Putin puts higher education at the centre of economic development

President Vladimir Putin last Thursday put a better, more vigorous performance by Russian universities at the centre of a new drive for economic development.

In a state of the union address delivered to more than 1,000 top Kremlin and government officials and timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the country's first post-Soviet Constitution in 1993, he detailed the need for higher education to play a much stronger part in developing the economy.

Russian universities were urged to sell their services to foreign students, concentrating on those 'near abroad' countries of the CIS – Commonwealth of Independent States – where many people still speak Russian as a first or second language.

Educational centres offering tuition to enable foreign students to take the Unified State Entrance Exam – passing of which is a requirement for entering Russian universities – would increase the potential market, Putin suggested.

Universities and research institutes should also be more active in developing and registering patents and licences to take advantage of Russia's intellectual capital.

Drawing parallels with other countries internationally, Putin painted a poor picture of the low levels of exploitation of intellectual property in Russia.

He stressed the need to resume sustainable economic and labour productivity growth, stressing the importance of high quality education to this. A flexible labour market, favourable investment climate and modern technologies were all necessary.

“Together with the Russian Academy of Sciences, the government has been instructed to refine promising fields of science and technology,” Putin said, adding that a Russian National Council for Professional Qualifications should be set up within two years, tasked with approving a wide range of professional standards.

Salaries should be raised in the education sector "so that the work of teachers, professors and doctors becomes prestigious once again, and attracts strong university graduates", he added.

“Decent wages must not only reflect budgetary transfers, but rather reforms designed to improve spending efficiency and, most importantly, the quality of social services. We need people to see how our schools, universities, clinics and hospitals are changing for the better.”

Turning to the global economic crisis, Putin – who was on his feet for 70 minutes – candidly admitted that many of Russia's problems were internal.

"Of course we are experiencing the effects of the global crisis," he said. “But the main reasons for the slowdown are not external, but internal."

Russia's gross domestic product, a general measure of a country's economic performance, puts it in the top five economies worldwide. But in key productivity indicators Russia was "lagging behind the leading countries by a factor of two or three."

The answer was to invest in high quality vocational education and develop a flexible labour market, more favourable investment climate and modern technology, he said.

He told the government and Russian Academy of Sciences to do more to invest in "promising areas of science and technology" and to build on the newly established Russian Research Fund, which was designed to back basic research programmes with long-term viable implementation plans.

"Consider this work a national task," he added.

More must be done to exploit intellectual property: on average only one out of every 265 new scientific developments is developed to patent stage, the president said.

The value of Russian intellectual property accounted for less than 1% of annual GDP, compared with 12% in the United States, around 8% in Germany and 20% in neighbouring Finland.

"It's not just a little figure, it is tiny," Putin said. Technical researchers should focus on achieving concrete results, aimed at registering patents and licences for the practical implementation of Russian inventions and technological developments.

Domestic demand for hi-tech, Russian designed solutions should be encouraged, and clean, modern, eco-friendly technologies developed.

The quality of Russian higher education must be improved, Putin said. “Today, both in [Moscow and Saint Petersburg] and in many regions, higher education institutions do not meet modern requirements.”

Updating universities and ensuring courses met modern economic demands was essential, he added.

Exporting educational services, through attracting foreign students and distance learning, could be a "serious tool for strengthening the cultural and intellectual influence of Russia in the world".

Reaction to Putin's lengthy speech, albeit shorter than some of his annual addresses that have stretched beyond three hours, ranged from derisive on the microblog site Twitter – such as that from a user called A.Sh: "So boring. They could at least follow North Korea's example and arrest someone during the speech." – to a focus on more political aspects from most foreign press and news agencies.