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Dossier : Pressions sur l'enseignement supérieur au Nord et au Sud

On the Possibility of Life after Limbo: A Commentary on Knowledge, Institutions and Society in Eastern Europe Since the Demise of Communism

Sur la possibilité d’une vie au delà des limbes. Commentaire sur le savoir, les institutions et la société en Europe de l’Est depuis l’effondrement du communisme
Voldemar Tomusk
p. 37-67


In this article an attempt is being made to place post-communist higher education in broader social, economic and political contexts. It is argued that contrary to popular views that relate the expansion of higher education enrolment to growing knowledge intensive sectors of the economy, mass higher education functions in the region as low-cost buffer of social tensions caused by the economic restructuring and instability. It is argued that significant continuities exist between the communist and post-communist societies, perpetuated in particular by the social institutions produced and reproduced in higher education. As long as these institutions remain primarily symbols and ceremonies devoid of academic and professional substance, higher living standards in the new economy of Eastern Europe will not be reached.

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1Despite the fairly significant body of writings of the past fifteen years on higher education reforms in the countries of post-communist transition, ranging from doctoral dissertations and research reports to political pamphlets and statements of wishful thinking, it is deeply ironic that knowledge on the related processes remains scarce and the meaning, if any of it is being found at all, is seen in highly simplistic terms of replacing the abnormal and unnatural (communism) with the normal and natural (capitalism). While one can understand the reasoning of those who see an opportunity to bring western normalcy to the sub- or abnormals in the east, both the scale of the reforms and the understanding gained, remain disproportionately limited in comparison with the money spent and the volume of reports produced (Tomusk 2002). The reasons for such a dissatisfactory state of affairs are several, ranging from linguistic and cultural divides to the working regime in the consultants’ institutions, the marginality of higher education consultancy and research within the academic community, and the political and economic interests of both donors recipients of assistance to higher education reform projects. All of that, however, does not justify studying and reforming higher education separately from the broader social, cultural, political and economic processes, although this has become the norm of the day. The limited competence and experience consultants and grantmasters prevents us from addressing the most significant and intellectually interesting questions to which the post-communist developments could possibly offer insights to, for example the role of higher education in sustaining or eroding the power of communism and capitalism or the multiple and complex connections between knowledge, education and economy. Instead, one sees unsubstantiated orthodoxies being mobilized behind narrow group interests.

2In this paper I will discuss some of the above issues in an attempt to relate higher education reforms and their limits to broader institutional contexts and economic changes. It has been my deliberate choice to ignore the editorial policy of this volume to publish original empirical research. Instead, given the material already potentially available to the reader, I thought that drawing a broader picture at this point, some fifteen years later, would be more interesting to the reader than the statistics from publications such as the reports by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD – OECD 1999, 2000, 2001a, 2001b, 2002, 2003a, 2003b, 2004a, 2004b). From amongst several reasons for not pursuing such an approach two should be highlighted. First, in countries that suffer as a rule from a lack of well established bureaucracies, the data provided to OECD and other international agencies often contain a large margin of error, reaching as high as 20 % in some cases. That renders detailed analysis of such data meaningless. Moreover, because of rapid changes, the 1999 data from one country cannot be compared with data from another country published in 2002. To give just one simple example, the higher education student population doubled in the Russian Federation between 1999 and 2005, but because the Russian birthrates crashed hard from 1990, the overall student population of 2010 is unlikely to exceed that of 1999. Moreover, the growth of the student population between 1995 and 2005 does not relate to booming knowledge economy in Russia, as the wishful expert would like to see it, but to massive poverty and the war in Chechnya driving the male population to higher education in order to avoid the draft (Tomusk 2004a). Under such circumstances how to compare countries like Russia, Romania and Slovenia in any meaningful manner remains an open question.

3Secondly, as Central East European countries have been aiming at collecting memberships in different European and international structures with an ultimate goal of ‘winning the Grand Prix’ – full membership in the European Union – reports are often censored in order to meet the expectations of these structures and organizations and the standards they represent. The recent race for inclusion in the Bologna Process (creating the European Higher Education Area) has certainly influenced the reports on the state of affairs in higher education (see Carter 2006, on the situation in the FYR of Macedonia, and Tomusk 2006b, in Russia).

4This article is based on a number of letters I have written on related issues since the early 1990s as well as an authored book (Tomusk 2004b) and another, edited volume (Tomusk 2006a). Much of that work includes an element of critical discussion of the official knowledge and politicized reporting on the state of affairs in higher education. My own interpretation of the reform discourse and data come from my daily work for over a decade as an administrator of a twenty million USD worth of program portfolio annually covering the entire post-communist region – a job that includes both visiting universities on a regular basis as well as negotiating with academics and with those who oversee their wellbeing.


5It was at around the time the Velvet, Singing, but also (though that part has often been omitted in the public memory) some rather Bloody anti-communist revolutions took place in Europe in the late 1980s, that not a fully enlightened Hegelian thinker Francis Fukuyama took the authority, which he apparently did not have, mobilized his prophetic faculties, which proved to be wanting, and announced in the magazine ‘The National Interest’ the closure of history:

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” (Fukuyama 1989).

6What Fukuyama’s statement refers to is the founding of steady state societies where technocrats work for the gradual improvement of mankind’s quality of life – that is the materialists’ version of heaven on earth. Although Fukuyama celebrates the end of communism, the promise this entails remains the same as what the Bolsheviks in Russia had offered some three quarters of a century earlier.

7As the years have been passing by, it is becoming obvious that for the majority of East Europeans the paradise of consumer capitalism remains as out of reach as it has always been. Instead of the heaven of Scandinavian welfare that was expected by many to take over Eastern Europe within six to twelve months after toppling the communist regimes, what has followed could be seen in terms of a multiplicity of vicious circles – self-perpetuating poverty, ignorance multiplying itself and corruption undermining efforts in relieving the misery of those, that is the majority in the societies across the region, whose gains from the economic reforms so far remain negative. For many what was expected to become Paradiso turned into Limbo by means of an emerging class structure where once condemned to the bottom any move upwards is extremely difficult to achieve (see e.g. Szelényi 2002). Below I will take a further look at a few concerns central to the issues of reform versus involution – “an exaggerated version of its former self ” (Stark & Bruszt 1998), as related to higher learning in the societies in many of which living can be well described in terms of the outer circle of Hell. So let us follow the Poet:

“Let us descend now into the blind world,
Began the Poet, pallid utterly;
I will be first, and thou shalt second be” (Alighieri 1913).

