Vienna, July 3 – Rising tuition at Russian universities is opening another gulf in Russian society – one between the children of relatively well-off families who expect to get a higher education and the better positions that go with it and the children of less-well-off families who fear that they will not have the means to pay for it and believe they must accept lower status jobs.
A survey of young people between the ages of 16 and 25 conducted last month by the Public Opinion Foundation found that 70 percent of those who came from well-off homes or from homes where at least one parent had a higher education said that university training was essential (www.stoletie.ru/obschestvo/komu_na_rusi_uchitsya_horosho__2008-06-24.htm).
But among young men and women who come from families with relatively lower incomes or whose parents do not have a higher education, only about half spoke about the importance of higher education in their plans, an indication that many of these youths do not expect to receive university degrees.
Such intergenerational continuity concerning expectations for educational attainment, of course, is found in many countries. But in the Russian Federation, given the expectations the Soviet system created by offering free higher education to those who passed examinations, this pattern is not entirely welcome.
In a commentary in the current issue of “Stoletiye,” a journal that reflects the views of the Orthodox Church on societal developments, Andrey Borisov complains that in Russia, “higher education is ever more becoming the property of that part of the population which is already doing well.”
“Are there a lot of those people in Russia now,” he asks rhetorically. “And what are the rest to do?” Will their inability to pay for higher education mean that some “potential Lomonosovs” will be forced to work in jobs that will never permit them to develop their genius or to make the kind of contribution to society they are capable of?
Borisov did take heart from one finding of this poll: Compared to the attitudes Russian young people expressed only a few years ago, far more of them today say that success and even wealth are the result of making careful plans, gaining an education, and working hard rather than the result of luck or accident.
The Orthodox commentator does not mention what other countries have tried to do to mitigate the consequences of the rising price of higher education, including arrangements like the massive student loan programs backed by the government in the United States. But almost certainly Russian students and their parents will be looking at such things in the near future.
If the Russian government supports the introduction of such programs, then Moscow may be able to limit the way in which rising costs for higher education are a brake on inter-generational social mobility. If it does not, then the emergence in Russia of a 21st century version of what Benjamin Disraeli called a country with “two nations” becomes more likely.
UPDATE for July 4: For-profit universities have dramatically increased the percentage of Russian young people pursuing higher education, but many of these schools are of such poor quality that they should be closed, less a form of “educational apartheid” emerge in Russia (www.fondsk.ru/article.php?id=1469).