Tomusk Voldemar

The Blinding Darkness of the Enlightenment: Towards the understanding of post state-socialist higher education in Eastern Europe

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As we all well know, as a result of the World War II Europe was divided between the Soviet Union and Western Allies into zones of influence. According to the final settlement as it was agreed at the meetings in Tehran and Potsdam, the region that subsequently became the East Europe fell under the control of the Stalinist Soviet Union. In these days we often call the regimes that ruled in these countries ‘communist’. I find, however, this notion to be somewhat questionable as even the political establishment in the Soviet Union never claimed to have reached the ‘communism’, but only the ‘advanced socialism’ – the last step before communism. According to the Soviet doctrine, the East European ‘peoples’ democracies’ were at least another step behind that. In my work I follow the line of Elster, Offe and others who refer to these regimes as ‘state socialist’. I think that it is more accurate, and it offers a parallel with another totalitarian regime that ruled in Europe earlier last century, and to similarities between the two types of socialism – national socialism and state socialism which have only recently become a subject of study.

The nature of the state socialist regimes is still a matter of debate. Recently there have been attempts to romanticize the past re-writing the history, much like at the Orwell’s Truth Ministry. Discussing the nature of state-socialism I follow the argument recently made by Zizek from Slovenia, who argues that what the Marxists wanted to achieve was the capitalist production, but without capital. The Soviet experience clearly supports this view. Instead of capital and personal gain the Marxists-Leninists seemed to believe that the release of what they called the ‘proletariat class consciousness’ would lead to greater labor productivity. This never happened, but it would take too long to argue here why. The result was that instead of relying on free and creative work for achieving higher labor productivity, the
state-socialist regimes starting with the Soviet Union relied on massive forced labor in their attempts to modernize the countries. Consequently, as some modernization still happened in the less developed regions like Russia and Central Asia, much of the Central Europe was actually turned backward.

Through struggles and difficulties – uprisings in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland the state socialist system lost its legitimacy. Even the cheap natural resources from the Soviet Union could by 1980s no longer fill the gap between the economic efficiency of centrally planned slaveries and the living standard in western democracies, ideological war against the Western information sources proved to be increasingly inefficient, but also the local elites were getting to realize that a capitalist system would serve their strivings for personal benefit much better than total control over impoverished societies. By no wander – the final battle was lost without a shot. The blood that was eventually shed in Baku, Tbilisi, Vilnius and Riga was to avoid the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but it was already too late to reverse the dissolution of the last empire.

Following the political turn in East Europe massive reforms supported by a variety of international organizations began. The West was much concerned about the consequences of a possible power vacuum in the region, which combined with military strength established during the forty years of the cold war would well have lead to fatal consequences. Particularly, as one thinks about many of those newly and not so much countries reacting against the state-socialist regimes by returning to the roots of their national identity. The countries themselves, having to larger or lesser extent given up what Balcerowicz calls ‘the pure socialist output’ through the collapse of centrally planned economies, with the only possible exception of Slovenia did not have the resource to fund large scale social, economic, legal and institutional reforms that were needed to facilitate a peaceful transition from the totalitarian state-socialism to democratic market economy – as the target state is usually called.

Similarly to other areas reforms in higher education have been initiated with the help significant external financial and intellectual support. Initially, the goal looked rather clear – many voices called to dismantle East European higher education much in the way the centrally planned economic systems, communist parties and many other structures and institutions were dealt with. Higher education was said to have had corrupt itself with preaching the most vulgar forms of Marxism and compromised its integrity in exchange for symbols of wisdom fro the totalitarian states. As the existing higher education institutions were expected to be blown away by the winds of changes large number of new, private higher education institutions emerged claiming to provide higher education at the highest ‘international standards’.

Soon, however, the things started to change, and while today we see the monopoly of the traditional higher education institutions being restored to a significant extent, the current study is probably a first attempt made to indicate that East European higher education reform is far more complicated a process than privatizing the inefficient industrial plants. Comparing the evidence gathered from various countries with the ‘official knowledge’ as constructed by governmental and international agencies it demonstrates a significant gap between the two. On the background there looms what one may consider the main fault of virtually all parties involved in the reforms – the lack of understanding how higher education relates to the society at large. It looks like despite its roots in dialectical materialism higher education in East Europe perceives itself as a disembodied Cartesian spirit, which has reached a full independence from its material body. This is particularly true for some countries were higher education claim to have reached ever higher quality standards while having lost up to 90 per cent of the funding they had before. If this is true, one should certainly expect East European consultants making a fortune rescuing West European universities that are falling to the depths of entrepreneurialism, instead of the opposite movement that teaches East European universities how to earn money from businesses and industry. The problem which is not too often paid much attention to lies with the fact that the structure of the industry is not only different in East Europe, but often there is not much of industry left.