Myths and Realities of the Post State-Socialist Economic Transition

8As many commentators, including the Harvard economist Janos Kornai (2005), argue, the relatively peaceful dissolution of the communist world-system constitutes one of the most significant events in the history of the 20th century. Its positive significance can be compared only with the failure of the Nazi regime to establish the Arian world system and its subsequent complete destruction as a result of World War II. What is, however, perceived as particularly positive about the manner in which communism in Europe fell was that instead of explosion and another world war, as many had feared for decades, the communist societies imploded under the weight of their own dysfunctionality. While the communist states performed better than average in controlling their citizens whom they, as Kolakowski (2005) suggests, owned, they failed in creating value. The argument that Gaddy and Ickes (1998) make for Russia that instead of creating value it destroys it, meaning that the value of the end product is lower than that of the energy and raw materials used to produce it, applies to the entire state-socialist system. On the ultimate balance sheet what these countries produced was worth less than the value of the resources wasted, the difference being covered from the cheap oil and gas imports from the Soviet Union. This is the way in which the dysfunctional economy of the Republic of Byelorussia is still kept alive in 2006.

9Early expectations for a quick turning-around of the centrally planned economies were high (Kornai 2005). It was widely assumed that while the satellite countries and territories annexed to the Soviet Union were in command of highly qualified and well disciplined labour force, the dysfunctionalities – low labour productivity, low standard of living, food shortages in some of the countries, lack of consumer goods, low quality of available products, etc. – were of external origin pretty much everywhere. Removing the control of the ‘communists’ was expected to lead to fast improvements, including attracting significant foreign investments:

“Hungary’s literate labor force, with training in science and mathematics relatively higher than in comparable developing countries, presents one of the major attractions, specially because it can be employed at wage levels lower than those in South Korea and Taiwan” (Stark & Bruzst 1998: 56).

10Within the time span of a few months or perhaps a year or two, the countries’ economies were expected to be reformed and highly productive welfare societies established. However, as early as in 1993, that is merely four years after the fall of communism in Central Europe, a Polish social psychologist Mira Marody laments:

“After a short period of enthusiasm which followed the collapse of the communist regimes in 1989, the East and West are facing each other with growing confusion and disappointment. Both the hopes of the East for a quick “return to Europe” and the expectations of the West for equally fast “occidentalization” of post-communist societies have not been fulfilled. Each side feels that they did their best and both are blaming each other for the failure” (Marody 1993: 853).

11She might repeat the same a dozen years later and still be correct in her judgement. Transition has been long and thorny even for countries in Central Europe, and there is still a long way to go to meet the goal of ‘catching-up with Europe’, ranging for the eight countries that joined the European Union in 2004 from 30 (Slovenia) to 74 (Poland) years (Kornai 2005). For the rest of the region – Romania, Albania, Balkans and former Soviet Union countries – the issue of achieving Western standards of living would rather be a 22nd century issue. As Kornai (ibid.) argues, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have traditionally been backward and despite the romantic views of some left-wing intellectuals, the years under communist rule made them nothing but more backward, the gap between per-capita GDP of Austria on the one side and Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary on the other being doubled between 1950 and 2000. When for example per capita GDP in Poland constituted 66 % of that in Austria in 1950, by 2000 it had fallen to a mere 36 % (Kornai 2005).

12The fact that eight of the formerly state-socialist countries (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) became full members of the European Union as of 1st of May 2004 might suggest that, at least in certain countries, significant progress has been made in catching-up with the developed economies. Much of the local political discourse confirms the same. The hard evidence, however, suggests the opposite. According to Csaba (2005) only one country (Poland) has to a small degree closed the gap that separates its level of GDP from that of the Western European economies. The rest of the new EU countries remain at the level close to that of 1989, meaning that in the context of low, though stable growth in the Eurozone, the gap between ‘East’ and ‘West’ has not closed but perhaps to some degree widened, even for the countries like Slovenia and Hungary. Relative stability in comparison to the 1989 level of GDP applies only to the most advanced countries in the East European region. In the outstanding part – the rest of former Yugolsavia, the former Soviet Union except the three Baltic states, Romania and Bulgaria – the picture is much darker. In many of those countries the GDP figure after fifteen years of economic reforms stands at the level between one third (Georgia) and two thirds (Russia) of the 1989 level, which in practical terms means extreme poverty for significant segments of the population – a situation in which not the quality of life but physical survival has become a major issue (Szelényi 2002; Tomusk 2004b).

13One may argue, and rightly so, that the GDP figures of 1989 and 2002 or 2005 are not comparable. First, because, although the 1989 figures indicated low levels of development, they were still exaggerated by the communist authorities. Second, because GDP figures also included the so-called “pure socialist output” (Balczerowics 1995) – the value of useless goods such as shoes that fell apart on the first day of wearing, TV sets that were to be taken from the shop to repairers, machinery that was moving permanently between the warehouse and the assembly line, being reported on every circle as a new assembled product but never put in use – and that the actual level of useful production was much lower than that reported. For both of these reasons the situation in 2005 might in some of the countries be somewhat better than it was in 1989. Still, this applies only to eight countries out of the thirty or so. For the rest, the slavery of communism has been replaced for the majority of the population by the “unfreedom” of poverty.

14Though the largest majority of the state-owned citizenry of state-socialist countries were poor according to the western standards, extreme poverty at the level that threatens physical survival had not been an issue since the 1950s. Rapid social stratification in the 1990s changed that (Mitev 2002). It is known that one third of the approximately 150 million strong population of the Russian Federation is living in extreme poverty. It is also known that a significant part of six million university students in that country cannot afford to buy one student canteen meal of a value of 1 USD a day (Tomusk 2004a). While under communist regimes these were the poor Gypsy children who received clothes from the schools, now in the Sofia University in Bulgaria allowances of 100 USD have been allocated to university professors for the purpose that they can appear adequately dressed before the class (Mitev 2002). While under communist regime poverty was a life cycle issue – economic difficulties were experienced by young families with several children and left behind with the children growing-up in the new capitalist economies poverty has become intergenerational. Children in the poor families have been excluded from access to high quality education and denied access to the vehicles of social mobility (ibid.). Despite the apparent success in dismantling the centrally planned economies, or thanks to it – as many of the big industries were closed as inefficient and employees laid off – even in the best developed former state-socialist countries significant segments of the population believe that through the reforms massive losses have been inflicted on them.

