Moscow to Bologna: The (Re-)Sovietization of European Higher Education

One of the hallmarks of the neutral liberal state is the independence of higher education, just like religion, the judiciary, and the Central Bank. If there is no separation of the state from the universities, they become instruments for state control of social stratification and mobility and an inefficient tool for socially-engineering society and its culture and ideology.

In post-totalitarian societies, the end of totalitarianism led to academic autonomy and internal democracy. However, local democracy was of faculty selected largely by the totalitarian regime. Local academic democracy resulted in an elected university governing administration that represented the interests of late-totalitarian academics, resisting change, and protecting the hierarchy. Autonomy and self-regulation allowed increased levels of corruption, especially in admissions and in selling degrees and grades. An education system where senior professors received subsidies from the state irrespective of what they did, and could select new employees, had no corrective institutional mechanism such as economic competition to weed out failing academic units or institutions. Inbreeding, the employment of graduates by their teachers, allowed departments to close themselves off from the world.

Some of these problems were shared by Western European universities: Inbreeding, authoritarian teaching, learning by rote, and the discouraging of critical creativity and intellectual autonomy plagued many European universities. These similarities have led civil servants and politicians in the new member states of the European Union to consider imitating the kinds of higher education reforms that were implemented in post-social-democratic European states. These reforms eliminated the self-governance and autonomy of universities and introduced instead central planning and state control of higher education. Implementing such reforms in societies still reeling from the destructive legacies of state control and central planning in higher education has been sadly ironic. The new cure for the legacies of Communism was more Communism, this time coming from Bologna rather than Moscow.

Elected Western European politicians had the opposite goal to that of the Communists; they wanted to socially engineer higher education to expand the middle classes by increasing the ratio of university graduates in society to increase the competitiveness of their workforce. If there were more people “with degrees,” (their content was a different matter) more people would have better paying jobs, they reasoned. They and their parents would vote for the politicians who gave them the education, and the result would be planned prosperity from above. Better paid citizens would pay more in taxes and the state will be richer and stronger.

It is difficult to force reforms on autonomous, self-governing, and therefore conservative institutions. Therefore, the trend in many European countries beginning in the eighties has been for central planners in the ministries of education to centralize a vertical of power that goes down from the ministry of education to appointed (not elected) academic managers (not scholars or pedagogues). The new managed university bears uncanny similarity to Soviet industry: the Soviet state set production targets and quotas. The managers had considerable local powers and autonomy and were assessed according to their fulfillment of these production targets without micromanagement of the means they used to achieve them. As in the Soviet Union, when there was no paying customer to satisfy, the easiest way to meet production targets was by falsifying data and compromising on quality. Subsidies kept flowing anyway.

To consolidate this vertical of power, the new “Brezhnevian” managerial academic model had to abolish academic self-governance, the autonomy of universities and units within them, like faculties, schools, departments, tenures, and academic freedom. The general trend in the UK, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, encouraged by the European Union’s Bologna Process and the massification of higher education, has been to turn universities into state-managed corporations dedicated to vocational training. In the Bologna agreement all members of the EU agreed to create “a system of easily readable and comparable degrees to promote European citizens’ employability and international competitiveness.” To impose this new order and fulfill production targets the appointed managers were not accountable to the faculty so they could impose policies and decisions against its will and discipline those who dared to defy their commands. As the Soviet experience showed, central planning may succeed in a few projects by concentrating all available resources on e.g. sputniks and sport. But command economies cannot sustain the effort across the board to match supply with demand. On a systemic level, European higher education is as likely to be as competitive with the decentralized and partly private American academic system as the Soviet industry.

The Soviet and European central planners had diametrically opposed goals for their social engineering. The Communists attempted to limit the size of the professional educated middle class. The European planners attempted to increase the size of the middle class. Ironically, both types of central planners chose to achieve these diametrically opposed goals by the same means: assaulting high culture, contracting the humanities and languages, expanding and encouraging engineering, radically dumbing down the level of education, limiting or eliminating altogether basic research, basing education on learning by rote with little or no space for creativity, and imposing state appointed managers to force these measures through and achieve quantitative targets. If such policies had worked, the Soviet Union would have won the Cold War.

