RUSSIA: Rector calls for sweeping reforms

The rector of Moscow's Higher School of Economics - one of Russia's top universities - has called for a massive shake up in the country's system of higher education. Yaroslav Kuzminov, (shown here at a conference on the right of Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin), says unrestricted growth of university-level institutions in recent years has left Russia's higher education system a mess with wide disparities in standards of teaching and qualifications.

Sweeping reforms including the amalgamation of the best state universities into "seven to 10 federal universities" and increased funding for science to create a core of high-quality research universities should be top of the Kremlin's agenda, Kuzminov says.

Weaknesses in Russia's primary and secondary schooling - which at 11 years is too short to prepare students adequately for the rigours of academic life - should be addressed by either increasing this period of education or by making higher education compulsory for all.

Applied technical degrees should take the place of vocational education courses for the more able but tertiary level vocational schools should be scrapped in favour of workplace training.

"In Russia today we are witnessing an absolute 'overproduction' of higher education institutes. The average HEI has 2,500 students. That means that approximately half HEIs and their branches should be amalgamated with larger institutions," Kuzminov told Russian newspaper Izvestia.

Too many institutions were attempting to teach university-level qualifications with inadequate resources and too few staff to cover the range and depth demanded of quality higher education, said Kuzminov, whose university is due this year to achieve the status of an autonomous federal education institute.

"A faculty should have at least 30 teachers," Kuzminov said. "But if you admit 20 students for the entire faculty you end up with one person teaching four subjects, skimming others' textbooks. That is the price we are paying for having small universities. Amalgamating universities is essential."

Kuzminov's passion for reform is reflected in his views on the key importance of research departments to top universities - as explained in December's UWN profile and feature on Isak Froumin, his deputy at the Higher School of Economics.

Official statistics that Kuzminov dubbed "simply terrifying" suggested nearly a third of Russia's approximately 650 state and 450 private universities had "perhaps just one researcher" and only 16% of Russia's 625,000 or so university teachers were engaged in research.

The answer was an unflinching policy to first "launch a campaign [of closures] against the branches and irrelevant faculties that have been created to 'fluff up' the market," and then rigorously categorise the remaining institutes.

Kuzminov proposed four categories: a top level group capable of becoming federal or research universities, a second tier of teaching universities rewarded with selective funding to help them aspire to research status; and a third tier "unfortunately the majority", of higher education colleges with no research component that "could be left as institutes, as [Russian Education Minister Andrei] Fursenko proposes, depriving them of the status of universities".

"By all means let these HEIs conduct academic and applied bachelor programmes but their best graduates can go to real universities for their masters," Kuzminov said.

As for the fourth level of institutes currently in Russia - those that consistently fail to meet acceptable standards - they "should simply cease to exist", Kuzminov said, although he added this could be achieved either by transferring their students to viable universities or amalgamating them with stronger institutions.

Tertiary level vocational training institutions should not feature in Russia's higher education system, Kuzminov thinks, dubbing them "an archaic system that "serve as a mechanism for negative social selection". Technical training should be managed through giving those who wish to take up skills training entitlement certificates redeemable at firms that offer training.

"There should be no more than seven to 10 federal universities, around 25 research universities and some 100 other universities, along with a few hundred institutes. Student numbers should not be reduced; higher education restructuring can be achieved through amalgamation of existing HEIs to crease multifaceted institutions of 15,000-30,000 students," Kuzminov told Izvestia.

Although forthright, Kuzminov's views are very much in keeping with current Kremlin thinking on restructuring Russian higher education to prepare it for the challenges of the 21st century. At a meeting of the ruling councils of the Siberian and Southern Federal Universities in April last year, shortly before he was inaugurated as president, Dmitry Medvedev lashed out at the sheer number of Russian universities.

"This number of universities - around a thousand universities and two thousand branches - exists nowhere else in the world. That may be over the top even for China. The consequences are clear - devaluation of the educational market," Medvedev said.