15This, however, does not mean that the reforms produced only losers. There are winners too. In an earlier study on post-communist reforms Eyal and colleagues (1998) suggest that in broad terms two models have emerged from these reforms: capitalism without capitalists and capitalists without capitalism, meaning that while countries in Central Europe such as Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic have created viable market economies without creating the capitalist class, in countries like Russia state assets have been privatized to new capitalists without creating viable market economies. While there may be a point to the latter part of the argument, the former does not necessarily constitute an adequate representation of the real situation. Massive privatization has taken place and given rise to groups of extremely rich individuals, though the process has often been somewhat more sophisticated than greedy individuals robbing the state in the manner similar to the infamous Russian oligarchs under president Yeltsin. Stark and Bruszt offer a formula widely applied in Central Europe, highlighting what Eyal and colleagues may mean by the notion of ‘capitalism without capitalists’: “Your company issues shares, mine issues shares; we buy each other’s plus those of a third, and we appoint each other (along with representatives of the commercial bank that lends credit and owns shares) to the boards of directors of the newly transformed enterprises. The result, critics argue, is not a shift to plan to market but a shift from plan to clan” (Stark & Bruszt 1998: 67).

16Obviously, the fact that clans of managers have taken control over banks and enterprises does not mean that there are no capitalists; equally it does not prevent a more or less successful transition to market economy. Neither, however, does it mean, although it has been widely believed in post state-socialist societies, that for a successfully functioning market economy the assets have to be privatized on a massive scale, if not entirely. One may argue that because of the ideological demoralization of the communists themselves up to the highest party ranks and the inability of the centrally planned economies to provide pleasures of consumption comparable to those seen in the TV serials like Dallas and the Dynasty, western fashion magazines and advertisements of food products, a simplified economic agenda has dominated the transition. While the systematic de-Communis tization of the societies similar to de-Nazification of Germany after World War II was never undertaken, many of the social institutions, including those of the doctoral degrees in historical and dialectical materialism and professorial qualifications in the same have carried their legitimacy over to ‘new’ societies in most of the cases except the former German Democratic Republic. The main issue of the reform thus being that of establishing a new ownership regime capable of offering a more efficient use of the existing resources and attracting, as Stark and Bruszt (1998) compellingly argue – direct foreign investments. The first decade after the revolutions sent the ethical and intellectual issues raised at the mass protests of the late 1980s to the backburner while economic issues – sharing the State productive assets among a few and condemning the rest on the border of economic survival – gained the highest priority.

17In countries like Hungary in the 1980s expectation for access to foreign cash flows played a critical role in softening the hearts and making up the minds of the communist leaders to consider reforming the statesocialist system (ibid.). By and large, their expectations have not been frustrated. The cost of the economic reforms has been successfully passed on to the lower levels of public servants, workers as well as all those who lost their jobs in the process of the restructuring of the industries that often led to closure of many plants and the laying-off of everybody except the top managers who then privatized the assets and entered into shady deals with the latter.

Institutional Continuity

18Despite the process of the dissolution of the state-socialist regimes being usually referred to as a revolution, significant continuities have carried over from the communist, totalitarian, centrally planned economies to the new, liberal democratic market economies. The range of the continuities extends from a simple historical fact that the political change was usually negotiated on the floor of the undemocratically appointed communist legislature – even the Estonian decision to break away from the Soviet Union in August 1991 was made by a Moscow puppet legislature called the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic – all the way to the process of privatization of state assets through which access to insider knowledge was highly rewarded and former social capital, for example networks of senior industrial managers, transformed into ownership of productive assets. Jean Baudrillard (1994) more than anybody else has captured the meaning of the end of communism by declaring: “A communism which dissolves itself is a successful communism”.

19By virtue of having dissolved itself from within, communism has been able to dictate the terms on which it is to be judged or even to rule that the crimes committed under the banner of the world communist revolution are not to be judged at all, and therefore lay the grounds for institutional legitimacy and continuity. It would probably have been impossible for a former Nazi leader or a prominent Hitlerjugend activist to hold a high position, for example that of the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1960. However, fifteen years after the fall of communism high level Communist Party officials, leaders of the Communist youth organizations and senior officials of the Soviet and its puppet regimes serve as leaders of the recently established liberal democracies. Some of them, like the former editor of the daily newspaper of the communists in Estonia, even serving as the deputy head of the European Commission in Brussels.

20Given the level of continuity between communism and what Frydman and colleagues (1998) call ‘capitalism with comrade’s face’, one can only but marvel at the naiveté of critical intellectuals who, in early 1990s, called for the dissolution of entire communist higher education systems and established new universities that did not carry the shame of having brainwashed generations of students with the most vulgar forms of Marxism and collaborated with security services in controlling ideological soundness of knowledge, its producers and its recipients. Clearly, if nothing else, then at least the success of highly qualified communist cadres under the conditions of market economy constitute a significant source of legitimacy for the higher education systems, the red professoriate and the products they reproduce – higher education degrees and qualifications and also the roles that graduates assume.

21While many of the alumni of communist universities have been highly successful in liberal democracies which, if they had learned anything at all while students, they should passionately hate, the same level of success has not followed the academics. Clearly, academics belong among the losers in the reforms although, they together with many other professional groups, overestimated their own market value and harboured great expectations from the capitalist future. The limited knowledge communist academics had of universities in the free world originated from the rich countries’ best universities and that was the reality they expected to fall upon them reasonably soon after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Expectations, included, for example, low numbers of teaching hours, generous research funding, publishing opportunities internationally, travel to conferences and dining with Nobel Prize winners. This did not happen, but something entirely different followed instead, perhaps confirming once again that against the claims of the communist leaders for the extreme opposite, CEE countries were historically backward.