The central planners could only measure the satisfaction of quantifiable quotas they assigned to the managers, and even that largely on the basis of data provided by the managers themselves. Actual control was in the hands of unaccountable managerial new class and the bloated and expensive bureaucracy they created to centrally plan, manage, and control. As Dutch academic Chris Lorenz put it in an article in Critical Inquiry:

“Because they lack professional authority, managers are inclined to treat any lack of cooperation on the shop floor as a threat to their position and as subversion. Those who dare to cast doubt on their decisions can therefore count on pressure, blackmail, divide-and-conquer tactics, and open humiliation. Because the discipline of the market does not play a role in the New Public Management, there are scarcely objective constraints on managers’ freedom toward their employees. After all, where profit does not exist as an objective criterion for the performance of the organization, the managers themselves decide what performance is… [They] tolerate a staggering range of irrational management practices under the wide, protective, ideological umbrella of efficiency. In these two respects (the lack of objective reality checks and the resultant unconstrained power of management) the organizations in the quasi-market sector under New Public Management and the party organizations under state Communism again show striking similarities. In both types of organization the scope for irrational management practices is virtually unlimited.”

From the perspective of the central planners, college dropouts (e.g. Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Kerouac, Woody Allen, etc.) who did not complete their degrees were lost investments; not because students who drop out of college do not benefit from the time they spent there, but because the bureaucrats did not know how to measure that benefit. Confusing skills with formal degrees was an easy option for central planners who could not assess the long term effects of substantial rather than formal education. The standard method to substantially improve retention rates was the radical dumbing down of the level of education and requirements for graduation. But ask yourself, if you had a serious medical problem, would you like to be treated by a doctor who graduated from a medical school where nobody ever failed to graduate?

When he worked at such a “university,” Queens University in Belfast, the new school head was so successful in politics that he was promoted to become a Dean to impose his methods on all the social sciences and humanities: he claimed that expecting students to read anything critically and discuss it in class, was beyond their cognitive level. If students opened their mouths in class, they learned nothing, so they should not talk. Instruction and exams had to be based on “bullet points,” published on the intranet of the university so students could memorize them for the exam and pass with high marks even if they read nothing and did not attend lectures. He coerced the faculty to pass everybody and hyper-inflate grades by measuring their performance according to the grades they gave to their students. Teachers who failed to ensure that all their students graduated with high marks were dismissed or disciplined. If students failed despite all the efforts, a manager with the Orwellian title of ”Director of Education” was in charge of falsifying the grades before they were submitted. In one year, a 70% graduation rate improved to almost 100%.

The central planners and the managers cheated students and parents about the value of the low quality diplomas they were producing; they could have thrown university diplomas out of helicopters. Employers could not be cheated so easily. Employers adapted to the decreasing value of university degrees by demanding advanced graduate and professional degrees to enter the workforce or by recognizing only some universities and not others, especially not institutions that should have helped lower class students achieve upper mobility.

The central planners, inspired by a weird application of business theories about the commoditization of production, demanded the homogenization of education. As production managers in McDonald’s should make sure that all hamburgers are the same, all university courses had to be “the same,” “usually in the form of standardized units called courses or modules. A module is defined in terms of a fixed quantity of time investment by both its producers and its consumers. Moreover, it is characteristically independent of its producers (professional teachers) because it has a standardized (online) form and content. Online modules typically are no longer owned by their direct producers— the faculty— but by management,[…] the basic idea and drive behind the Bologna Process is to standardize all of higher education in Europe in terms of interchangeable modules[…].” (Chris Lorenz, “If You’re so Smart, Why are You Under Surveillance? Universities, Neoliberalism, and New Public Management,” Critical Inquiry, 38, (2012) 612.) This led everywhere to incredible over-regulation of academic work, chasing an impossible phantom of homogenization of education that is neither possible nor desirable. Some topics are naturally more difficult and time consuming than others. Intellectual heterogeneity and competition between universities requires them to be different, offer different kinds of education to allow consumer choice.

