Recent decisions of the government in education present only half-measures that will not ensure success in the long term. The new minister will have to take this into account.

The government’s decrease of federal funding of the state universities may block the social lift that enabled talented youth to study for free. Photo: Kirill Lagutko

On Aug. 19, the Russian government replaced the unpopular Minister of Education and Science, Dmitry Livanov, with Olga Vasilieva, who started her career as a teacher and has worked in the Russian Academy of Sciences. Most recently, Vasilieva worked in the Presidential Administration. Some experts raise eyebrows at her appointment and describe her as a conservative and a strong advocate of patriotic and religious education. So what can be expected from this latest government shakeup?

Vasilieva has already stated that her primary objective will be to reassess the experience and knowledge that the country acquired over its long history and implement the May decrees of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Adopted after the inauguration of Vladimir Putin in 2012, the May decrees sought to increase efficiency of Russia’s educational system and improve the positions of the Russian universities in the global educational rankings.

This news comes during the ongoing heated debate about the reduction of government financing of education in Russia. On July 29, during a budget meeting run by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the government proposed freezing general budget spending in 2017–2019 to the level of 15.8 trillion rubles ($247.7 billion, according to current exchange rates) per year.

According to the Russian media, as a consequence of such a freeze, the state program “Development of Education,” which was underfinanced last year, would be cut by another 11.5 percent. Thus, the proportion of spending on education in the federal budget would fall below its level of 2003, a bottom that was not reached even in the worst years of previous crises.

Source: National Research University – Higher School of Economics, RBC

However, there is nothing unusual about the reduction in financing, especially taking into account the general budget cuts. More extraordinary (at least, taking into account global practices) is the intention of the Russia’s Ministry of Education and Science (Minobrnauki) to dismiss 8,300 research workers by 2019.

This includes dismissing 1,500 employees of the Kurchatov Institute — a research center prominent not only in Moscow but also in Russia as a whole. The Kurchatov Institute employs 5,000 researchers, whose achievements have won global recognition. Most recently, this institute was granted the status of a technopark on Aug. 11. A wave of layoffs will also hit the institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the faculty of state universities.

One can hardly expect a rational approach to education when the Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, does not seem sympathetic to the plight of higher education. Responding to the question, “Why is it that teachers earn 15 thousand rubles while law enforcement officers earn several times more?” Medvedev said that those dissatisfied with their teacher earnings could simply go into business.

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Of course, the law enforcement structures are important for the security of the citizens, but quality education is the only proper tool for growing a new generation of people who are not burdened with Soviet and perestroika-era ideas about the rules of market organization, society and state power.

It is worth noting that Minobrnauki’s plans only involve the state universities, that is, simply the educational institutions that are under complete control by the government. This is important because the status of private education in the nation is still somewhat doubtful. In Moscow alone, these private higher institutions include the Institute of Modern Academic Education, the High School of Privatization and Entrepreneurship, and the Institute of Tobacco Industry.

A more detailed analysis of the situation with state universities shows that their number is approximately the same today as in 1991. True, in the mid-2000s their number reached 650-660, but due to optimization of the industry, this trend stopped, and in the current decade the number of state higher institutions has been falling steadily. Outside the new initiative by Minobrnauki, there are 360 private universities, which have accounted for the main part of the increase since the formation of the Russian Federation.

Source: Russian Federal State Statistics Service

During the period from 1990-2015, the number of students in the country’s universities increased in an asymmetric manner. However, as with the number of higher education institutions, this quantity reflects quite consistently the changing economic realities.

The number of students in the state universities started falling in the 2009-2010 academic year, parallel to the onset of the economic crisis in Russia. Over the period of 2009-2015, the number of students fell by 37 percent in the state universities and by 46 percent in the private ones.

The government’s decrease of federal funding of the state universities will serve only one purpose — blocking the social lift that previously enabled talented youth from less privileged families to study for free.