22As the centrally planned economies collapsed and their remains were privatized, governments lost access to the resources they could distribute in favour of the public sector. Claims for public sector funding grew, not only for education but also health care, unemployment, retirement, some parts of transport and communication. Higher education and research were often among the worst losers, as the immediate biological survival of large groups did not depend on it, allowing public funding to higher education and research to be cut to the extreme. That led to the ‘cooling out’ of faculty and staff, primarily the younger generation, to more dynamic and better qualified jobs in politics, private business or the newly created banking sector, or to continue academic career abroad. In the early years of the reforms, the Estonian academic research sector for example lost three quarters (that is 8,000) of its research staff, primarily through internal brain-drain; Russia lost approximately seventy thousand of its researchers as migrants to developed countries (Tomusk, 2004a). A recent study by Dezhina (2003) argues that for the ablest segment of youth in Russia a good advanced degree in natural sciences or engineering offers the best life opportunities, though not in Russia but as a ticket to a university or research centre in Western Europe or the United States. Even fifteen years after the reforms started and relative stability has been achieved, there is hardly a country in the region that spends more than one thousand Euros per university student per annum. For the majority of the student population public spending remains between forty Euro, as in Tajikistan, and three hundred in Russia, Romania and several other countries. This, however, means that the annual cost of a university student in the post-communist world constitutes only one to two per cent of the same figure in the most prosperous universities in developed countries (see e.g. Tomusk 2004b). The outcome of this situation is that while under communism access to information was limited and international travel restricted in order to protect the communist dogma from the contamination of ideas from the world that was apparently more productive, more efficient and free, largely the same restrictions continue fifteen years later for the reason that funds to pay for books, journals, conferences and travel are just not available.

23The other side of the post-communist predicament is that ironically enough, it is the post state-socialist poverty that has halted, though perhaps temporarily, the dissolution of the higher education sector. Poverty also continues to serve as another source of legitimacy for higher education that has compromised every possible principle of academic integrity and intellectual responsibility. Extreme insecurity among many population groups and lack of job opportunities have given rise to fast growing public demand for higher education. Total employment in comparison with that of 1989 for example ranges between 87,4 % in the Czech Republic and less than a miserable 70,1 % in Estonia (Kornai 2005), and this is the situation in the eight best performing countries of the region. At the same time we have seen the university student populations over fifteen years growing by the factor of five in Poland, four in Hungary and three in Russia (Tomusk, forthcoming). All of that is happening in the context of major cuts in public spendin. However, as the public often perceives higher education as one of the few possible means of access to mechanisms of social mobility, all available means are being mobilised to pay the legal or illegal fees impoverished universities are more than willing to collect for their own survival. This seems to have led to further deterioration of learning conditions and often deep corruption of the universities where cash provided by students allows professors not to teach and students not to study, but still stay alive and earn a degree. Such a situation though one may assume can only last temporarily. Sooner or later the public confidence in those degrees and qualifications will fall and the bubble burst (Tomusk 2001). Although on the margins of national higher education systems the elite higher education sub-sector shows signs of attempts to consolidate itself against the decline, the emptiness of the public purse and the poverty of the population diminishes such efforts to the effect that wealthy groups, instead of carrying the cost of supporting (through high fees) the restoration of high quality education locally prefer to send their children to foreign, particularly British, universities. While on the economic and political realms basic reforms have been declared as completed, it looks like in many countries that so far have been able to rely on the intellectual resources and infrastructure established before 1989, these resources have worn particularly thin by 2006 so that major changes can no longer be delayed. In the Russian Federation for example, Government seems to have reached a particularly unpopular consensus for the higher education circles to concentrate its support on a dozen or so universities of national importance and leave the outstanding fifty or so dozens of institutions for the cold winds of the marketplace to deal with.

The Quasi Market of Higher Education ‘Services’

24The position of higher education in the societies in which markets enjoy a great deal of prominence is a precarious one – faculty being caught in the middle of conflicting demands of poor governments and even poorer families turning the situation into a likely companion of that described by immortal Dante Alighieri.

25Despite the fact that higher education in Eastern Europe is extremely cheap, being funded significantly below the level of one thousand US dollars per student a year as recommended by the World Bank for the countries of sub-Saharan Africa (World Bank 2002), saving more on it still constitutes a significant policy imperative. Reducing the cost and increasing the efficiency of the public sector has been one of the key aims of World Bank lending to post-communist countries, including the reform of their higher education sectors. Laying off staff and merging institutions may perhaps help to economise the reasonably well funded universities in the rich countries. However, in the deeply impoverished universities where not only service staff but also junior and middle level faculty works for less than what survival-level unemployment benefits would be, the dynamics are entirely different. As we see from a recent study (Domanski 2002), in Eastern Europe many employed groups are as poor as the unemployed, meaning that working may not carry any economic benefit for the individual but perhaps only a moral reward and an expectation for improvement in the future. It is hard to see how under such conditions a competition-driven capitalist system – individuals competing against each other at the workplace to gain access to increasing consumption – could develop at all. For the groups occupying such positions at the level of economic survival the current situation is in economic terms worse than that of the communist slavery. In many places poverty may be far too overwhelming to harbour a hope for the protestant ethic to prevail over the communist lack of the same.

26After the productive assets had been privatized in the manner mentioned above to clan-members and oligarchs, the last possible resource available to the rest of the societies to prevent children falling into extreme poverty is higher education. That has created an enormous pressure on higher education in several ways. By using political means, the impoverished population all over the post-communist world is making very significant efforts to continuously let the politicians know that, while different policies on a variety issues can be tolerated, one issue that would bring almost any government down is the introduction of universal tuition fees in higher education. Higher education as the last hope for the children’s future seems to be a sacred issue where compromise does not seem to be possible. This, however, also means that as the public budgets have shrunk, the same policies condemn universities and their faculty into poverty. So far, however, governments as a rule have preferred angry and hungry academics to very angry masses. It may well be the case that no democratic regime can reduce access to higher education without falling itself. In case the Russian Federation after fifteen years of postponing radical reforms because of democratic resistance (see e.g. Subetto & Chekmarev 2003) finally succeeds in it, it may well demonstrate the extent to which Russia has changed under Mr. Putin’s leadership.

27While in popular politics, and here in qualitative terms the situation is largely the same for Hungary, Russia all the way to Central Asia, the idea of the introduction of tuition fees is not being tolerated, when the same issue arises in terms of a need to pay for one’s own child a few hundred Euro a year to gain access for him or her in a university or institute as a legal or, as it often happens, illegal, fee, for such a payment family resources are being mobilized and payments made. This has led to an ironic situation where although by the stipulation of the constitutional law or higher education act higher education is be to provided free of charge, at least half of the student population, and sometimes more than that, pays for their studies, creating multiple conflicts and areas of corruption. The funds collected from students, for the use of which proper mechanisms may not be in place, often constitute a half or even three quarters of the national higher education budget.

