RUSSIA: Student enrolments plummet

Russian higher education is experiencing a demographic crisis that could see the number of students fall from the current 7.5 million to four million over the next few years. A report released by Minister of Education Andrei Fursenko says the problem is not only in the quantity but also in the quality of students.

On the education ministry's evaluations, only 15% to 20% of young Russians enrol in domestic universities with the aim of obtaining knowledge. The rest are trying to avoid serving in the recruit army or earning a non-valued diploma that may assist in obtaining future employment.

In 2004, nearly 16 million students were in Russian secondary schools but by 2009, their numbers had fallen to 13.4 million. There was also a decrease over the five years in the number of secondary school leavers: from 1.39 million to 900,000 and, by 2012, the total is unlikely to exceed 730,000.

The government hopes the demographic crisis will be overcome because the number of first-grade pupils last year increased by 140,000 compared with 2007. By 2020, the number of students is expected to begin slowly rising again.

Head of the Russian State Social University Vasily Zhukov commented: "In 1985-87, the number of newborn in Russia was 2.5 million babies a year while in 1992, Russia faced depopulation when the birth rate did not exceed 1.5 million.

"Statistics show that up to 56% of newborn children become university students by the time they are 17 or 18. At present, the number of applicants to enrol in universities is two times lower compared with the figures of the 1980s."

Experts say the developed Western countries face the same demographic problems as Russia. But, in contrast to Russia, their demographic crisis is not so intense while the situation in Russia has been made worse by the fact that between 1990 and the early 2000s, the number of students in the country nearly doubled.

The reduction in the total number of students accepted by Russian universities was seen for the first time in the 2004-05 academic year, with the biggest falls occurring in private higher education institutions.

* Moscow-based Eugene Vorotnikov writes on higher education for magazines and newspapers.