RUSSIA: Universities face student shortage crisis

Russian universities face a shortage of students for state-funded places this year, due to the economic crisis and an emerging population hole which economists predict could lead to 100,000 university teachers losing their jobs by 2020.

Experts at the Russian Higher School of Economics (RHSE), Russia's leading specialist university for the social sciences, predict that more than half of private universities and regional branches of state universities could close over the next nine years, according to a report on Channel One, the country's main television station.

This year's admissions campaign has already ended, but the total number of state-funded places still unfilled is estimated at between 7,000 and 10,000 out of a total of 484,000. Analysts believe the student shortfall will be higher next year.

Sergei Fursenko, Minister of Education, said: "More than 100 universities are faced with a shortage of students this year. Among the worst-hit specialties are energy, metallurgy, transport and construction.

"The problem does not lie with low scores earned by applicants as the result of their single state exams, but a shortage of applications due to demographic problems."

The number of secondary school graduates in Russia has fallen from 1.2 million in 2006 to fewer than 800,000 this year, while the number of state-funded places in Russian universities has remained unchanged.

The RHSE experts predict that the biggest decline will occur during 2012-15, when the number of secondary school leavers will drop by a further 25%.

Irina Abankina, Director of the Institute for Educational Development at the RHSE, told University World News that the demographic problem is an enormous challenge for Russia's higher education system.

The number of school leavers is already down 30% on 10 years ago but, until now, the problem has mainly affected application rates at the country's regional universities, causing an ever-growing problem of lay-offs of academics.

"In some regions the situation is catastrophic," she said.

But this year the shortage of applicants is being felt nationwide and is affecting even Russia's leading universities.

According to Vladimir Vasilyev, Chairman of the Council of Rectors of St Petersburg, the number of applicants to universities in the city has been falling since 2005, with an annual reduction estimated at 8% to 9%. Most of the current applicants were born in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the birth rate fell sharply.

A similar situation has arisen in the far east of the country where, according to Anvir Fatkulin, President of the Far Eastern State Technical University - one of Russia's leading technical universities - the demographic crisis poses a serious threat to the future number of students and their skills level.

According to the Ministry of Education, there are no special measures that could solve the problem. It has already banned universities that faced a student shortage this year from additional intakes over the next few weeks.

Sources close to the ministry said there are plans only to adjust the number of state-funded places for those universities for 2012, to issue state orders to universities to fill quotas for much-needed specialities in Russia, and to provide incentives to attract applicants, such as high scholarship levels and employment assistance.

Irina Abankina warned that the predicted loss of 100,000 jobs may be too high, because accelerating investment in research activities will keep demand for staff high.