28As universities cannot or often do not want to report this money through its normal channels and accounts, interesting organizational forms have been created to allow space for paid ‘higher education services’ to be provided under conditions of governmental policy and commitment to free higher education. Such organizations are usually referred to as ‘private universities’, although they usually entertain little similarity with universities so far known in Europe. In the early 1990s, ‘private universities’ in countries like Romania that experienced the most rapid growth of the private higher education sector (see. e.g.Tomusk 2004b) filled all possible spaces from cinema halls to private apartments. Prof. Jaak Aaviksoo, the Rector of Tartu University in Estonia, a country of 1.5 million inhabitants and a host to some thirty private higher education institutions, delivers his critical judgment on the phenomenon in the way of a question: “Can an Estonian University [really] operate in a two-room flat, with a library consisting of two rolls of toilet paper, as our liberal legislation allows?” (Aaviksoo 2001, quoted in Tomusk 2003).

29While the so-called private universities fall often below any acceptable standard for the education they provide, one has to be aware that these institutions are symbiotically related to the public sector universities. The function of these ‘universities’ is to offer, if not a good educational experience than at least an educational service to students who otherwise would not have any hope at all. The faculty, however, is drawn on a part-time basis from public universities. These are the very same professors who constantly commute between two, three or four universities lecturing day in and day out in different outlets of higher education. Therefore to argue that private universities provide a low quality education is perhaps not correct. The matter may rather be that these are parasitic structures on other parasitical structures – public universities that by and large remain unreformed since the fall of communism and run rapidly out of even the little intellectual resource they had before, although the notion of a communist intellectual does not necessaril yimply a lesser conflict than fascist intellectual as suggested by Eagleton (2003). The way for the faculty to survive is to sell low-quality degrees legitimized by the mass demand and relative success of the former graduates, for a small fee to almost anybody who wishes to pick one up. Obviously, that can hardly allow social mobility to children from the poor families who choose such a way of higher learning. But more importantly, rapid expansion of the higher education sector by virtue of establishing lowquality or no-quality outlets has driven out the vocational education sector that could lead to employment, though usually not very highly rewarded. Against the arguments of those, usually academics, who seem to maintain that a PhD constitutes the peak of human evolution, expanding higher education in conditions of weak or declining economies may constitute a threat rather than an opportunity for the society as well as the individual.

Institutional Free-Riding

30In order to better understand mechanisms locking post state-socialist higher education at the lowest level of its possible epistemic existence we should take a further look at the ties between higher education and the institutional fabric of the society. We should pay attention to the manner in which universities by means of the myths and ceremonies legitimize degrees and qualifications as institutions, by the power of which individuals occupy positions of responsibility and privilege. Although technological and technocratic society is stressing on the narrowly cognitive functions of higher learning, perhaps not entirely independently of the interests of the academics to appear as socially useful, it cannot be ignored that universities produce and reproduce social order. We should not, therefore, see the degrees students receive through various outlets merely in terms of pieces of paper that allow access to somewhat better paid jobs than those who do not possess such certificates can claim access to. Neither should we see higher education degrees and qualifications merely as proxies to useful knowledge and skills to be applied for different kinds of jobs – the kind of understanding the World Bank and OECD tend to spread. The same reduction of higher education to underlying technical rationality prevails in the thinking guiding the process of creating the European Higher Education Area (see e.g. Tomusk 2006a).

31Instead, we should see higher education degrees and qualifications in terms of powerful social institutions that to a significant extent determine our cognitive map of the social world we inhabit. Under normal circumstances, that is in a relatively stable society, such institutions offer reliable reference to who is who in society, so that each and every morning we do not need to invent the entire world over and over again; for example making sure that Prof. N indeed knows x, y, and z and therefore deserves to be called a professor. Equally it is being assumed, and usually correctly so, that a degree from a prestigious university stands for certain knowledge, skills and competencies, but perhaps also with an equal importance refers to particular values, ideologies and social background of the degree holder (see e.g. Collins 1977), criteria an employer may have a great interest in, though may not necessarily wish to announce it in public. Institutional fabric, as it has been argued, constitutes a significant cognitive device on its own solving problems of all kind. As Douglas (1986) suggests, institutions think. Knowing which institution talks through a particular individual allows predicting the individual’s position on a particular matter. Douglas presents her argument in a rather dramatic manner: “The conclusion will be that individuals in crises do not make life and death decisions on their own. Who shall be saved and who shall die is settled by the institutions” (Douglas 1986: 4).

32Institutions function as entropy-reducing devices (ibid.) allowing significant cognitive economy by reducing solving a problem to clarifying the decision maker’s institutional position. As soon as the decision maker, individual or collective, determines which historically produced and ritually maintained institution talks through it, it has reached the solution. One can therefore assume that significant amount of particularly complex decision making is not ‘rational’. According to an argument by Herbert Simon, rational choice theory ‘attributes to the rational agent grotesquely unrealistic capacities for handling information’ (Simon 1955, 1979). Therefore problem solving is often not so much about thinking than giving up one’s individuality and tuning to the voice of the institution – be it President of the country, Supreme Court, Government or the Pope.

33Approaches taken by organizations such as the World Bank, OECD or European Commission, which by no means have been formulated without a contribution from certain schools of thinking in sociology, assume that the advance of the societies diminishes the role of institutions. One may assume that the issue of a massive need for additional information processing capacity such a society would require is meant to be tackled by means of increasing computational power. Beyond possible arguments against such computer-controlled camps of forced labor and consumption, it is likely that Simon’s argument remains valid even under the current capacity of computing as well as that of the foreseeable future. Douglas though argues that the development we experience in advanced societies is not that of disappearance of the institutions but increased institutionalization of practices to the degree that renders the institutions invisible: “The more complex the system of classification and the stronger the pressure to maintain it, the more social intercourse pretends to take place between disembodied spirits” (Douglas 1970: 80).

