It is possible to enrol at a Russian university without sitting the Unified State Exam (USE) via a 'hybrid' vocational track originally created to encourage upward mobility of disadvantaged social groups. According to the authors of Slipping Past the Test: Heterogeneous Effects of Social Education in the Context of Inconsistent Selection Mechanisms in Higher Education, this pathway to university is also frequently used as a strategic option by students from upper-class families . These individuals constitute almost 40% of those entering university via a vocational track.
The most significant educational reform to have occurred in Russia in the past twenty years, the Unified State Exam, was introduced to ensure equal opportunities for accessing higher education. However, as is often the case, this rule has an exception: many Russians enrol at universities by bypassing the USE. Leaving secondary school after the 9th grade for a vocational programme makes it possible in many instances to apply for university upon completion of the vocational course and to enrol based on an internal exam or an agreement between the vocational college and the university. Although rarely possible at top universities, this pathway is fundamentally less risky and used by one out of ten Russian students.
Traditionally, a distinction is made between two main educational tracks: academic and vocational. In the Russian context, the academic track means staying in secondary school after the 9th grade, sitting the USE after the 10th grade and enrolling at a university after the 11th grade. The vocational track means enrolling in a vocational school or college after the 9th or 11th grade. The academic track is more popular today, with more than half of all secondary school students going to the 10th grade, and most of those who make it to the 11th grade enrolling at a university. The vocational track is also popular: at least one third of all students leave secondary school after the 9th grade for VET (vocational education and training).
Using data from the Trajectories in Education and Careers Russian panel study, it has been established that the choice of pathway after the 9th grade is the most important one for most Russian school students in terms of education and career-related consequences, and that this choice tends to be class-specific. While most young people from upper-class families choose the academic track, students from lower-income, less privileged families are far more likely to opt for vocational training. This has important implications for their future, with university graduates enjoying better career prospects and overall quality of life.
Statistical data reveals a pattern of inequality, well-known to education and labour market researchers and practitioners worldwide: children of well-educated upper-class families are more likely to obtain a good education and achieve career success while their peers from less advantaged families tend to have a much harder time and fewer opportunities. Although the education system is expected to compensate for the inequalities and create equal opportunities for people from all walks of life, in practice it does not always live up to the challenge and often exacerbates existing inequalities instead of ruling them out.
Many researchers suggest that rigid institutional tracking may be a key factor perpetuating social inequalities, in cases where the education system requires that students choose an academic or vocational track at a relatively early age and then makes it difficult or virtually impossible to change it later. In terms of promoting equality, an obvious disadvantage of this system is that at such a young age, many students are unable to make such important life choices concerning their interests and ambitions; therefore, it is usually up to the family to make this decision. Countries such as Switzerland and Germany have implemented rigid educational tracking, while Russia's educational system is considered more flexible, allowing students to switch tracks later on, although with some difficulty.
The main remedy against rigid institutional tracking available in Russia is the ‘hybrid’ option of choosing the VET track after the 9th grade and then enrolling at a university. This pathway allows children from less advantaged backgrounds to access higher education – a highly unlikely outcome should they attempt to score high enough in the USE to enrol after the 11th grade. But does this social mobility pathway always work as intended?
According to the study, it does – to an extent. On average, students from underprivileged families tend to use it more often, and for many this is the only option for accessing higher education. However, some youngsters from upper-class families also benefit from this option if, for some reason, they don’t expect to do well enough in the USE to enrol at a university after the 11th grade. Some 40% of those using this bypass manoeuvre are students from well-off families. In choosing this option, academic achievement is rarely a determining factor for students from disadvantaged families but plays an essential role for their more privileged peers. Highly educated parents tend to make a more accurate assessment of their child's chances at the USE and respond pre-emptively by choosing a low-risk strategy – but only if the chances of preparing well for the exit exam are indeed slim. Otherwise, they still prefer to remain on the academic track.
Lessons learned from education reforms worldwide indicate that such targeted measures designed to support disadvantaged students are likely to be used as a strategic option by those who are not part of this target group.