It is a general trend in higher education that as it has been rapidly growing over the past few decades, concerns have been raised about the share of public wealth spent on it and the possible inefficiency of that spending. Rather normal reaction to this has been the increasing role of technocrats in managing higher education systems. While this may have improved the efficiency of public spending, it has also contributed to the reduction of higher education to lists of skills and knowledge, which could be possibly transferred in a rather mechanical manner. Recent euphoria around distance education has nothing but supported the conviction that through the cables knowledge could be poured to the heads of the students. The rise of technocracy in Western higher education finds a sympathetic response in East Europe that started with massive social engineering much earlier. Social aspects of knowledge creation and transfer are often ignored. Most importantly, from the perspective of the current work, what is ignored is the role of the university to produce the symbols of knowledge and wisdom and the fact that those symbols have a critical importance for the legitimacy of any possible government. At the same, higher education itself relies on the State as one of its own major source of legitimacy. In a way, the need of legitimacy of both of the parties have created an almost vicious circle that often creates a foundation for the continuity that survives the tests of more violent uprisings than the largely peaceful East European revolutions.

What I see as being crucial for helping East European higher education to overcome the legitimacy crisis without any significant change in the content of their core activities is the fact that while there were dissident and other groups among the public who accused higher education for compromises, the members of the new political establishments too had to be furnished with the necessary symbols. With the exception of returning émigrés those symbols were produced locally, as a rule before 1989. That, of course made it extremely difficult for the States to initiate far reaching reforms. Presenting a need for this would among the others, question the elite’s own qualification for exercising the power. Examples from several countries indicate that the traditional higher education has not been shy capitalizing on this. We see how the traditional higher education has allied with the state on the fight against private higher education. In my work I demonstrate how under the disguise of quality assurance the content of higher education studies has often been frozen, and arbitrary standards have been imposed on the new segments. While I am not arguing that there is no fraud in private education my view is that the capacity of both – public and private sub-sectors to provide education at the level they are claiming to be doing is limited. The benefit of the public sector is, however, that its degrees are awarded on behalf of the states. The concern here is that eventually both may lose their legitimacy.

Talking about the changes in East European higher education we should, as mentioned above, remember the vicious circle of legitimacy generation and the difficult material conditions under which the systems operate. Given that, I would argue along with Elster, Offe, and others that in principle the options for institutional reforms are not infinite, but can be chosen only from among the few known. Given the iron curtain between the East and West, it seems to be obvious that what was meant in 1989 by Westernization was actually something different. While the academe presented its reform initiatives in terms of Westernization their actual aim was to restore the pre World War II models, usually developed under the influence of the Humboldtian ideals. It was, however, soon realized that as much as governments were unable to fund the restoration of the enlightened academic leisure of that scale, as little accepted the public any possible cuts in enrolments, particularly as its own sources of security had been compromised on a massive scale with the collapse of economies and subsequent privatization of state assets.

While East European academe accepted the multitude of different Westernization programs that followed, it did so halfheartedly, only as long as the European Commission, World Bank, Soros Foundation and other agencies made available funds that relieved the most desperate economic conditions. From the perspective of many academics the pre-1989 situation was infinitely better than the entrepreneurial model promoted by foreign consultants. With this a circle has been closed, and in many countries we see how the academia romanticizes the past, longing for the gone privileges like Jews in the desert for the garlic and meat pots of Egypt.

To this point my study supports the model developed by Elster, Offe and others, according to which the three possible targets of the institutional reform in the post state-socialist Eastern Europe are the distant past, West – in a broadest possible meaning of the term, and the recent past. However, external pressures and limitations do not allow the implementation neither the Humboldtian past nor copy any models from the developed liberal democracies. Restoration of the pre-1989 status that seems to be quite attractive to many in the academe is for obvious reasons impossible either. I argue that under the pressures which have largely been ignored by the policy analysts – local as well as external – much of East European higher education is moving towards the pattern that reminds some of the Latin American higher education systems, particularly that of Brazil. Because of the prejudice and political aspirations of East European governments discussing higher education policy in this context seems to be out of the question. This is to my understanding the main reason why there is a significant gap between the ‘official knowledge’ and the evidence one gathers in the field. Good part of the current reality looks just too bad to face it. Therefore evidence has been constructed by all possible means to demonstrate the reaching of ever-higher standards. However, one would expect that in the long term misinterpreting its real situation would most probably help East European higher education to survive no more than it helped the political regimes that ruled them a few years ago.