34Institutions are particularly useful for organizing organizations which are being perceived as legitimate because of the particular myths and ceremonies invested into them (remember for example the parade of hats and gowns from any doctoral degree ceremony):

“The growth of rationalized institutional structures in society makes formal organizations more common and more elaborate. Such institutions are myths, which make formal organizations both easier to create and more necessary… And because these building blocks are considered proper, adequate, rational and necessary, organizations must incorporate them to avoid illegitimacy. Thus, the myths built into rationalized institutional elements create the necessity, the opportunity, and the impulse to organize rationally, over and above pressures in this direction created by the need to manage proximate relational networks…” (Meyer & Rowan 1991: 45).

35Beyond extending mythical powers of institutions over individuals passing the rites and rituals of learning and turning them into media through which institutions express their ready-made solutions, graduates in modern societies are also expected to be capable of thinking. As complex societies cannot rely entirely on ready-made solutions, universities also face the task to equip their graduates with real rational problem solving capacities. In that sense institutions which higher education maintains carry a double meaning. Such institutions constitute a cognitive decision-making device in their own right as well as confirm that individuals brought under particular institutions have certain cognitive capacities on their own. My argument here is that as related to post-communist higher education, universities fail on both accounts. While the voice of communist institutions still passed on by the universities is increasingly inadequate for the purposes of changing societies, capacities to train for solving complex problems in the broadest possible meaning of the term, including those related to social and cultural analysis, have not been developed. The often heard complaint about difficulties of breaking down the ‘communist mentality’ should be understood precisely in that sense. There is no ‘homo sovieticus’ as some complain, but the institutions that continue to be reproduced largely irrelevant of changing societies. It is no longer the specter of communism that haunts Europe, but the lonely specter of communist institutions freely spreading answers to question long forgotten. So far no shortage of individuals has been experienced ready to lend their mouths to voice and hands to write messages, which sound sometimes like coming directly from the Central Committee.

36From the discussion so far it should be evident that we do not think that any significant amount of useful knowledge is being transferred behind the walls of post-communist universities or that students obtain any significant range of highly complex skills that the transforming, even less the transformed, societies need. Approaching the issue we should, therefore, agree that institutions can, for reasons of cognitive and institutional economics, survive despite the weakening of the connection between the assumed technical content of the institutions and symbols that represent them. As DiMaggio and Powell suggest, institutions which may often remain sub-optimal in their efficiency in purely technical terms still constitute as satisfactory entropy-reducing devices for the society: “Imperfect regimes survive nonetheless because of sunk costs, vested interests, and the difficulty of conceiving of alternatives make it sensible to maintain them” (DiMaggio & Powell 1991: 7).

37I am suggesting, however, that if one can assume any connection between institutions as myths and ceremonies and institutions as proxies to certain useful cognitive capacities, post-communist societies are full of sub-optimally efficient institutions that are not likely to succeed in creating competitive economies or organizing highly complex liberal-democratic societies. Growing public wealth, as Gellner (1994) suggests, is crucial to maintain a democratic order. Friedman, supporting the thesis adds more recently that the growth should also be broad-based and not only work for the benefit of a few (Friedman, 2005). Given that even communists were not able to protect their non-performing economies against dissatisfied masses, the non-performance of the post-communist economies renders the respective regimes considerably more vulnerable to nationalist, populist and extremist political agenda. Some of that we have already seen, and that has offered a fertile soil, amongst others, to old institutions to spread their roots and blossom.

38Being aware of the extremely important function of universities maintaining the institutional backbone of any modern society, there is perhaps a good reason to reflect upon the role and future of universities struggling for survival in conditions of the often-extreme poverty. Apparently, we have a somewhat ironic and possibly unstable situation at hand where the fountain of power – the higher education sector (Kivinen & Ahola 1999) – staggers on the brink of survival. Poverty has to a significant degree kept the knowledge base universities rely on at the level of the late communist period and not always even that. A report from Estonia for example suggests that the first decade of post-communist reforms failed bringing any positive change in the content of higher education: “A young [person] who enters the university finds with astonishment that’s he receives largely the same package as his/her high school teacher got 30 years earlier” (Maiste 1998, quoted in Tomusk 2003).

39On their very core, universities operate with knowledge they accumulated during the communist years. This is being taught by the remaining faculty to successive cohorts of students on the multiple sites. On the façade, however, some of that knowledge has been re-configured into new disciplines ranging from gender studies to business administration. As already mentioned above, that body of knowledge is being ‘sold’ through different old and new outlets that may give an impression of a variety of higher education institutions being created since the fall of communism. This is, however, only an illusory effect as these ‘universities’ do not contribute to creating new knowledge or offer the societies additional problemsolving capacity, but only provide shop-space where impoverished faculty from public universities can repeat their lectures and earn additional income, to students who by and large are not so much interested in studying but feel that without a higher education degree they will be left out of the race for a better life forever. Societies’ collective institutional resources are being exploited for the immediate private benefit of the faculty and administrators, and expected private benefit of the students, while the necessary investments into reproduction of these resources are missing.

40While many of the Governments as well as donor organizations take a degree of pride in having ‘democratized’ higher education in postcommunist countries – instead of the 8 to 20 % of the age cohort that continued for higher education studies in 1989, that figure now ranges between 30 % and 60 % – the institution of degrees and qualifications is clearly being inflated. Struggling transition societies do not offer the opportunities that would meet the graduates’ expectations, rendering gradually large sectors of higher education irrelevant in face of limited paths of social mobility. Under the emerging order, a master’s degree holder from the London School of Economics or a top US university may easily become an advisor to a Government Minister in Eastern Europe without any work previous experience anywhere, while a graduate from a local university with a formally equivalent degree becomes in the best case a rural school teacher with a wage close to the legal minimum.

41It seems to be the case that democratization of higher education without being able to invest into it will in a long term undermine societies’ expectations for higher education to open access to improved quality of life. Instead of renewing the technical content behind the institutionalized symbols of higher learning, the process epitomized by selling the old content from a variety of outlets can be best described as institutional free riding. Access to myths and ceremonies has been shamelessly exploited without investing into the adequacy of their content. University faculty and often also senior management have established alternative organizational structures that allow access to symbolic and institutional resources established under the former regime, offering the degrees on the marketplace on market terms. While that has enabled short-term stabilization of their own economic situation as individuals, in the long term this has contributed to weakening the related institutions, including those maintaining the academic profession. In the Russian news media one can, for example, find advertisements for doctoral studies that include receiving a ready doctoral thesis written by professors from leading Moscow universities. Professors are engaging in such practices despite understanding well that in the long term they are shooting themselves in the foot. Though, in conditions of poverty at the level of survival, the long term does no longer matter.