To achieve efficiency, “schools” amalgamated previous departments. Since school heads micro-managed contents as well as budgets, they were tasked with planning the study of fields they often knew nothing about and even worse, dictated research programs to the experts. I witnessed how a head of school with an interest in Habermas and a professor of Irish politics who were, how shall I put it, not exactly beyond average intelligence, attempted to design a course in Logic. Then they had to forge the grades. They were much better at the second task than at the first.

Managers were evaluated and promoted according to their success in satisfying the required quotas. The people who rose up the hierarchy, lacked moral fiber at best, were able and ready to cheat, and were good at forcing other academics to do the same. At worst they were psychopaths whose amorality and natural proclivity to bully fitted the institutional design. Conversely, the idealists, the best researchers and teachers, who believed in the importance of what they researched, wrote about, and taught, and so refused to dumb down and cheat, found themselves marginalized, denied promotions, harassed, ejected, and dismissed.

Academic managers received and developed sets of powers to break established hierarchies at universities, fire members of faculty, discipline them into submission, and harass them into resignation or early retirement. But once they received the power deemed necessary for solving the problems of higher education, they were under no constraint to use this power as others wishfully expected. First, they used these methods against the incompetents. Then, they used them against the disobedient who dared to challenge their authority. After that, they sought to use their institutional power to eliminate any alternative center of power within their academic units. Since much of the power of the managers was based on terror, it was in their interest to victimize occasionally the apparently most secure members of faculty, the deservedly senior professors with laudable research record and international reputations. If a few of “the intellectuals” were made redundant or harassed into resignation or early retirement, it became obvious to everybody who was the psychopath in charge. Finally, once everybody else was out of the way, managers went after everybody who was different for some reason. The bottom of the pathological cesspool could then float to the surface. At Queens University Belfast, some of the more primitive managers went after other ethnic groups. The similarity with the revolutionary establishment of totalitarian regimes is striking: first they had to eliminate their real political enemies, then their “objective” enemies, then anybody who was respected but not part of the party-state hierarchy, and finally anybody who was different.

The methods that some academic managers employed to maintain power bear bizarre similarities to some of the “Gestapo methods” that totalitarian regimes and their secret police used. The managers enacted long and vague lists of declarative regulations that they could use selectively as a cover to start disciplinary proceeding against anybody arbitrarily, because there was no independent judicial branch of university governance. As in Kafka’s Trial, everybody was always guilty, but they could be granted reprieves. At Queens University Belfast I witnessed how managers started disciplinary proceedings with trumped up accusations such as “inattention to detail,” for writing typos in an email; “lack of responsiveness to student concerns,” for dismissing a student request for rescheduling a class; “inattention to student progression,” for assigning a take home essay to freshmen, or not giving all the students high grades; “lack of collegiality,” for refusing to become an informer on another professor for the managers. Managers used disaffected failing students as agents provocateurs to undermine members of faculty. Since managers had access to their universities’ digital databases, they could find out which students were about to fail and which had medically recorded mental problems or an otherwise recorded troubled background. When psychopathic managers targeted a member of faculty, they could use this information on manipulable students and suggest that if they wished to lodge complaints against a professor, the managers would revise their grades upwards. Then the mangers were promoted. Another method for divide and rule was to spy on members of faculty by reading their university email accounts—each manager had access to the university email accounts of their subordinates—to learn of frictions and then augment them.

