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Soviet Union

Higher Education

In 1987 the Soviet Union had 896 institutions of higher learning (vysshie uchebnye zavedeniia--VUZy), of which only 69 were universities. The remainder included more than 400 pedagogical, medical, and social science institutes and art academies and conservatories of music; over 360 institutes of specialized engineering and natural sciences; and about 60 polytechnical institutes. VUZy were located in major cities, including the union republic and autonomous republic capitals, with the highest concentrations in Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev. Enrollment was over 5 million students, with nearly 50 percent (2.4 million) attending part time.

Women made up 56 percent of the student body. Forty-one percent of the students came from the working (blue-collar) class, 9 percent from the collective farm (see Glossary) sector, and 50 percent from families working in the services (white-collar) sector.

With nearly 587,000 students enrolled, universities offered a broad range of disciplines in the arts and sciences, while concentrating on the theoretical aspects of the given field. Institutes and polytechnics were more specialized and stressed specific applied disciplines, for example, engineering, education, and medicine. The approach to higher education traditionally focused on acquiring knowledge and comprehension rather than on developing skills of analysis and evaluation.

As the country's major scientific and cultural centers, universities produced the leading researchers and teachers in the natural and mathematical sciences, social and political sciences, and humanities, e.g., literature and languages. They also developed textbooks and study guides for disciplines in all institutions of higher learning and for university courses in the natural sciences and humanities.

On the whole, Soviet society considered universities the most prestigious of all institutions of higher learning. Applicants considerably exceeded openings, and competition for entrance was stiff. Officially, acceptance was based on academic merit. In addition to successful completion of secondary schooling, prospective entrants had to pass extremely competitive oral and written examinations, given only once a year, in their area of specialization, as well as in Russian and a foreign language. Students commonly employed private tutors to prepare for university entrance examinations. Beyond this generally accepted practice, other less honest methods were used widely and included drawing on personal connections of parents and even resorting to bribes. Party or Komsomol endorsement strengthened an applicant's chances for admission.

Moscow University, established in 1755, was the Soviet Union's largest, most prestigious, and second oldest institution of higher learning (the Ukrainian Republic's L'vov University was founded in 1661). It comprised seventeen colleges or schools (in Russian, fakultety--faculties), divided into 274 departments, each offering a wide range of related subjects. A major research center, the state university had a library of over 6.5 million volumes. A teaching staff of about 7,000 full-time and part-time professors and instructors taught over 30,000 students (more than half attended on a part-time basis).

Full-time higher education took 4 to 5.5 years of study, depending on the area of specialization, for example, 5.5 years for medicine; 5 years for engineering; 4.5 years for agriculture; and 4 years for law, history, journalism, or art. The programs combined lectures, seminars, practicums, and research. At the final stage, students had to complete an approved thesis and defend their work before the State Examination Committee; they also had to pass extensive examinations in their field of specialization. Graduates were awarded "diplomas"; depending on the course of study and institution, the diploma fell roughly between a bachelor's degree and master's degree in the United States.

Tuition at all institutions of higher learning was free; in the 1986-87 school year, 78 percent of full-time students received monthly stipends ranging from 40 to 70 rubles. Students paid only minimum room and board because dormitories (albeit crowded and lacking most modern amenities) and cafeterias were subsidized by the government. The universities also provided basic medical care at no cost, as well as free passes to rest and recreation homes and summer and winter resorts.

Graduates were expected to repay the government's generosity by devoting two or three years to a job assigned by the government. This practice was becoming an increasingly serious problem with respect to labor distribution in the 1980s. Among the major contributing factors were Gosplan's failure to forecast correctly the country's needs for specialized labor cadres (graduates frequently were assigned to jobs totally unrelated to their areas of specialization) and the often outright refusal by graduates to accept jobs in undesirable (remote or rural) parts of the country.

Graduate training could be pursued at all universities and selected institutes and polytechnics. Relative to the number of undergraduates, the number of Soviet graduate students was small, about 100,000 in the mid-1980s. Many pursued their studies on a part-time basis while continuing to work in their field.

Two advanced degrees, the candidate of science and the doctor of science (kandidat nauk and doktor nauk), were available. To be admitted to a cvourse of study for the candidate degree, applicants had to pass competitive examinations in a foreign language, philosophy (primarily Marxism-Leninism), and the field of specialization. Completion of this degree required three years of course work, training and research, and a dissertation dealing with an original topic and representing a significant contribution to the given field. The thesis had to be defended publicly before an academic panel and was published. In the 1980s, about 500,000 specialists, primarily university and institute faculty staff and members of the scientific and research community, held candidate degrees. These degrees might be equated to the master's and doctor of philosophy degrees in the United States, depending on the specialization and the institution attended.

A much smaller group (fewer than 45,000) of scholars and scientists held a doctor of science degree, also commonly called a doktorat. It was conferred on a selective basis to well-established experts whose considerable research and publications represented original major contributions to their specialized areas. Doctoral work was generally part of the individual's professional or teaching activity. A one-year paid leave of absence was granted for the writing and defense of a doctoral thesis. The doctorate was also sometimes conferred for outstanding past achievements. According to Vadim Medish, holders of this advanced degree represented "the elite of the Soviet scientific establishment and academe."

Data as of May 1989

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