The Cargo-Cult Higher Education Reform

42Having followed this paper up to this point, a learned reader may face a somewhat intriguing question regarding the effect of all possible projects fostering and supporting higher education in transition societies, funded from a variety of sources – European Union, foreign governmental sources, private charitable foundations such as the Ford Foundation, the MacArthurs’ Foundation, Soros Foundation, funds lent by the World Bank, etc. One can estimate that the amount spent on higher education reform initiatives from foreign sources exceeds half a billion Euros. I would suggest that the impact this funding has made remains minimal. As I have discussed elsewhere (Tomusk, 2002), part of the reason for this is that a significant proportion of the funds has been spent on expensive services provided by the agency itself or its contractors so that the eventual cash flow may well turn out to be negative, that is – by accepting grants or loans with a matching funding requirement attached – a country may actually lose resources while the services commissioned under the pressure of a donor or lending agency from a service provider related to the latter may often prove to be irrelevant. The benefit a government agency receives by accepting such negative ‘aid’ is that it allows the spending of funds, which will eventually be paid off from the public purse without subjecting the details to normal public scrutiny. Funds can be written off as a payment of debts to the World Bank, without reporting the taxpayer as to whom and for what purpose the borrowed funds were paid in the first place. This allows making payments to individuals and firms that should for any possible reason be rewarded. As we see from the practices in countries like Russia or Romania (ibid.), a World Bank project budget is a classified document while the State budget is obviously not.

43Activities taking place under the cover of a higher education reform project often follow the pattern of Cargo Cult rituals known for example from the Melanesian islands (see e.g. Worsley 1957). As a Cargo poet A.P. Allan Natachee of Papua sings:

“Leave all your heathen rubbish and behold,
An atomic-age and restless man,

Has come from land unknown just to unfold,
Way of life not as child but as man” (quoted in Worsley 1957: 32).

44At the center of higher education reform projects usually stand Western consultants who spread rituals that are expected, like on the South Sea Islands, to make cargo to come out of the blue and fill the storehouses. Activities performed in East European universities after the departure of Western consultants known among Polish academics as the Marriott hotel brigade teaching the popular SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) method, quality assurance methods or perhaps syllabi writing easily compare to the episode known as the Vailala Madness on Papua New Guinea in 1920s. The following incident has been reported:

“Like the missionaries, the cult-leaders enjoined strict Sunday observance, and, in many villages, evening ‘school’, i.e. prayers led by cult-leaders, followed by reading aloud from books, and a nine o’clock curfew. ‘Reading’ by wholly illiterate natives was common in this movement; they would hold Bibles in their hands, often trembling and twitching the while. One man walked into a White man’s house smoking a cigarette, with the Gospel of Luke in his hand a pencil and paper, on which he made marks which he said were a ‘letter’. On being ordered out, he went to the village trade-store, where his behavior terrified the white woman in charge” (Worsley 1957: 87-88).

45One should not assume that East European university vice-rectors listening to and then repeating to each other lectures on management practices never tried in practice, such as for example strategic management is necessarily irrational. Although those methods themselves may prove to be useless, if not pointless in the context of higher education in any country (see e.g. Lillis 2005). It is well known that every such project includes an element for the purchase of information technology, so that performing the rituals makes cargo to land indeed. In addition to that, as a rule projects also include elements of ‘exchange of experience’ and ‘study visit’ which, though useless for the content, offer touristic opportunities as well as per diem funds. Most rewarded, however, are the ‘dynamic and reform-minded’ individuals – Rectors or Vice Rectors of major East European universities like Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia or Tartu University in Estonia – who are then trusted by Western agencies to spread the new rituals further. Being trusted the role of a High Priest of Cargo Cult Higher Education reform can make some real cargo to land in one’s backyard.

46The issue of applicability of ‘Western’ higher education management theories in Eastern Europe stems from the problem mentioned by Marody: “When dealing with apparently similar institutions in Western and postcommunist societies it is easy to assume the existence of similar attitudes, values, norms and patterns of behavior in the two populations. This tendency is reinforced by the perception of communist period in the history of East Europe as incidental and inconsequential for the societies that now, liberated from the constraints of communist system, can just turn to “normal” ways of social behavior” (Marody 1993: 853).

47The Western approach to East European higher education reform is based on the essentialist understanding of the university, a belief that it is sufficient to call two organizations by the same name to make them similar in their content and social function. This is certainly not a valid assumption. As we well know, a very significant part of the communist higher education was not about teaching but manipulation of knowledge and controlling individuals. As I argued above, significant renewal of the content of higher education studies has not taken place and higher education continues to perform a parasitic function on the society making promises for social mobility which are most likely not to be fulfilled. To apply management practices derived from traditional European universities in those outlets of knowledge and credentials is perhaps absurd. Although individuals involved in this on both sides behave entirely rationally. They all maximize their own benefit from it. It has, however, little impact on higher learning. As Baudrillard argues:

“Now, contrary to the apparent facts that suggest that all cultures are penetrable by West – that is, corruptible by the universal, it is the West which is eminently penetrable. The other cultures (including those of Eastern Europe), even when they give the impression of selling themselves, of prostituting themselves to material goods or Western ideologies, in fact remain impenetrable behind the mask of prostitution. They can be wiped physically or morally, but not penetrated” (Baudrillard 1994).

Future and the ‘Missing Middle’

48One of the forces that mobilized East European countries against the domination of the Soviet Union and its puppet regimes in 1980s, rebellion that was shortly followed by the national republics within the Soviet Union itself and eventually brought down the entire communist establishment was the belief that the Moscow regime exploited economically the member countries of COMECON as well its own more advanced republics, particularly those at the Baltic Sea as well as in Southern Caucasus. Each of these nations harbored its own nationalist movement and presumably had a highly qualified labor force exploited by the Soviet communists. Therefore breaking free from the domination of Moscow was expected to bring down the heavenly manna. This, as we have seen above, has not happened. There is every good reason to believe that while the Moscow regime controlled the communist nations politically and ideologically, it also paid a huge price for this by contributing cheap oil and gas to other dysfunctional economies and their demoralized labor force. It is not obvious who exploited whom under the COMECON system. The labor force, however, has proven to be far less qualified and more expensive to make the countries economically competitive. Higher education reforms, as those that have been run for fifteen years, have not contributed towards building a groundwork for knowledge intensive economies, though arguments to that effect are often being made. Neither have they contributed to raising the quality of the labor force. Instead, the reform movement has been feeding the expectations for everybody to become an overseer in a capitalist system with no learning and paying only a small fee, while the expansion of the higher education sector has also prevented the reform of the vocational education sector.