The primary priority of European universities, according to the all-European Bologna agreement is vocational. The managerial interpretation of it was to promote vocational, narrowly specialized programs at the expense of theoretical and liberal education. The assumption was that programs in e.g. football management or web design would be more professionally useful than philosophy or history. Subjects that had lower graduation success rates because they were more difficult were eliminated, most notably foreign languages and quantitative or formal training. Languages were then hit twice, because they appeared non-vocational to provincial managers and because they were challenging for monolingual students. The result was graduate degrees in musicology for students who could not read musical notes, degrees in international relations and comparative literature for students who did not know foreign languages, and the evisceration of quantitative methods from the humanities and social sciences. Then, the humanities went into a vicious spiral downward: they were dumbed down, so employers hired fewer of their graduates, this led to decline in demand for studying the humanities, universities were forced to admit lower quality students to fill in the empty seats, graduating such students forced still greater dumbing down, leading to lower employability of graduates, lower demand for admission, further dumbing down, until the ingenious managers come with the obvious idea that when demand is so low, better shut down the departments. For example, for many years a degree in Classics had provided entry to top jobs in Europe. Classics were not more practical then than now. But the mastering of difficult languages like Greek and Latin served as a signal to prospective employers that the graduate must be intellectually brilliant and could handle any intellectual task. Then, they dropped Greek, and later Latin, and now they close down the departments.

This result was central planning in its self-contradictory essence: one hand of the state wished to turn universities into vocational schools by teaching students skills, while the other planning hand wished to increase student numbers and graduation rates by dumbing down education, especially the most transferable and vocationally useful linguistic and quantitative skills. European central planners worried that their countries were losing their competitiveness because their universities were worse than the great American research universities, so they curtailed research and dumbed down the level of mass education. Vocational over-specialization, typical of the Soviet model of higher education, created workers that could do one and only one thing. When technology advanced or production moved elsewhere, they could not find jobs in other fields. For example, post-totalitarian Europe was full of people with engineering degrees who could not use their obsolete over-specialized training commercially.

European central planners wished to adjust the curriculum to the needs of the largest employers. Corporations welcomed offers from the state to pay for training their workers from the public purse. However, the interests of the big corporations have not been identical to those of students and workers or even the long term interests of the state. Corporations have an economic interest in highly specialized workers who cannot change jobs easily and cost nothing to train. Workers who are overspecialized cannot find alternative jobs easily and therefore are in a weak negotiation position over compensations. If the company collapses or downsizes, they have a limited set of skills to offer other employers. The employers can replace them with fresh graduates who possess new specific sets of skills. Eventually and inevitably any specific sets of skills becomes obsolete.

Some people who oppose the academic managerial central planning model and were not familiar with Soviet history were misled by the use of jargon about production targets, corporate identity, line-managers, and so on to consider this model “neo-liberal” or “conservative.” But without a market, private universities, a pricing mechanism to fit supply with demand, and above all the creative destruction of failing universities, the managerial universities are Brezhnevian. As under Communism, the greatest achievement of the central planner is to confuse language sufficiently by Orwellian identifications between opposites to make criticism of the system linguistically impossible. It becomes impossible to criticize Communist central planning, if its hapless victims come to believe it is “market oriented” and “neo-liberal.”

The true market alternative may be inspired by the Estonian system of vouchers that students receive from the state to study anywhere (including abroad). If states privatize their higher education system, it will level the playing field allowing new and better universities to compete with the old and force universities to become more efficient and satisfy demand for high quality education. States can then subsidize the customer rather than the producer and let student choose what and how they want to study. Eventually, the trend would be for the best institutions to survive. If you had a voucher for your education, would you pay it to a university that dumbs down the quality of education and gains bad reputation consequently, even if it guarantees your graduation by forgery if necessary, or would you rather invest your voucher in a superior but demanding program, even if there is risk that some students would fail? You should decide, and not the central planners.

Aviezer Tucker

is the author of The Legacies of Totalitarianism (Cambridge University Press 2015), A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography (Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) and The Philosophy and Politics of Czech Dissidence: From Patocka to Havel (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 2000).

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