RUSSIA: 'No plans to take over as rector' - Fursenko

Education Minister Andrei Fursenko has dismissed rumours that he plans to step down and take over as rector of Moscow State University. In a wide ranging interview with respected daily broadsheet Kommersant, Fursenko said the job should go to a better qualified - and younger -candidate. The current incumbent, Viktor Sadovnichy, is technically obliged to step down when he reaches 75 later this year.

"The position of the rector of the Moscow State University is very honourable and responsible, but I exclude myself from the possibility [of taking up that post]," Fursenko said. The demands on the head of Russia's top university were many and a suitable candidate would need to have the experience to satisfy a wide range of constituencies - educational, governmental, academic and civic, he said.

"It seems to me that such problems could be offered someone from the academic environment - and someone younger than me," Fursenko, who turns 60 in July, added.
A physicist and mathematician who has been Russia's top educational official since the March 2004 reforms that created the Ministry of Education and Science, Fursenko denied the economic crisis - which has prompted widespread job losses and unprecedented public demonstrations in Russia in recent weeks - was having a severe adverse impact on the university sector.

"It is not really pertinent to talk of victims," Fursenko said. "We have been compelled to reduce our appetites. In comparison with last year, the increase in the budget for education and science this year is not as much as we would have liked - we received an 8.5% increase, some 30 billion roubles [just under US$1 billion]."

Academic and school staff retraining had been unaffected with a government budget line of $1.5 billion spent through employment services and competitive grants to training institutions.

The budget for fundamental research had increased by US$15 million - compared with an increase last year of around US $90 million. That meant some new innovative projects had been put on hold, although key 'energy effectiveness' research projects were being ring-fenced as they were considered a priority, the minister said.

Plans to support the development of new national research universities - a sort of publicly funded Ivy League for Russia - were going ahead, although a wholesale reconstruction of 10-15 new, high-status universities might not take the form originally envisaged.

The government planned to spend around $90 million launching the new network this year, with a further $60 million allocated to each institution for the coming five years. But tight finances meant that sticking to the original plan could devalue the status of a research university.

"There is no money and I am not sure that there is the need [to completely rebuild each university]," Fursenko said. "Universities are not only brick and mortar. There will be decisions on the creation of new campuses - the decision has already been taken for the island campuses of the Far East federal university, Kazan university is preparing and it has been accepted that the [Sochi Winter 2014] Olympic village and its sports facilities will become the base for a powerful new university cluster."

Moscow State University's position within the network of new higher status universities had not yet been approved. But Fursenko said its future as a "unique high school" with its own government budget line was not under threat. St Petersburg University was also considered a keystone in Russia's higher education system.

"Neither Moscow State nor St Petersburg have any problems with applications for [state supported student] places or fee-paid places. They participate in all ministry programmes - not only educational but scientific research. Besides, the position of some of the graduates of these institutes [in Russian society] is sufficient that these two institutions feel confident," he said.

On issues that average university students face, the cost of studying and access to maintenance grants and other living costs, the ministry was committed to underwriting the costs of a government-backed loans scheme. But it has not considered interfering directly to influence the prices universities charged for those (roughly 50%) of students who fail to win government-backed 'budget' places and had to pay for their own studies.

Although it was true that President Dmitry Medvedev had recently warned universities that price regulations might be the answer to inflation in course fees, Fursenko described it as "an appeal from the country's First Person" but said detailed decisions would be left to individual institutions.

"The high school has the right to set its own prices - and that includes state [as well as commercial] universities. But institutions should consider their competitive position," Fursenko said.