New minister signals change for Russian higher education

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Russia’s newly appointed Minister of Education and Science has announced a review of the landmark Project 5-100
  • The Minister has also suspended a wide-ranging programme of mergers among Russian universities, and has announced plans for curricula reform as well as a new mandatory Russian-language exam for foreign students

Russia has a new Minister of Education and Science and she sees change ahead for the country’s universities. Appointed to the post in August, Olga Vasilyeva replaces the previous minister, Dmitry Livanov, who has been reassigned as trade envoy to Ukraine.

Ms Vasilyeva made headlines early in her tenure when she indicated in a 28 September briefing that the government would move to suspend mergers among Russian universities, a prominent initiative of her predecessor, and could also introduce changes to the landmark Project 5-100.

The project brings significant additional funding to a group of 21 universities, with the express goal of placing five Russian institutions among the world’s top 100 universities by the year 2020. It aims to do so by strengthening each institution, increasing research activity, and accelerating internationalisation efforts through increased student mobility, scholarly collaboration, and joint programmes with partners abroad. The programme is reportedly operating with a budget allocation of 60.5 billion rubles (US$973 million) for the period 2013-2017.

Project 5-100 is part of a much broader effort to consolidate Russian higher education and to re-target the country’s public spending in the sector. The government has moved to close a number of lower-quality institutions, and to encourage the merger of others, reportedly affecting as many as a hundred universities in 2015 alone.

Not all mergers have gone smoothly, however, and Russian officials have had pushback from some university administrators. Thus the Minister’s September announcement that, “We are currently suspending any further consolidations of Russian universities for an indefinite period of time.”

In a further indication of the financial pressures at work on the Russian system, Ms Vasilyeva added, “As part of these plans, there is a possibility of the revision of the Project 5-100. The programme involves huge investments in the development of certain local universities; however there is a big question, whether these funds will be repaid. The budget should be spent very carefully.”

At the time, the Minister’s comments gave rise to concerns that the government may be backing away from the considerable financial commitments associated with Project 5-100. Speaking to Times Higher Education on 17 October, Tagir Aushev, vice-rector for research and strategic development at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, said that the project had “triggered deep internal transformations in the universities.” Dr Aushev credits the project with encouraging a new university culture in Russia, complete with a renewed focus on science and internationalisation. “Suspending this project would be a serious step backwards,” he added.

Others saw the Minister’s announcement as part of a normal transition of power at the top of a major ministry. Speaking to University World News, Professor Maxim Khomyakov, vice-president for international affairs at Ural Federal University said, “I think that this is a normal desire of the new minister to investigate if the money has been spent effectively. Of course there is a question on how you would measure the effectiveness in the case of such a complex programme as 5-100. But the very desire is perfectly understandable.”

ITMO University Rector Vladimir Vasilyev agreed, noting that it is normal practice for government to review such projects: “In essence, we’ve just gone through the first stage of a most serious transformation of our country’s leading universities, and now our colleagues are assessing these results and working out new plans. This doesn’t mean any changes to the project as a whole.”

Commitment at the highest levels

These sentiments were borne out by Minister Vasilyeva’s further comments at a General Meeting of the Global Universities Association (GUA) in Moscow on 19 October. (The GUA is an association of the now-21 universities participating in Project 5-100, and it functions largely as a coordinating and networking body.)

This year’s General Meeting occurred three years after the launch of Project 5-100, and more or less marks the midpoint of the project. It was also an opportunity for GUA members to reflect on their progress so far, including that:

  • Five Russian universities – the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, ITMO University, Novosibirsk State University, the Higher School of Economics, and National Research Nuclear University – made their first-ever entry into the top 100 of selected subject rankings in both the QS and THE global tables.
  • Another five institutions – Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University, Kazan Federal University, Tomsk Polytechnic University, Tomsk State University, and Ural Federal University – placed among the top 300 institutions in global rankings.
  • GUA members also recorded a 60% increase in foreign student enrolment between 2012 and 2015.

Participating institutions proposed a new goal for Project 5-100 during the General Meeting: that at least one Russian university be ranked among the top 100 institutions in all global subject rankings by 2025. An important reference point for this goal is that, currently, Russian universities factor in the top 100 in only 14 of 42 QS subject rankings.

Also notable during the meeting was Minister Vasilyeva’s assurance that Project 5-100 remains a key priority for the Russian government, and that the project will continue. This is perhaps not surprising given the high-level support for Project 5-100 expressed both by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin. But it is nevertheless an important indication of ongoing support at a time when there is considerable budgetary pressure across government departments.

The Minister has indicated as well her intention to spur curricula reform in higher education, placing a greater emphasis on areas of high labor market demand, and also to introduce a mandatory Russian-language exam for foreign students.

For additional background on Project 5-100 and student mobility to and from Russia, please see “Russia making moves for both inbound and outbound students“, “Russia moving to expand international student recruitment”, and “From the field: The international recruitment outlook for Russian universities”.



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