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Russia begins to implement new higher education strategy

Last year, ICEF Monitor reported on Russia’s plans to dramatically rethink the funding and strategic orientation of its universities as a result of its absence on some of the most-watched world university rankings. At that time, it looked as though many universities would be shut down or forced to merge; this has yet to happen, but another part of Russia’s educational improvement plan has begun to be implemented:

15 universities will be selected by the end of the first quarter of 2013 to receive special state grants worth RUB 9 billion (US $270 million) in the initial phase of their disbursal.

The 15 universities will be chosen as a result of an independent audit of Russian universities to see how well they comply with the criteria of the top global rankings.

This audit will also allow the government to come up with requirements to which the 15 universities must adhere in order to receive the new funding. Here is University World News’ summary of the broad strokes of what the institutions will need to do:

“The 15 universities that will receive the special grants will have to upgrade their management teams and create conditions conducive to attracting top academics from leading Russian and foreign universities, as well as talented young professors, heads of scientific laboratories and famous scientists.

In addition, they will be required to implement joint educational programmes with Russian and foreign universities, as well as take part in research and development projects in cooperation with local and international high-tech companies.”

It remains to be seen whether the “conditions conducive to attracting top academics” will involve paying professors and lecturers more; Russia’s professors are notoriously underpaid compared to their peers in other countries. For example, a recent study found that in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), the average Indian professor’s entry-level salary is US $3,954 compared to US $433 for an academic just starting as a professor in Russia.

Leaders in Russia’s academic and scientific communities believe increasing salaries is crucial to the success of any revamping of the higher education system. Vladimir Belyaev, a political scientist and professor at Kazan State Technical University said of the current system,

“Universities do not have a fresh approach, due to extremely low salaries of their staff, which do not exceed RUB 12,000 (US $400) per month. Young scientists do not want to work for such money, which has resulted in a lack of progress in the Russian scientific community.”

It’s not just rankings that are at stake

Russia’s plans to improve the reputation of its university system are commonly understood to be a reaction to its exclusion on top-100 university rankings, but they are likely motivated as well by a broader requirement: to sit as an equal among the closely watched BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) as a knowledge economy and investment centre.

The BRIC countries are “distinguished from a host of other promising emerging markets by their demographic and economic potential to rank among the world’s largest and most influential economies in the 21st century,” but among them, various other factors differentiate their “performance” to date. For example:

  • China accounted for more than half of the BRIC countries’ share of world economic output between 2000 and 2008.
  • According to the 2011 World Competitiveness Yearbook, China now outranks the UK, Japan, France, and Italy for overall economic competitiveness, and India outranks Italy. China is also ranked second behind the US in terms of the size of its economy.
  • The share of global Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) destined to India more than doubled between 2005–7 and 2008–10, with India receiving a higher value of global FDI in 2008–10 than either Germany or Japan.
  • Russia rose from 11th position in The World Economic League Table in 2010 to 9th in 2011. In 2013, it is expected to start overtaking large Western European economies and is predicted to reach the 7th position by 2022. After a short volley, Brazil has fallen back behind the UK and is not expected to overtake the nation again until 2014.
  • China more than quadrupled its annual numbers of new university and college graduates between 1999 and 2009, while Brazil’s numbers of new graduates more than tripled over the same 10-year period.

As Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical office, notes in a 2012 publication, “The European Union and the BRIC Countries”:

“In the BRIC economies, the availability of a higher educated labour force appears to be crucial for further economic development. Although the BRICs have other strengths (relatively cheap labour, large internal markets, high levels of industrialisation, and, in the case of Russia, large reserves of natural resources), sustained growth in the medium and long term will, to a certain extent, depend on whether the countries can develop and use their human capital for the organisation and innovation required in modern societies.”

While China, Brazil, and India are all rushing to improve their knowledge economies, often via huge investments, in some ways they have more work cut out for them than Russia does.

“Russia… has a higher proportion of university and college graduates in its working age population than any other country studied – higher than Canada, Japan, or the United States …. [and] a greater proportion of researchers in its workforce than the Netherlands or Italy.”

Where Russia has fallen down in recent years is in allowing its scientific and research strengths to atrophy, according to a recent report called “Building Bricks: Exploring the Global Research and Innovation Impact of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Korea” by Thomson Reuters.

In addition to the new plan to invest heavily in the top Russian universities and whittle down the rest, the Russian government is also looking at specific, individual ventures to bolster the country’s reputation as a scientific research hub.

For instance, there is the Skolkovo Innovation Centre Project, a “modern science park” being built just outside of Moscow, devoted to developing “new space and telecom products, innovative medical equipment, biotech, clean energy and energy efficiency such as new LED lightbulbs, nuclear technologies and, of course, information technology.” The Skolkovo project has already drawn investment and/or partnerships from the likes of Microsoft, GE, and MIT, and is being billed as the next Silicon Valley.

While Russia is commonly touted as the giant among BRIC nations in terms of its wealth of raw materials (especially natural gas), it seems the country is also committed to reversing a decade at least of the neglect of its scientific and research reputation and assets. The announcement that 15 universities will receive special funding is just the start; the rest of 2013 will likely bring further news on Russia’s drive to build and strengthen its knowledge economy.

The Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology

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