Don’t write off Russia’s efforts to ascend the global rankings

Russia may still have no universities in the world’s top 100, but its 5-100 Project has made progress, says Philip Altbach

January 19, 2021
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Many critics of Russia’s 5-100 Project have declared it a failure since it has not fulfilled its defining aim of catapulting five Russian universities into the top 100 of the global university rankings. But as the Russian government discusses a new initiative to succeed the seven-year $2.3 billion (£1.7 billion) programme, it is worth pointing out that the excellence initiative has done much to meet its primary goals of encouraging internationalisation at the 21 selected universities and of transforming several of the top ones into globally competitive research institutions.

It is also worth bearing in mind that Russia’s complex history continues to haunt the current reality of its vast 724-institution-strong higher education system. During the Soviet period, higher education was harnessed for the needs of the state. Most of the multidisciplinary research universities were divided into smaller teaching-focused institutions serving specific industries and ministries in line with the country’s economic planning, while research was largely confined to separate institutes, managed by the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Unsurprisingly, the system became highly bureaucratic, and academic links to the rest of the world largely evaporated. Despite that, several universities and research institutes, especially in physics and mathematics, remained world-class, and there were significant accomplishments in fields related to the technical and military spheres.

Amid the post-Soviet economic and political chaos, however, universities and institutes lost much of their government funding. With few exceptions, standards collapsed, corruption flourished, infrastructure deteriorated and many academics and students took the novel opportunity to emigrate.

In the early 2000s, the Russian government began to address the corruption. The profoundly unmeritocratic student admission system was successfully replaced by a national exam-based one, and there was a crackdown on research institutes that were (possibly illegally) renting out space to private companies. Problems with corruption continue, however; recent reports of senior provincial politicians purchasing doctoral dissertations are an example.

As oil revenues and the revival of industry increased state resources, budgets for universities and what became the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) were significantly improved, and the ongoing teaching-research divide was addressed by designating 29 of the best universities – based on national competitions – National Research Universities, eligible for additional funding.

The government also provided guidance on modern academic management and supported the establishment of international labs within Russian universities, headed by prominent global researchers who spend time in Russia. Faculty salaries, which had dramatically deteriorated after 1991, were increased, and although they remained low by international standards, some prominent Russian émigré academics returned. As a result of all of these changes, academic productivity began to increase.

Then, in 2013, came the 5-100 programme. Perhaps most importantly, this signified that establishing world-class research-oriented universities in Russia was a key national goal. The funds allocated, averaging around 9 per cent of annual university budgets, were significant, even if not transformative, and were allocated on the basis of specific academic development plans – overturning a tradition of vague, unrealistic university planning. Implementation was carefully monitored, on which basis the most successful universities received additional funding, while others got less.

Seminars were organised to help university leaders and other key academic personnel to improve their management, enhance internationalisation and generate new ideas. These forums for discussing common problems allowed an atmosphere of friendly competition to develop.

Recent studies document that the effort and investment are paying off. The top universities may not have fulfilled the over-emphasised goal of entering the global top 100, but they have moved rapidly to join the ranks of key research universities worldwide, and several have done well in some of the subject rankings. Moreover, metrics indicate that more and better research is being produced not only at the 5-100 universities but also at the aspirant institutions that are seeking to improve their prestige and develop a research profile by benchmarking themselves against them.

Still, progress has been modest at around a third of 5-100 universities, with a few having tried to game the system rather than produce measurable results. And while a few have constructively involved RAS institutes, by and large the institute network remains mired in the Soviet past.

Moreover, the rest of Russia’s sprawling university system remains of rather low quality, especially outside Moscow and St Petersburg. This long tail of mediocrity is a common feature of many emerging economies, but it will be particularly difficult to address in a huge country that has weak institutions in many provincial areas and still has relatively few international links and collaborations. Yet the scale of the challenge must not be allowed to dissuade attempts to address it. In Russia, 73 per cent of high school graduates continue on to higher education; this huge reservoir of talent can only be effectively harnessed if their education meets international standards.

None of this is to say that top research universities are not also vitally important. If Russia wants to make significant research contributions and educate people for a sophisticated economy, it needs these, too. The 5-100 programme has been a good start in that direction. With careful thinking and appropriate resources, its next iteration will help Russia take further steps towards meeting its ambitious goals.

Philip G. Altbach is research professor and distinguished fellow in the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. He is a member of the 5-100 International Council.

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