Russian ties speed economic flow

October 11, 2002

Universities revitalise local economies, providing jobs and bringing students and their cash to town. The THES reports on their impact worldwide

Freeing business to create wealth, jobs and regional economic development in Russia will never be easy, but in Saratov - a Volga River region with a reputation for avant-garde policies - strong links between industry and universities are aiding the process.

Saratov pioneered Russia's first law on innovation in business and industry five years ago.

Vazgen Atoyan, vice-rector and head of the department for science and innovation at Saratov State Technical University, admitted that Russia's political and economic environment complicated the task, but he said it was vital that universities reconfigure themselves as key components of the knowledge economy.

"Russia is beginning to consider the role of universities in society - it is imperative that we find a way to help universities improve their situation," Professor Atoyan said.

The technical university, founded in 1930, has always worked closely with the defence, chemical, electrical and engineering plants that cluster the city's southern reaches.

In 1991, it became one of the first of half-a-dozen universities to be given the status of "innovation centre" under a federal programme designed to apply commercial imperatives to scientific research.

Professor Atayon said that, today, some 150 of Russia's 600 state and private universities were engaged in some sort of institute-wide economic innovation.

While it is difficult to gauge the economic impact of this, or of any Russian university on its community in cash terms - inquiries about the turnover of university-linked enterprises are invariably answered with "that's a commercial secret" - the degree to which Saratov Tech is tied into the economy is clear from its associations.

More than 30 companies have been created under the aegis of the university's science park, Volga-Technique. A computer training centre that offers commercial courses in association with an Indian IT training company provides classes for more than 1,000 people a year. And a licence agreement with Canadian computer-animation company Toon Boom makes the university the first Russian franchisee for such software training.

The university's activities put it firmly in line with moves by the federal ministry, backed by President Vladimir Putin, to revolutionise Russian science and research towards economically useful ends.

But in a country of 140 million people where, despite growth of 8 per cent two years ago and predictions of about 4.5 per cent this year, the economy remains as large as that of the Netherlands, the difference universities can make remains a small part of the larger picture.

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