RUSSIA: Demographic time bomb empties colleges

Russian universities and colleges are expecting a 30% slump in applications for next year and in some regions students may be accepted virtually without entrance examinations. A decline in the birth rate in the difficult decade of the 1990s, when the late President Boris Yeltsin introduced economic shock therapy, is starting to be felt now - with fewer young people.

The demographic problem is one of the key issues new President Dmitry Medvedev faces as, together with his new Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, he tries to transform Russia from a supplier of energy and raw materials to a fully developed, modern economy.

Ministry of Education and Science statistics show that 1.05 million young people will leave school this summer compared with 1.32 million in 2005. There are about one million places in first-year courses in institutions of higher education so for this year's school leavers only a small element of competition remains. But in 2009, the number of school leavers will fall to 930,000 and the year after to a mere 808,000.

Reporting on the issue, the newspaper Trud said the problem of filling places was compounded by the fact that the number of institutions of higher education had grown considerably since Soviet times. For a while, the extra colleges had achieved capacity with adults who missed out on their education in the Communist era or who had not had time to study in the turbulent 1990s. But this stream of people was also now drying up.

"Today's school leavers and their parents can draw two conclusions," the paper reported. "One is that in the near future, it will be easier to get into university or college. And the other is that the institutions of higher education will be competing more fiercely for potential entrants, both fee-paying students and those supported by the state."

The established, elite universities, such as Moscow State University, will obviously have a big advantage.

"Young people have come to us and to MGU, they still come and they will keep on coming because to study with us is prestigious," Lev Lyubimov, Rector of the State University Higher School of Economics, told Trud.

Even so, the paper noted, these top notch institutions were starting to offer new, more modern courses in an attempt to attract students. MGU, for example, was offering contemporary sociology, television studies and improved medical courses.

The regions will have a harder time competing for applicants. Trud quoted Alexander Korobtsov, director of studies at the Don State Technical University in Rostov-on Don, as saying: "Here, as in all the regional universities and colleges, we are expecting a significant lowering of competition."

A temptation in these times of population dip would be for the government to cut state support and for institutions of higher education to woo fee-payers at the expense of poorer students, Trud said. It noted that already nearly 60% of places at universities and colleges were for fee-paying students in a country which once boasted free education for all.

"We shouldn't cut the number of state supported places," argued Anatoly Vishnevsky, director of the Institute of Demography at the Higher School of Economics. "Universities and colleges are not kindergartens that can be closed and re-opened depending on the needs of a city district. If we do cut state support, then we should only do it very carefully because in a few years, we will be out of this demographic dip and there will again be more demand for student places."

Meanwhile, Vishnevsky suggested opening colleges up to young people from former Soviet republics, who at present mostly come to Russia as low-paid guest workers.

After former President Putin announced financial incentives for young mothers, there was a slight rise in the birth rate to just over one million in the first half of 2007 compared with 980,000 in the same period of 2006.