Higher ed in Russia: the international agenda takes centre stage

On the international stage, Russian higher education institutions have for many years been part of the supporting cast rather than a leading role. In the Soviet era, higher education in Russia was highly regarded worldwide, and Russian universities were the destination of choice for many students. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian higher education fell into something of a dormant state, and Russian engagement on the international higher education stage was minimal.

Recently, however, higher education in Russia is stepping forward and appears to be preparing to join the global stage. ICEF Monitor recently reported that Ireland sees STEM studies playing a key role in its reforms, and now we notice that Russia also plans to focus on this lucrative sector. Today we review a number of interesting developments afoot in the Russian Federation.

Beginning with Russia’s Academy of Sciences

In short, the government is taking matters into its own hands, despite resistance and protests from much of Russia’s academic community.

President Vladimir Putin has endorsed a bill on sweeping reforms to the Russian Academy of Sciences, which would put the 434 academy-affiliated institutions directly under government control. The bill was approved in the first reading by the lower house of the Russian parliament just yesterday. The final reading will take place in autumn, but it appears President Putin is growing tired of delays. He has been widely quoted as saying,

“… now we need to make a decision. Sometimes it is better to make a decision than to run around in circles.”

The actual academy (consisting of 1,246 members) will become something of a “scientists’ club.” Yesterday, the president suggested that “a new advisory council comprising world-famous scientists would join a newly created state agency in appointing the heads, overseeing research, and managing the assets of those 434 institutions.”

Under this bill, the academy would also be merged with two other state academies – for agriculture and medicine. If approved, it could pave the way for three other academies – for architecture, education and fine arts – to also be stripped of their autonomy and become directly state-run.

Last September, we reported that new legislation before the State Duma aims to dramatically reform how Russian universities are funded, which would result in the mergers or closures of as many as 20% of Russia’s 600 universities.

The Putin government seems keen to move forward with what promises to be the country’s biggest shake-up of higher education in decades.

The influence of rankings

A key motivator for this recent push to revamp and internationalise Russian higher education is its poor performance in international rankings.

Alexey Repik, of the Agency for Strategic Initiatives, has said the reforms and investments will “enhance the international reputation of Russian universities, which is essential to Russia’s plans for its leading national universities to enter the top 100 of international university rankings.”

One venture, if successful, may make a splash in the international university rankings: The Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology. As we reported in March, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has partnered with the Russian government to develop a world-class, high-tech school offering graduate degrees in the sciences and technology.

According to Bloomberg, Skoltech will be the “centrepiece of an RUB 85 billion (US $2.7 billion) innovation hub funded by the Russian Ministry of Finance.” MIT will design the curriculum, programmes will be taught in English, and researchers will be encouraged to publish in international peer-reviewed publications – all of which will be attractive to international students and rankings.

Challenges for foreigners

But as the Bloomberg article points out, “Since 1998, more than a dozen Russian scientists have been arrested, most of them engaged in collaborations with foreign academics.” Some Russian experts are expressing concern that Skoltech might not be given the academic freedom that needs to flourish in a STEM environment.

Collaborations between the Russian scholarly community and researchers abroad are at further risk due to a new law “requiring nongovernmental organisations to register as ‘foreign agents’ if they receive money from foreign sources and are found to be engaging in ‘political activity.’”

This new legislation, combined with the aforementioned reforms to the science community demonstrate clear examples of the state’s control over funding and administration for Russia’s education sector. Whether or not this create setbacks in the hunt for foreign talent, remains to be seen.

Enhancements at home

Meanwhile, Russia is taking steps to recruit international students, whose numbers are indeed growing.

Exact figures vary by source; the Russian Federation Federal State Statistics Service quotes the number of foreign students enroled in the 2011/12 academic year at 126,319. Meanwhile, the OECD offers higher numbers: 158,000 foreign university students in the Russian Federation, three times the number in 2000/01. They report that “most (over 75%) were nationals of other FSU (Former Soviet Union) countries (20% from Belarus, and 18% from Kazakhstan), and China led among the non-FSU countries, with 10,000 students.”

For a long time Russian higher education resisted change, which resulted in unfavourable conditions to recruiting international students. But lately, the Russian government has recognised that something has to be done.

Last year ICEF Monitor reported that Russian education authorities approved the recognition of 210 foreign university diplomas, which makes it easier for international students to study at a postgraduate level at Russian universities.

Earlier this year, the government announced a new higher education strategy that will see an investment of RUB 9 billion (US $270 million) going to 15 universities to be spent on upgrades and improvements.

Outdated and unfit student accommodation plagues many Russian universities, as well as old buildings and lack of a dedicated campus, all of which are deterrents to attracting international students. Investment on enhancements includes infrastructure, and a RUB 40 billion (US $1.3 billion) “injection of funds to develop campuses and student residences at national universities.” The goal is simple:

“The state wants the infrastructure of national universities to be comparable to that of the best Western higher education institutions.”

And finally, new proposals include “abolishing the existing system of quotas for admitting foreign students to Russian universities, providing employment assistance, eliminating administrative barriers associated with employing foreigners, and increasing the number of scholarships, whose amounts are currently below the living wage.”

India on the horizon

Russia has over 1,000 higher education institutions (both public and private) and many of them are looking for some kind of international engagement, whether that be partnerships, research or student recruitment – particularly from top sending countries.

It is estimated that India sends over 200,000 students to study outside its borders each year, and so it is little wonder Russian universities are keen to show Indian students just what they have to offer. In May the Russian Education Fair 2013 showcased some of Russia’s top universities to India’s students, hoping they will choose Russia over the US, UK or Australia as an education destination.

With the UK seeing its first-ever drop of international students from India (a dramatic 23.5% decline), and Australia experiencing a 24.5% decline of Indian students in the international education sector, the timing may be ripe for Russia to scoop up more Indian students. And as we reported just yesterday, the depreciating value of the rupee is pushing up costs in tier one destinations, making a degree in Russia look even more attractive.

Additional international ties

MIT isn’t the only foreign institution eyeing Russian higher education for partnership opportunities.

In April, three Dutch universities indicated their interest in exploring collaborations with Russian partners by signing MoUs during a visit by Dimitry Livanov, the Russian Minister of Education and Science. The University of Amsterdam, Maastricht University, and The Groningen University Medical Center cemented their relationship with ITMO University of St. Petersburg, Lobachevsky State University of Nizhniy Novgorod, and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology respectively.

Looking further afield, the Russian Ministry of Education has announced a significant partnership in Vietnam with the proposed development of a university of technology in Hanoi. Vietnam will cough up the estimated US $150 million it will cost to build the project, and Russia will be the academic sponsor. University World News reports:

“Russian involvement in the project includes providing textbooks and curricula, granting degrees, sending professors to Vietnam to deliver courses in Russian, and hosting Vietnamese students and faculty on internships and fellowships at top Russian universities.”

Finally, it’s not just the higher education sector that is reaching out. Liden & Denz, the oldest private Russian language institute in the country, is opening its first school outside of the country’s borders in January 2014 in Riga, Latvia.

As more Russian institutions engage with international partners, the internationalisation of higher education in the country will take shape. Their willingness to engage internationally, after years of quiet, will surely excite the interest of all major players.



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