any clear alternatives for improving overall quality of higher education institutions. And something needs to be done.