Why Russia won’t rise fast up the global rankings

With the advent of Project 5-100, global university rankings have increased in importance in the Russian Federation. But while it is undeniably a good thing that there is a concerted effort to raise standards in Russian universities, there are a number of reasons why one should not expect them to show a rapid rise in the rankings.

There are, in fact, a number of structural reasons why Russian universities are likely to have trouble playing the rankings game. The key issue is scientific output and impact, which directly or indirectly – through indicators such as ‘reputation’ – account for the vast bulk of the scoring in all global excellence indicators.

As others have demonstrated, Russia has not been able to raise its output of articles over the last 20 years. This is perhaps not surprising: given the length and depth of the crisis in academic finance in the 1990s, it is perhaps more surprising that a significant downturn in output was avoided.

Yet the likelihood that Russian universities will be able to ramp up scientific output to the degree necessary to soar in the rankings is low for five key reasons, which are:

1. Concentration of money and talent in academies

To a degree unknown in most other countries, scientific talent in the Russian Federation is based outside universities. Among the five Russian-based scientists listed in the Thomson Reuters Highly-Cited Researchers list, only one (Simeon Djankov at the New Economic School) is based at a university; the remainder are based in academies.

The need to share resources with another sector and the attractiveness of these alternative research careers means that higher education is shorn of a considerable portion of the funds and talent which in other countries would naturally cluster in universities.

From a state perspective, whether science and research occurs in universities or academies is probably irrelevant as long as the public science system is producing knowledge of value for the economy. However, if the policy goal is specifically to have great universities, then the concentration of resources in the academy sector is a problem.

At some point, the government of the Russian Federation will need to make a decision whether it is prepared to take the step of de-emphasising the academies in order to improve universities. If it does so, Russian universities will over time gain access to a huge pool of money and talent which can push them up the rankings. If not, the likelihood of many Russian universities achieving high research standing is fairly low.

2. The narrowness of university focus

For better or worse, the large university rankings implicitly reward universities with scale and breadth. Another inheritance from the Soviet period is a large number of narrowly focussed institutes which became universities simply by virtue of creating a humanities faculty and thus achieving the necessary ‘breadth’.

In practice, though, most of these universities still function to a large degree as single-discipline institutes – for example, universities of nuclear physics or aerospace engineering.

Of the 15 current institutional members of Project 5-100, only nine can be considered comprehensive universities; for the other six, even if they are of extraordinary quality in their own field – for example, the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology – it is difficult to see how they can break into even the top 500 universities worldwide without developing greater breadth.

To some degree, this problem could be overcome through a process of university mergers. If Lomonosov Moscow State University were to be combined with the National Research Nuclear University or MEPhi, and the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology or MIPT, for instance, the result would be an institution with both formidable breadth and depth.

This would be a departure from the present policy on university mergers, which is more about reinforcing quality at the bottom of the higher education hierarchy than it is about concentrating it at the top. But given the strength and prestige of MEPhi and MIPT, such a policy seems unlikely.

3. The mid-career talent gap

In most countries and most scientific disciplines, research productivity – especially research impact – is driven by mid-career experts, people in their 40s and 50s running their own labs and mentoring post-doctorates and-or new professors.

The problem in Russia is that due to the long-running economic crisis of the 1990s, there aren’t many of these type of professors around. There are a reasonable number of new, young professors, hired after the return to prosperity in the early and mid-2000s, and there are a reasonable number of academics who started their career well before the crisis. In between, there is a demographic gap where in western universities are clustered the most impactful scientists.

This is not a problem that has an easy policy solution. The demographic gap can really only be solved by the passage of time. It will take another 20 years for this problem to really be fully rectified.

4. The culture issue

Russian universities, like many which owe a debt to the German model of higher education, have a tendency to concentrate power over research budgets and research agendas in a relatively few hands.

This can be counterproductive: countries which ‘punch above their weight’ on scientific output and impact achieve this in part by finding ways to give younger researchers considerable autonomy in choosing their research concentrations, finding their own research partners – especially international ones – and giving them funding to achieve this.

In this way, the management of universities which are very successful in rankings is much more ‘bottom-up’.

Russian universities, on the other hand, are very much ‘top-down’. University cultures change very slowly, so no one should expect Russian universities to suddenly becoming free-wheeling havens of progressive academic practice.

Change, if it comes at all, will come slowly, and will need to be prodded by outside funding bodies (Project 5-100 could play an interesting role here if it so desired). In the meantime, it is worth seeking policy lessons from other countries with ‘top-down’ academic cultures – China and Korea, for example – with respect to how they have managed their rise in rankings.

5. English

For better or worse, the language of modern science is English. But fluency in English is not universal in Russian universities – though it is substantially better among younger scholars than older ones.

Improving spoken and written ability for key research personnel is a key tactic that Russian universities need to adopt to improve publication outcomes.

Improving English fluency is not simply a matter of having English lessons available or having translators on the staff. It means more on-the-ground – that is, bottom-up, not top-down – international collaboration, more time spent at international conferences, and more mobility for doctoral students to allow them to spend time in English-speaking milieus during their training.

Unfortunately, few of these changes seem to be priorities at the moment in Russian universities. It is not, of course, beyond the capabilities of Russian higher education to deal with these five challenges. But it will take time and it will not be easy. Even with the large sums of money being invested in Project 5-100, quick and early successes should not be expected.

Alex Usher is President of Higher Education Strategy Associates, Canada. Email: This is an edited version of an article which appears in the current edition of Higher Education in Russia and Beyond.