Already in 2012, Minister of Education and Science Dmitry Livanov declared his intention to reduce the number of students that study at the cost of the state. The minister talked about “cutting the number of budget-funded places in half along with increasing the financing of the remaining places.” If the ministry were concerned about raising the quality of education through cutting the number of students it would also take measures to limit the number of “contract students.”

If a 40 percent reduction of the budget-funded places is adopted, the universities will respond in a predictable way: by filling the places with students that study on a contract basis. As practice shows, this does not at all mean a turnaround toward higher-quality education — the opposite is more likely.

Source: Russian Federal State Statistics Service

Reduction of budget-funded places in Russian universities is impossible unless the Federal Law “On Education in the Russian Federation” is changed. According to Article 100.2 of this law, the state guarantees that it will provide budget-funded places for “at least 800 students per 10,000 residents of the Russian Federation at the age of 17 to 30 years.”

Often the argument is made that restrictive measures in Russia’s education system are necessary in order to implement the May decrees issued by President Vladimir Putin. However, this sliding along the “cut and add” axis does not help in any way to move in the only right direction — towards more in-depth education. Anyway, Putin’s May decrees cannot be considered as successfully implemented, either.

For example, Putin’s decree titled “Building Social Justice. Social Policy for Russia” published on Feb. 13, 2012 in the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda provides for the raising of university professors’ and lecturers’ salaries to 200 percent of the average in a given federal district by 2018. In Moscow, where average wages exceeded 60 thousand rubles ($937) per month in 2015, it is practically impossible to grant a salary of 120 thousand rubles ($1,875) to the staff in over 90 state universities.

There are some other deficiencies with regard to the President’s May decrees. Thus, the set target of raising the internal expenditures on research and development to 1.77 percent of GDP by 2015 was not attained. The Federal State Statistics Service has not yet published its reports for 2015, but in 2014 that indicator was only 1.09 percent.

Some observers justly point out disparities that exist in the Russian education system. For example, in 2000s there were more doctors of science in the North Caucasian Federal District than in St. Petersburg. The great number of sham research papers, academic journals and conferences produced by the Russian education community is also alarming. Already by the mid-2000s, there were five times more doctors of science in Russia than 40 years ago in the Soviet Union.

Still, the only way to address these negative trends is to tighten control over the educational sphere. It is counterproductive for the country as a whole if the level of education is so focused only on Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Most state universities in these cities can compete with European and Asian ones. They are approaching Western standards in terms of the ratio of the number of faculty members to the number of students and possess a pool of qualified staff as well as an untapped potential for improving their positions in the international ratings produced by Shanghai University, QS, and the Russian rating agencies.

The universities in the Russian provinces, though, appear to lack attractive prospects for talented Russians to study there.

Eliminating the gap between the center and the provinces should become a primary objective for the Russian government. First and foremost, it is vitally important to fight corruption, which has become even more urgent against the background of the increase of salaries for the academic staff.

It is also necessary to create a proper environment that will help to prevent any member of the faculty from writing a dissertation for a student as well as eradicating any “gift-giving” to the senior management of a university.

The main thing is to ensure that the depth and thoroughness of the supervision is uniform across the country. This does not require cuts, but means additional investments in the economy in order to make universities in province more attractive.

The situation with science is quite similar: Such measures as cutting expenses, dismissing staff, or dissolving research groups will not raise the quality of science, but will rather push talented Russians to leave the country due to the lack of prospects at home. This was the case throughout the 1990s.

Limiting the number of budget-funded places without limiting the number of “contract” ones, as well as cutting the financing of the state universities without placing private ones under more scrupulous control — these are just half-measures doomed to fail. To reform the education sector in Russia successfully, one needs to assess its existing potential first.

Experts often cite the example of Germany, which has been gradually giving up on the idea of free higher education. However, they forget to mention that Germany can substitute for the lack of specialists by attracting those from other EU states due to the guaranteed freedom of labor movement.

The Russian economy, facing Western sanctions, an economic recession, and high inflation, is likely to find it very hard to attract high-skilled workers to the positions that are not fully filled by the graduates of Russian universities. That is why it may be best to postpone the “privatization” of Russian higher education until a more favorable time.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.