Major international rankings have historically overlooked Russian universities, and this has apparently galvanised the Putin government to move forward with what promises to be the country’s biggest shake-up of higher education in decades.
New legislation now before the State Duma aims to provide greater student choice over subjects of study and to dramatically reform how Russian universities are funded. More than three years in the making, one of the major thrusts of the education bill is to cut the number of higher education institutions, with the idea of winnowing the field down to a smaller number of better-funded universities that can more effectively compete on the world stage.
Under the bill, as many as 20% of Russia’s 600 universities and – up to 35% of their combined 1,400 campuses – could be shut down or forced to merge.
Dimitry Livanov, the Russian Minister of Education and Science, has ordered a review of the country’s universities. This process will evaluate institutions based on their admissions procedures, research and development programmes, and the competitiveness and employability of their graduates. The nationwide review is expected to conclude by the end of this year, at which point “inefficient universities and branches” will have been identified.
Based on these findings, the Ministry of Education and Science will prepare a plan for closures and mergers among the nation’s state universities. Closures are expected to take place over 2013 and 2014, leading to a consolidation of the remaining universities and the formation of major research and science centres.
Critics have been quick to question whether the reform bill can really address some of the underlying challenges that influence the quality of higher education in Russia, particularly the low pay of Russian academics (research reveals that professors in Canada and the US earn roughly 10 times the salaries of their Russian counterparts), a related challenge of corruption and bribery in matters of admissions and grades (which could spill over to impact the decision of which universities remain open and which are forced to close), and a relatively low priority among Russian academics to publish or translate their research into English.
This last point figures in the calculation of the international rankings the Russian leadership desires – such as the QS or THE rankings – in that those ranking schemes give considerable weight to international recognition of academic research and citations in peer-reviewed journals in particular.
Their impact on rankings aside, reforms of this scale will bear close watching in the years ahead. If they proceed as expected, these measures will have a material effect on the quality and capacity of the Russian higher education system. By extension, they will also have an impact on the strategies and prospects for international recruitment and international partnerships in Russia.