49Post-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe face the typical curse of middle-income countries. Following Garrett’s recent argument (Garrett 2004) these are the middle-income countries that are the losers in the process of economic globalization. While the rich countries cash in on the advanced knowledge and poor countries on cheap labor, middle income countries do not have the highly advanced knowledge to sell, but also their labor force is too expensive to compete against China or India, although some examples for the latter, for example opening a call center staffed with university graduates in Estonia, are available (see e.g. Tomusk forthcoming). The result of this process is continuing impoverishment of the middle-income countries and their moving closer to the low-income countries. Except for the eight new EU member countries, the rest of the postcommunist world is moving in that direction, but even for the eight the problems have not been solved entirely. However, as soon as the EU expands further to Romania, Bulgaria and possibly to Turkey and Ukraine, it will have its own low-income world within. What shape the new configuration of the former communist countries will take within the EU is not particularly obvious. But it is likely that Germany and Britain will not be able to provide all the rest with high income. Despite all the rhetoric to the opposite effect, the joining of the post-communist countries to the European structures has been driven by an expectation of a free ride to replace, if nothing else, the cheap Soviet energy supply with a flow of EU structural funds.

50We face a somewhat similar situation with regard to higher education except that countries like Russia, Ukraine, even Albania are already members of the European Higher Education Area. The latter project, carried by the intention to challenge the US higher education on the global markets of higher education goods and services, seems to have been compromised by admitting thousands of universities that obviously do not follow European values and meet its quality standards. Instead, their main motivation in many instances has been that of free-riding again – receiving a European ‘stamp’ for the degrees and qualifications and sell these at cheap rates to the students from third countries (see e.g. Tomusk 2006b). Out of solidarity, European Higher Education Area has accepted a millstone around its neck, which threatens to drown it, and one may wonder if this is not going to happen with the entire EU project.

51The majority of the post-communist world is living in a limbo where lack of economic growth feeds regressive politics and higher education serves the past rather than future. The expected cargo has not arrived despite the repeated rituals. From a theological point of view, there is no such thing as ‘after limbo’. Limbo is the final state and lasts by its very definition forever. This is about having lost access to salvation because of having not been able to hear the ‘Good News’. It is not our fault that we are here, though once here, one is to stay. Unless, perhaps we are being accepted to the European Union. But even in that case, as the experience from the German unification shows, transition will not be an easy one. One has to give up the communist idea of a free ride and accept the logic of capitalism to run the life in the name of higher levels of personal consumption. The logic of capitalism is simple – to borrow and spend one’s entire life earnings before receiving any of it, in confidence that eventually one will be able to pay the study loan, mortgage, car, etc., by the day he passes away. One has to admit that such a regime may turn out to be almost as disciplining as the Soviet security service, though appear at a first sight somewhat more humane. It reminds me of an anecdote involving a Russian cab driver in New York who one day picks up a Russian tourist. The latter then inquires about life in America. The taxi driver explains: “Look brother, it’s like living in a high security prison with improved food provision”. Michael Stewart, a former communist sympathizer himself has the following to say about the alternatives discussed in this paper:

“Both the radical and the liberal visions [of modernity] were of a flattened social and cultural landscape. Fifty years [after Weber and Simmel] later, postwar theories of mass or consumer society revived these ideas for boom-time capitalism, while in Eastern Europe official Communist ideology seemed to promote an analogous vision of modernity: the leveling of class, ethnic, and national differences to create a homogeneous and unitary society. At the same time, as if echoing Communist propaganda, Western Cold War mythology asserted that communism turned all its subjects into uniform little gray men” (Stewart 1997: 8).

52The problem we see in Eastern Europe is that the expectations of too many people for the fruits of consumer capitalism to arrive quickly have been frustrated to the extent that discourages starting running the race of capitalism. Instead, opportunities for a free ride are being sought for by the states, organizations and individuals alike. One of the sectors where this is most visible is the formerly privileged sector of higher education that has turned, except for a small number of exclusive islands, usually faculties and departments rather than entire universities, almost entirely parasitic. This, however, corrodes the societies further. As much as communism relied on faith of the participants and failed because of lack of it so does capitalism, although instead of ideological maturity of the population we now talk about consumer confidence. Without a well grounded hope for a better future already for this generation, a free-fall into the abyss of poverty as we see it taking place in many countries in the region large groups of population are being condemned to misery not experienced in Europe since World War II. Current equilibrium worked out between the transition societies and the sectors of higher learning do not necessarily allow universities to build the intellectual and professional capacities necessary for the functioning of free and knowledgeable societies. Instead, they have been attributed the unenviable function of buffering for the social and economic consequences of incompetence, injustice and corruption occurring during switching the societies from the communist mode of functioning to capitalism.

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Bibliographical reference

Voldemar Tomusk, “On the Possibility of Life after Limbo: A Commentary on Knowledge, Institutions and Society in Eastern Europe Since the Demise of Communism”Cahiers de la recherche sur l’éducation et les savoirs, 5 | 2006, 37-67.

Electronic reference

Voldemar Tomusk, “On the Possibility of Life after Limbo: A Commentary on Knowledge, Institutions and Society in Eastern Europe Since the Demise of Communism”Cahiers de la recherche sur l’éducation et les savoirs [Online], 5 | 2006, Online since 01 May 2012, connection on 26 January 2022. URL:

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About the author

Voldemar Tomusk

Deputy Director, Higher Education Support Program of the Open Society Institute, Budapest.

By this author

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    Au delà de l’« anarchie organisée ». Effets secondaires d’une politique européenne de “l’à peu près” dans l’enseignement supérieur
    Published in Cahiers de la recherche sur l’éducation et les savoirs, Hors-série n° 3 | 2011
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