Government mounts attack on university autonomy

The Russian government is considering a radical shift in the management of national universities, in an attempt to strengthen their research potential and Russian science. But there are fears that the move will erode university autonomy.

During the Soviet era the Russian National Academy of Sciences was the centre of research activity in Russia, and the role of universities in academic life was limited to training specialists for various industries.

However, in recent years the position of the academy in Russian science has weakened, forcing the government to think about alternative ways to develop research.

Under changes hailed by the Ministry of Education and Science, and in particular Minister Dmitry Livanov, national universities will become the new centres of research in Russia in the next decade.

This is expected to happen after university reforms are completed and up to 20% of institutions are closed. There are plans to cut one in five of Russia’s 600 universities and 30% to 35% of its more than 1,400 university branches that are identified as inefficient by a state commission.

The Russian government makes no secret of its plans to rely in future on university research instead of the academy, which according to some officials has an outdated structure and needs to be modernised.

According to the government, under current conditions universities can become more competitive research centres than the academy, and their research activities can generate income.

But one of the major obstacles, which the ministry has said is preventing the transformation of national universities, is their inefficient management structure, which needs to be improved.

“All Russian universities should be headed by the new, business-oriented professionals. We are thinking about how to make our higher education practical, tailored to the needs of employers and the labour market,” Livanov commented.

“There is a need to attract employers and the public into the management structure of universities and to create new models of university management."

As part of these plans, the ministry is to start appointing university presidents, instead of the current practice of rectors being elected by university staff.

The election of presidents has already been abolished at a number of leading universities, in particular Moscow State University and St Petersburg State University, whose presidents are currently appointed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It is possible that this practice will soon be applied to other leading universities, which regularly receive funds from the state budget. The government is already appointing the presidents of federal universities.

Another management shift in universities will be the age of presidents and other key managers, who will retire on a pension at the age of 70.

The government plans have been criticised by many student and academics, who believe the attack on university autonomy is an attempt by the state to gain control over institutions’ considerable resources, clamp down on student protests and give good jobs to members of the political elite.

Yasen Zasursky, head of the faculty of journalism at Moscow State University, described the new system as inefficient.

“Russian universities have a long tradition of democratic election of their presidents…In my opinion, it is a useful practice and should be retained in other universities, as Moscow University has lost it. In this case, democracy is very helpful, especially since it corresponds to the academic tradition,” Zasursky commented.

The idea of appointing university presidents was first raised by Andrei Fursenko, a former education minister.

At the time it was proposed that university presidents should be well-known scientists, and especially members of the Russian National Academy of Sciences. But due to the government’s displeasure at the performance of the academy, this seems unlikely, causing concern among some experts that new presidents selected will be people close to the government.