Minister suspends mergers, casts doubt on Project 5-100

Olga Vasilyeva, the recently appointed Minister of Education and Science, has suspended the process of consolidation of domestic universities initiated by Dmitry Livanov, her predecessor, who was fired from his post in August.

Vasilyeva, a conservative, has also cast doubt on the future of Project 5-100, the special government programme to develop major Russian universities that can compete with the world’s best and get five universities into the top 100 in international rankings by 2020.

Announcing the decision on 28 September, Vasilyeva, said: “We are currently suspending any further consolidations of Russian universities for an indefinite period of time. As part of these plans, there is a possibility of the revision of the Project 5-100.”

She said: “The programme involves huge investments in the development of certain local universities; however there is a big question, whether these funds will be repaid. The budget should be spent very carefully.”

The process of re-organisation of universities by merging weaker with stronger universities was announced by Livanov in 2015 to address a decline in demand from students for places in Russian universities and to create large multi-profile institutions. The aim was to establish up to 150 large universities focusing on training specialists for high-tech, innovative and knowledge-intensive areas of the national economy, with increased funding from the government.

Livanov had repeatedly said that all mergers would take place on a voluntary basis in accordance with the requests of the academic councils of universities involved. However, the process of merging has been already associated with some serious scandals. For example, in 2015 the Moscow Aviation Technology Institute or MATI was found to be ineffective and merged with the Moscow Aviation Institute, but this move was heavily criticised by students and teachers of MATI.

The combined university was headed by Alexander Rozhdestvensky, president of MATI, who was later accused of large-scale layoffs of Moscow Aviation Institute employees. A petition for his resignation received 10,500 signatures.

The suspension of mergers may not apply to all universities.

According to Vasilyeva, the ministry will continue to support a project to create a network of regional ‘base’ universities. The project involves the establishment of 11 universities in different regions of Russia, which after the merger with other higher education institutions in their regions, will receive a status of base universities and will be eligible for RUB200 million (US$3.2 million) in subsidies per year.

Some universities that have already been consolidated have called on Vasilyeva to reverse the decision of the former minister.

For example, Yevgeny Kozlovsky, the chairman of the commission on the consolidation of the Russian State Geological Prospecting University with the Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas, on 20 September sent a letter to Vasilyeva urging her to cancel or suspend the process.

He said the consolidation had a negative impact on the training of personnel for the Russian geological and engineering industries and that both universities are ready to continue to operate autonomously.

Changing curricula

Other measures announced by Vasilyeva include changing the curricula of domestic universities to place more emphasis on courses geared to jobs where graduates are in high demand, tightening the requirements for foreign students applying to study at Russian universities through the introduction of a mandatory Russian-language exam, and raising the prestige of university teachers by increasing salaries and running media campaigns.

Oleg Smolin, deputy chairman of the Committee on Education of the Russian State Duma, said the ongoing consolidation of universities has consumed the majority of funding allocated by the national government to higher education under Livanov.

Shortly before Vasilyeva’s announcement he said: "There is a need to suspend further destruction of the existing system of higher education, as there is no evidence that giant universities can provide better education to students. We are aware that the best Western universities, such as Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, are usually medium in size, not the biggest.”

Professor Maxim Khomyakov, vice-president for international affairs and director of the BRICS studies centre at Ural Federal University, Ekaterinburg, said Vasilyeva’s questioning of the value of Project 5-100 is understandable.

“I think that this is a normal desire of the new minister to investigate if the money has been spent effectively. Of course there is a question on how you would measure the effectiveness in the case of such a complex programme as 5-100. But the very desire is perfectly understandable,” he told University World News.