Western Foundations and Post-Communist Higher Education: A Report Card

By
F. Joseph Dresen

"There has been remarkable success in Western assistance to Russian higher education," stated Stephen Kotkin, professor and director of Russian and Eurasian Studies, Princeton University, and former Title VIII-supported short-term scholar, Kennan Institute, at a 30 January 2007 seminar at the Kennan Institute. Kotkin presented a report prepared for the Ford Foundation on Western support for higher education in the Russian Federation. Steven Solnick, Moscow representative, Ford Foundation, and former Title VIII-supported research scholar, Kennan Institute, said the Ford Foundation commissioned the report in order to gauge the effectiveness of philanthropic support for Russian higher education.

Between U.S. government and foundation sources of support, Kotkin reported, close to $1 billion have gone toward supporting education in the social and natural sciences in formerly socialist countries, especially in Russia. "I don't know of any other example, geographically or historically, of this level of outside investment in education support, over such a concentrated period," he said.

Kotkin noted that the Ford Foundation report is his fourth extensive review of a Western program supporting higher education in Russia. All of the reports were based upon extensive travel to supported sites and hundreds of interviews with foundation staff, educators, and students, as well as literature reviews and archival research.

Kotkin traced the history and trends of Western foundation support for Russian education. In the early 1990s, support was predominantly in the form of modest individual grants awarded on the basis of merit to individuals who might otherwise have left the field or the country. This type of assistance, according to Kotkin, was highly cost-effective, yet very labor-intensive for foundations. It resulted in the emergence of individuals who succeed on the basis of talent rather than solely on the basis of patronage. The foundations, including Ford, began to fund networks and journals, as well as summer and winter schools, to provide these individuals with opportunities to connect with like-minded people and to continue to develop professionally.

Between 1996 and 1998, foundations began shifting their strategy. The new alumni of merit-based programs frequently encountered resistance and professional jealousy in their home institutions. The new goal, Kotkin said, was to change those institutions by shifting support to the state system as a whole; foundations, though not Ford per se, committed funds on a corresponding scale to underwrite the transformation of academic departments within dozens of state universities. This new emphasis on state structures complemented the continued funding for new private universities, he said.

One result of this shift to institutions, Kotkin contended, was that it undermined Russian indigenous capacity for individual grant making just as it was beginning to develop. This was ironic, he explained, because an early goal of the Ford and Soros foundations was to create a Russian institution that would organize support for Russian social scientists, similar to the Social Science Research Council in the United States. Kotkin acknowledged, however, that the loss of Russian indigenous grant making might not have been avoidable. While there is plenty of expertise in Russia for peer reviews of grant applications, he explained, Russia often lacks the managerial and accounting expertise necessary to oversee merit programs adequately.

Kotkin examined the track record of support for various social science disciplines. The best results, he said, have come in economics, and also in sociology. Kotkin noted that political science has been a failure despite significant investments and efforts. There is no peer-reviewed political science journal in Russia, and few if any political science articles are published internationally by Russians. Gender studies has not yet emerged as an academic field in Russia, despite the presence of impressive researchers. Kotkin added that foundations mostly ignored area studies in Russia, such as Ukrainian studies or Sinology, but that this practice could be reconsidered.

Kotkin predicted that the greatest changes are yet to come. The amount of Russian money, both governmental and private, flowing into the education system is vastly increasing. The generational turnover of Soviet-era educators is accelerating, opening up opportunities for new people. At the same time, he said, as a result of the declining birthrate in Russia, there are more spaces in higher education now than there are students of high school age or younger to fill them in the future, portending a serious reduction in enrollment in the future. Finally, the Russian government has made a commitment to adhere to the "Bologna Process" to align its educational system with European standards.

The key to any long-term systemic impact by Western foundations on Russian higher education may be the earlier programs that focused on individuals, concluded Kotkin, not the ambitious institutional programs. Alumni of merit-based grant programs, who were sustained by the various scholar networks, are moving into leadership roles, he said. The foundations may see an enduring impact to the extent that they can enable Russia to produce more scholars via an indigenous individual, merit-based, grant-making institution.

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