Who is cutting ties with whom? Russia and the Bologna education system

On June 6th, Deputy Minister of Science and Higher Education Dmitry Afanasyevsaid that all Russian educational organizations were excluded from the Bologna process. Thus, Russia stops using the Bologna education system. What the reasons are, what the possible outcomes are – and what the consequences are, all of it worth having a closer look.

The Bologna System (also known as the Bologna Process) originated in 1998, when the Ministers of Education of Germany, Italy, France and the United Kingdom initiated the creation of a European Higher Education Area.[1] A year later, in summer of 1999, 29 countries (16 – EU member states) signed the Joint Declaration of the European Ministers of Education.[2] Since it happened during a conference in Bologna (Italy), and it is the place where the oldest university of the same name in Europe is located (founded in 1088), hence the system got its name. The main objective of the initiative was to create a frame within European educational space with free mobility of students and teachers, as well as to increase the competitiveness of European universities in the world. Subsequently, the number of participants was increased to 49…[3]

And then the most interesting thing begins.

Dmitry Afanasyev’s statement is the logical conclusion of a process that began back in May of this year: on May 17th, the Chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs and the new Head of the LDPR faction Leonid Slutsky, as well as the Deputy Speaker of the State Duma Peter Tolstoy, called for the abolition of the Bologna education system in Russia. And if the Deputy Speaker’s words were relatively neutral, saying that “today’s education system does not meet the needs of the time – many experts and colleagues talk about the need to exit the Bologna system and return to the traditional Russian education system,”[4] Leonid Slutsky expressed himself more emotionally, comparing the Bologna system with “an experiment in fooling young people”.[5] According to him, “Russia cannot be taken by any most modern weapons. Our country is currently a world leader in this area. But one can try to weaken us from within by lowering the educational level of our youth and shifting the focus in the value system. This is the very dangerous technique that the collective West intended to use through the import of the Bologna education system to Russia”.[6]

However, as it turned out, Russia (and Belarus, which again got its share for good relations with the Russian Federation), were excluded from the Bologna process during the April meeting of the Bologna Follow-Up Group (BFUG).[7] It is impossible not to note the “elegance” of the discourse used in the meeting’s minutes: for example, in section 4 it is noted that «<t>he statement also urges the BFUG to suspend the Russian Federation’s rights of representation in the BFUG, as well as any country assisting the Russian Federation in its invasion of Ukraine», and section 6 is directly indicating who these “any countries” are – «<t>he resulting declaration asked the BFUG to suspend rights of representation of the Russian Federation and all countries (Belarus) who intend to support it in this invasion of Ukraine».[8] And here the logical question arises – what’s the point of all this wordplay, if everyone already knows which country is supporting Russia?

At the same time, it is worth noting another fact: despite the suspension of membership of Russia and Belarus, the Group is still interested in data on these countries, which was also reflected in the meeting’s minutes – «<t>he BFUG Board will also need to adopt a position on the missing data in the Russian Federation and Belarus reports as a result of their suspension, with EQAR confirming that information on these countries is no longer available on their website. Finally, it was decided to continue the discussion about the data collection on the Russian Federation and Belarus in the next BFUG Board Meeting».[9] On the one hand, it would seem strange – why to do it, but on the other hand it is quite a logical move, because the events in Ukraine will end sooner or later, and something will need to be done in terms of cooperation (if, of course, there will be an opportunity to re-establish it).

Thus, it becomes obvious what Dmitry Afanasyev, Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Education and Science, expressed in his speech – “I would say that it was the Bologna system that left us, and not that we left it”.[10]

Of course, the exit from the Bologna system didn`t go unnoticed by anyone – it was a low blow to school graduates, current students, and their parents who are worried about the future of their children. The academic and political circles also had a fair share of discussion. However, according to the SuperJob survey, 66% of Russians supported the rejection of the Bologna system: the majority was respondents over 45 years old and Russians with higher education (72% and 73%, respectively).[11] That is to say, these people are those who felt the influence of the system on themselves, or those who had the opportunity to compare it with the previous system.

It is worth noting here that not everything is so perfect with the implementation of the Bologna system in Russia. Introduced in 2003, it has only been adapted partially. So, along with the two-stage system (bachelor’s + master’s degree or “4+2”), Russia still continues training in a specialist’s degree (“специалитет”) (5-6 year program); system of credits (ECTS) known in any European university, in Russia is still used along with traditional 5-point evaluation system, etc. In addition, some experts believe that the system is too narrowly specialized and excludes the study of some Soviet courses, especially in engineering specialties.

