Students on verge of mass protests over reforms

Russia’s student community appears to be on the verge of mass protests, due to ongoing attacks on university autonomy and controversial reforms that could result in the closure or merging of nearly a third of higher education institutions, as well as new disciplinary measures.

A recent order has fuelled student anger. It is known as: “On the approval of the procedure for the introduction of disciplinary measures for students”.

Presented by the Ministry of Education and Science, the order allows students to be expelled from universities for the slightest violations of institutions' ‘codes of ethics’ and in particular for participation in political protests and actions – the number of which has risen dramatically in recent years.

The order has sparked sharp criticism among students.

According to the Russian Student Union, the order does not specify penalties for certain offences and does not regulate procedures for appealing against sanctions imposed. This means that any student “may be expelled for any offence”, according to a union statement.

Artyom Khromov, chair of the Russian Student Union, said the new order was damaging and created conditions for tyranny on the part of university administrations.

The union has sent a petition to the ministry, asking for grounds for expulsion to be clearly defined in the order and for student unions to be given a veto right to block expulsions by university administrations if the expulsions have nothing to do with the academic performance of students.

The ministry has responded to critics. Its spokesperson commented: “This is the general procedure for all educational institutions in Russia, including schools and kindergartens. As now, universities will be able to expel students for the reasons set by their statutes.

“The order was put up for public discussion in the past. At present, Russian universities do not expel students for participation in political actions.”

Still, Russian analysts believe the main purpose of the new law is to prevent student participation in political campaigns and protests.

According to Artem Dolgov, deputy head of the Russian Students’ Guild, the government is worried about student political activities, bearing in mind the past role played by student protestors in the political life of some European countries, such as France.

A source in the leading Institute of High Technologies said the new law created conditions for universities to abuse the rights of students.

And some Russian analysts have said the new order could return universities to Soviet realities, when students were commonly expelled for their political beliefs.

Student disquiet has been aggravated by dissatisfaction over reforms currently being carried out by the government, some of which could erode university autonomy.

Analysts believe a new surge of student protests could start with the beginning of the closure of so-called ‘inefficient’ universities, a list of which was recently prepared by the ministry.

A large student strike related to higher education restructuring took place recently, related to the inclusion on the ‘black list’ of the Russian State Trade and Economic University, a leading institution based in Moscow.

It is expected that the beginning of closures of universities, planned by the state to begin soon, may trigger a new wave of student protests across the country.