Russia Quits the Bologna System: What It Means and Why International Academic Career is Still Possible

On May 24, Valery Falkov, minister of science and higher education of the Russian Federation, announced that Russia would quit the Bologna System. After that, there started an intense public discussion about the essence of this system and its influence on the current and prospective students. Andrey Starodubtsev, Academic Supervisor of the Master’s programme ‘Comparative Politics of Eurasia’, explains the basic principles of this system with examples and tells why the students who are interested in academic career should not panic

Andrey Starodubtsev

Andrey Starodubtsev

The Bologna System (The Bologna Process) is a system of cooperation between universities implemented in 49 countries. It shapes the European environment of higher education. This system is used to provide mutual recognition of higher education degrees of different universities, set out common assessment criteria for study and teaching load, and simplify academic exchange.

What is the simplest explanation of the Bologna System?

In the modern world, universities are very specialised organisations. One university is better in one sphere or topic and the other one is stronger in another. The primary goal is to give students an opportunity to study the best things in different parts of Europe and the world. The idea that students and lecturers should have a chance to learn and teach in different countries and universities caused the need to create common ‘rules’. These rules regulate the grading system, teaching and study load, common requirements for teaching and knowledge given. It helps to cross the borders in an academic environment and ensure mutual recognition of study load provided by different universities. This is what we call the Bologna Process. Basically, the Bologna System is not an organisation, but a set of rules which universities agree to follow.


The USA is not a member-country of this system. What does it mean? 

This fact means that when there is an academic exchange between Russia and the USA, the administrators of educational process and lecturers from both universities have to make more effort to harmonise the curriculums, define the systems of study load and grading. Different rules entail the difficulty in coordinating all the aspects of exchange programmes. It requires more effort than when two countries are parties to the united system. 

A vivid example is the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECST) which evaluates each course according to the same criteria. A credit in this system shows the amount of study loan measured in hours that students have to spend to learn the material. There are some specific grading methods in the Bologna System and in the USA the methods are different. In such cases, the universities have to harmonise European and American credits for the exchange programmes.

When graduating from HSE bachelor’s or master’s programmes students receive a European official academic transcript in English where the system of credits is described. Does it mean that after Russia quits the Bologna System, the students will not receive a European official academic transcript anymore and the system of credits will disappear? 

It is hard to answer this question with certainty now as it is related to university and government regulation. In my opinion, the announced withdrawal from the Bologna Process does not imply the flat refusal of the elements that settled down in our country. 

Now the most intense discussions in Russia are about a particular part of the Bologna System. It is a principle of splitting higher education into two qualifications: bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Earlier in Russia there was a specialist’s degree, but in Europe and the USA there were bachelor’s and master’s degrees. To make it easier to cooperate with other countries and universities, Russia introduced these two degrees as well. Besides, such a two-degrees system is more flexible in terms of labour market requirements. 

The return of specialist’s degree to some programmes is actively discussed now. However, no one is talking about the refusal of master’s programmes. Meanwhile, HSE has already got five-year bachelor’s programmes. The structure of such programmes is similar to a specialist’s degree. These are the programmes on Asian studies, History and Law. 

It is not clear yet what elements of the Bologna System will be changed in Russia. No university is interested in abandoning European official academic transcripts as they make their graduates’ diplomas more competitive. If we can keep it, it will be a good qualitative sign for any university which can offer a European official academic transcript to its graduates.

How reasonable is the mandatory introduction of the specialist’s degree for social sciences in Russia? 

To my mind, a specialist’s degree system in Social sciences is not necessary and most likely will not appear in the mandatory form. It is related to the peculiarities of social studies which are better learnt when they are intertwined. Studying on the specialist’s programme, students advance their knowledge in one particular sphere. Social sciences are characterised as interdisciplinary and require comprehensive knowledge in several subjects. 

For example, Political studies students have a set of courses which are not related to politics, but very important to be an expert in the social sphere: Economics, History, Basics of Management and Public Management, Philosophy and Data Management principles. However, four years are enough to get basic interdisciplinary knowledge in Political science. Those students who want to specialise in a particular sphere or change the field of study can move to the next stage of education — master’s degree. It is harder to provide such flexibility within specialist’s degree.

At HSE, political education is founded on the basic principles of the Bologna System. There is a four-year Bachelor’s programme in Political Science and World Politics which includes the fundamental and applied knowledge. All this knowledge meets the requirements of the labour market to the person who gained a degree in Social sciences. The university offers two master’s programmes to the students who want to continue specialising in Political science. One of which is ‘Comparative Politics of Eurasia‘. It covers the political, social and international processes in the post-Soviet area. Another one—’Data Analytics for Politics and Society‘—covers analysis of society and state with the use of methodology for working with large data sets. There are some students who want to add specialty in another sphere to their core political education. It makes them more competitive in the labour market. If we change it to a specialist’s degree, we will deprive students of such an opportunity. 

Some employers believe that a bachelor’s degree is not complete higher education. Why does this idea still exist?  

It happens due to the fact that many Russian universities could not create high-quality bachelor’s and master’s programmes separately from each other. In many universities, heads of departments and educational programmes simply divided the courses of specialist’s degree: some courses were included in bachelor’s programmes and all the other courses — in master’s programmes. This way bachelor’s degree becomes a deficient specialist’s degree and is not complete indeed. 

However, Russian universities can provide a complete higher education on bachelor’s programmes as well. I see that the employers who hire HSE graduates are satisfied with their knowledge and skills. To get a deeper specialisation, a student should complete a master’s programme and the labour market knows it. Often employers meet graduates of the universities where bachelor’s degree has not yet become a complete stage of education. Instead of creating specialist’s programmes, it is better to pay attention to the quality of bachelor’s and master’s programmes in Russian universities.

Can the withdrawal from the Bologna System interfere with the prospective master’s students’ urge to build an international academic career and do researches in the future?

The withdrawal from the Bologna System cannot influence the competitive capability of the researches trained by HSE. The biggest risks lie in the complication of academic exchange processes. However, the withdrawal does not imply that universities will fully abandon academic exchange programmes, which is very important for current and future researches. If somewhere in the world there is a professor who specialises in a particular topic, it is a significant benefit if a university can organise an internship there for its master’s or doctoral student.

It is harder to cooperate with European universities now, but the situation is not catastrophic. A number of great universities continue cooperation with HSE: they are ready to accept our students. Many universities in Eastern Asia have not suspended cooperation and some of them even launched new exchange programmes. I believe that Russian universities will focus on finding the ways for academic cooperation with these universities in the short run. 

After the announcement of the withdrawal from the Bologna System, there appeared two opposite public opinions. Some people think that Russian universities have not fully adjusted to the system yet, so it is not an enormous loss. Others believe that such actions lead to isolation.

The discussion about the Bologna system is more political than professional educational. When people give an overall assessment of this system, they make political statements which have nothing to do with the process of cooperation between different universities. If we look at the Bologna System as a set of rules adopted by various universities to advance science and education, then it is a good thing. 

The problem is that many universities did not manage to fully adopt the rules of the Bologna System. For such universities, it will not make a big difference indeed. I cannot imagine that in practice universities can fully abandon the principles of the Bologna System. The cooperation between the universities and scientific centres all around the world is a step forward, meanwhile the refusal of any cooperation is definitely a step back.