A separate point worth paying attention is the mobility of students, a feature of the Bologna system that is highly valued in Europe; however, the volume of academic mobility from Russia and to Russia, although possible, is not so high, since there is a number of difficulties related to it. As it was noted by Sergey Stepashin, Chairman of the Association of Lawyers of Russia, “let’s be honest: some of our Russian universities have not been recognized abroad. The results of studies were not recognized, there was no transfer in ECTS/credits, as it was in other countries participating in the Bologna process. On the one hand, it reduced the mobility potential of Russian students. On the other hand, commenting on the situation with the exit, it can be said that the exit from the Bologna process will not add problems: there was no developed academic mobility with the main European universities before that”.[12]

Someone may say that the situation is really difficult and the withdrawal puts an end to the future of young professionals. HSE Professor Irina Abankina, for example, believes that “<t>he Bologna system works to make education relevant to the modern labor market, with the possibility of rapid dissemination of practices, with academic exchange. To destroy this system now and leave it means to condemn oneself to complete isolation and non-recognition”.[13]

However, education is not limited to the Bologna system, and the world is not limited to Europe. So, referring again to the words of Sergey Stepashin, “most of our universities have worked and are working under bilateral agreements — we are talking about double diplomas, when students study part of the year in Russia, and the other <part> abroad. I think that the withdrawal from the Bologna process will not affect such programs in any way: they were managed manually anyway”.[14] Thus, the mobility of students, if at all, will suffer, then only to a small extent. And the Head of the Ministry of Education and Science Valery Falkov suggested looking at the situation from the perspective of the prospects opening up for the national education system: “we understand that we need to look ahead pragmatically, without destroying what has been done. Without denying the previous stage. We need to take the best from it — and move forward. Modernization of the national education system should not be perceived as its isolation. The USA, China, India and many other countries were not and are not part of the Bologna system, which does not prevent them from recognizing other education and successfully developing their own”.[15] 

The situation is also worth looking at from the perspective of international relations. Since the beginning of the events in Ukraine, relations between Russia and the West have begun to deteriorate rapidly, while Asia, Africa and Latin America have tried to stay neutral. The strengthening of Russophobic ideas led to the fact that Russian students began to transfer to domestic universities.[16] Despite the fact that the numbers are low, and the cases themselves are individual, they also have an impact on the situation as a whole. What will happen if a dozen students decide to study in Asia instead of Europe? What if a hundred? Or a thousand? Like it or not, the state will have to listen to their opinion, because these are future specialists, those who will work for the benefit of the state. And if Europe starts to push Russia away from itself even more now, then later it risks facing the fact that the “pivot to the East,” which has been all over around for several years already, is in full swing. Because it is the youth who is building our future, and if to show them a biased attitude now, then one should not be surprised with the consequences.

As one says, as you sow so shall you reap.

[1] http://www.ehea.info/page-sorbonne-declaration-1998

[2] http://www.ehea.info/page-ministerial-conference-bologna-1999

[3] http://www.ehea.info/page-full_members

[4] https://tass.ru/obschestvo/14649511

[5] https://ria.ru/20220518/obrazovanie-1789215928.html

[6] https://ria.ru/20220518/obrazovanie-1789215928.html

[7] http://www.ehea.info/page-bfug-meeting-80

[8] http://www.ehea.info/Upload/BFUG_FR_AZ_80_Minutes%20of%20meeting.pdf

[9] http://www.ehea.info/Upload/BFUG_FR_AZ_80_Minutes%20of%20meeting.pdf

[10] https://russian.rt.com/russia/article/1011967-bolonskii-process-rossiya

[11] https://ria.ru/20220411/obrazovanie-1782847809.html

[12] https://mel.fm/zhizn/razbor/7689514-vykhod-iz-bolonskoy-obrazovatelnoy-sistemy-chto-eto-znachit-dlya-rossii-i-pri-chem-tut-yege

[13] https://www.mk.ru/social/2022/03/17/eksperty-rasskazali-k-chemu-privedet-otkaz-ot-bolonskoy-sistemy-obrazovaniya.html

[14] https://mel.fm/zhizn/razbor/7689514-vykhod-iz-bolonskoy-obrazovatelnoy-sistemy-chto-eto-znachit-dlya-rossii-i-pri-chem-tut-yege»

[15] https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/5381815

[16] https://russian.rt.com/russia/article/976762-studenty-zarubezhnye-vuzy-perevod

Anna Kolotova
Anna Kolotova
PhD in International Relations in Jilin University, China, postdoctoral fellow in Global Engagement Academy, Shandong University (Weihai), China. Contact: kolotov711[at]rambler.ru