Less than a year after their coup, the Sovnarkom of the RSFSR abolished university entrance exams on August 2, 1918. The admissions process of 1918/19 was annulled and universities were ordered to open up to everybody, with no tests for subject knowledge or even literacy.
Thus came to an end one of the few unmitigated educational success stories of the Russian Empire, which at 127,000 students by 1913 constituted Europe’s largest national student body by far – as well as its most “diverse” (greater share of women and people of a common background than in England or Germany).
Subsequently, the Russian intelligentsia would be driven out of its own institutions (if not out of the country or into a hastily dug ditch), the student body replaced by Jews and affirmative action proles in the 1920s.
Here’s what Yuri Slezkine wrote on this in The Jewish Century:
The art historian A. Anisimov wrote to a colleague in Prague (in November 1923), “Out of 100 applicants to Moscow University, 78 are Jews; thus, if the Russian university is now in Prague, the Jewish one is in Moscow.” The father of a student about to be “purged” for alien origins wrote to a friend or relative in Serbia: “Pavel and his friends are awaiting their fate. But it’s clear that only the Jerusalem academics and the Communists, Party members generally, are going to stay.” And according to the wife of a Leningrad University professor, “in all the institutions, only workers and Israelites are admitted; the life of the intelligentsia is very hard.”
As it turns out, though, this wasn’t Russia’s first experiment with “open borders” higher education. It was predated by the Petrovsky Academy of Alexander II, which was opened in 1865 for the newly emancipated serfs. It was staffed with the best professors. Each individual course cost 5 rubles, while a year’s worth of education cost 25 rubles, though in practice most paid the former and enjoyed the latter since those rules were not strongly enforced.
Nice and well-intentioned as this project, unlike the Bolshevik one, was, it was not very successful, as its 1871 report made clear:
Most of the students, drawn by the freedom to access the academy without entrance exams, not having a clear view of what awaited them, and unaware of their lack of preparation to complete the courses, abandoned them after realizing their inability to cope with the material, having fruitlessly wasted their time on things that were beyond them. … The professors had to be aware of the level of their audience and tailor their lectures to them; they tried to do that as best they could, but there was still a gap to what they could feasibly do and the level of comprehension of their diverse mass of listeners.
By 1872, the Petrovsky Academy started requiring evidence of secondary school completion and passing an entrance exam.
As it turns out, either way, these “progressive” experiments in higher education don’t tend to end successfully.