Russian Language Blog

University system in Russia Posted by on Mar 13, 2014 in Russian for beginners

Education is a funny subject to talk about. One the one hand, it’s one of the first things we learn about in our first year or so. On the other hand, because the emphasis is usually on talking about our experiences as a student, we may never learn much about the educational system of the country/countries of the language. I know that was certainly the case when I started learning English. We learned sentences like “I’m a pupil of the third form. I’m on duty today,” which would have made little sense to someone in the US.

This blog has featured great detailed posts on studying and the spirit of collectivism in Russian universities. Today, I would like to concentrate on the higher education system in Russia. Granted, parts of it were “inherited” from the Soviet Union, so former Soviet republics may have similar systems, but there may also be considerable differences, so keep that in mind.

Types of Colleges

The most common institution of higher education (высшее учебное заведение, or вуз for short) is университет. Университет is a larger, diverse institution that offers many areas of study. By contrast, институт is a smaller institution specializing in one or a few related subjects. The degrees (степени) conferred by both are identical, although an университет is more likely to offer advanced degrees. By the way, колледж is not the same as the English word “college” — it refers to a vocational school where people go after the 9th grade to get a среднее профессиональное образование (literally, middle professional education, something like an Associate’s degree in the US). Колледжи teach both vocations and more professional occupations like design or programming, whereas техникумы are solely vocational schools.

University Structure

A вуз is subdivided into факультеты (schools). I don’t like using the word “department” for it because факультет plays a somewhat different role. Basically, when you apply (поступать – to apply; поступить – to get accepted — what an elegant use of the perfective!) to a university in Russia, you apply to a specific факультет, which has its own faculty, programs of study, and often separate premises.

Once in school, you take classes (посещать занятия) at the different кафедры. These are the chairs, or departments, within the факультет. They are responsible for different fields of study — English, history, mathematics, and so on. A student typically takes classes offered by different кафедры.

Study Process

A занятие (class) can be a лекция (lecture), where the instructor presents a topic, or a семинар (seminar), which is more interactive. Other forms are also possible, such as a коллоквиум (colloquium). The different subjects of study are предметы, and your major is специальность. An instructor is called преподаватель. Note that the word учитель is reserved for grade school teachers, and the word профессор is reserved for those holding a doctorate.

Russian students study in группы, or cohorts. That means your schedule is fixed and you go to all your classes together with the same group of people. The exception is electives (предметы по выбору or факультативы), where you may break out into different groups. All the people in the same year as you are collectively called поток, so you can say “У нас сто человек на потоке” (There are 100 people in my class/year).

Degrees Conferred

Russia used to have a three-tier higher education system, where most people would study for five years to get their диплом (diploma/degree) специалиста. To become a специалист (literally, specialist) you need to research and defend a дипломная работа (graduation paper). The second tier is the 3-year аспирантура, where one pursues the кандидат наук degree (Candidate of Sciences). A graduate student of аспирантура is called аспирант. Finally, докторантура is where one pursues the доктор наук (Doctor of Science) degree. It is research-based and takes about 5 years.

Recently, Russia’s been making the transition to the bachelor/master system in accordance with the Bologna Process (Болонский процесс). So, it is now possible to become a бакалавр or магистр. Graduate school for a Master’s degree is called магистратура.

I would especially like to hear from those of our readers who studies in Russia or the neighboring countries or visited them as an exchange student. What was your experience like? Did you get a диплом? What предметы did you study?

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available in English on her website and Twitter and in Russian on Telegram.


  1. Eric:

    Hi Maria,

    As a Russian immigrant to the states, how well did your education credentials transfer? Did you find that employers recognized your degrees? Did you pursue more schooling here? Do you have a career that transcends the national boundaries and language differences?

    I wonder how well immigrants from Russia do in regards to work, especially young immigrants like yourself. I know that it can be hard for an immigrant to live in a new society and have passions within that culture.

    Feel free to email! I would like to discuss this at more length if possible.


    • Maria:

      @Eric Hi Eric,
      Thank you for your comment. Credit transfer and recognition is often challenging because there is no one-to-one equivalence between Russian degrees and diplomas and those in the US. For instance, the traditional Russian system uses total class hours as opposed to credit hours. So unless you have the new style bachelor’s, you need to have your degree evaluated. Some US schools do it internally, while others outsource to credit evaluation agencies.
      Some people get their specialist degree evaluated as a 5-year Master’s. I got an MA from a US university, so my specialist degree more than satisfied the prerequisites.

  2. pahi smith:

    This is same like an Indian university education system. I think here types of colleges and structure is must checked by education department of Russian government. This is absence in Indian University education system. If you don’t noticed that point than almost same education system of both countries.