How many excellent universities does Russia need?

At a recent meeting of the Association of 5-100 Universities, a discussion arose about how many universities should remain in the 5-100 Academic Excellence Initiative. Currently 21 universities are in the project.

The discussion points at deeper questions: how many world-class universities does Russia have, and, more importantly, how many should we have? At the moment, we see only one objective measure – international rankings. Of course, they should not be turned into the ultimate icon of universities’ success. The rankings, for example, do a good job measuring the contribution to research potential, but, at the moment, a poor job of measuring the contribution to economic and social development.

If we look at, for example, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, we see the following picture: there are two Russian universities in the top 300, and none in the top 100.

Historically, our universities have been highly specialised. It is very difficult for them to advance in general institutional rankings quickly. However, if you were to look more closely at subject areas, we have a lot to be proud of. A number of Russian universities are already in high positions, and another five to 10 will join the elite group if they keep moving with the same speed and are given space to think, resources, and time.

What has the Project 5-100 achieved?

When the project was developed in 2012, the Decree of the President formulated the task of bringing five universities to the top 100 by 2020. The task is the right one in terms of ambition, but, due to many factors, including international reputational inertia, hardly achievable. The idea of world-class universities as organisations with global influence has taken hold in politics, but it took China 22 years to get two universities in the top 100, South Korea 18 years for two universities, and Germany 11 years for 10 universities.

Should a more humble task have been set instead? No. The task must be ambitious, complex and challenging – a moonshot project if you like. It shook the system of Russian higher education and forced the universities to look at themselves in the global glass, assess their level and formulate new measurable goals and objectives. This dynamic by itself is much more important than the place in the rankings.

How are the results of universities’ progress in the programme evaluated? The score is three-dimensional. The first dimension is the world universities rankings. The second is 10 indicators from the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation. And, finally, the third dimension is the conclusions of the members of the international 5-100 Council, which assesses the target models and strategies.

The dynamics of the universities from Project 5-100 in the rankings is unprecedented, taking into account that only four years have passed since the launch of the project. Universities’ results in terms of the indicators from the ministry are also good: volume of research and development, publication activity and selectivity.

Like everywhere, the temptation to evaluate the development of the universities solely on the basis of objective data that is easy to measure is great. But participating universities have different starting positions, disciplinary profiles, regional contexts, ideas and opportunities. Therefore, in addition to quantitative evaluation, the procedure of evaluations by the council is used.

The 5-100 Council is quite unusual for national academic excellence initiatives, as it includes, in addition to six members from Russia, six more representatives of China, Hong Kong, Great Britain, Belgium and the United States, who bring in experience from both dynamically changing and stable university systems.

But all of this is the public face of the programme. Changes within the universities are much more interesting and significant.

What is happening? New research and development areas, responding to the challenges of the ‘third industrial revolution’ are being introduced – namely, biomedicine, programmable matter, neural networks and artificial intelligence. Social sciences and humanities are being reintroduced into the list of disciplinary priorities.

In addition, the educational process is moving from standardised to individualised.

More importantly, the university community has started to raise challenging questions about the opportunities of universities and their societal role. A new generation of rectors has come, and they see the development prospects in a new way – letting go of the old way of expecting standards and regulations from the ministry, the universities have started to determine their own direction.

Being deeply involved with the development of 5-100 universities, I can note a tense, emotionally charged atmosphere of real meaningful competition. The universities, as before, closely follow each other. However, now they envy not only the status but also models of operation of other universities, and they worry that their students will switch to another university, because it is more interesting there, and not merely because it is more ‘prestigious’.

The impact of Project 5-100 is much broader than 21 universities. About a hundred higher education institutions are observing the 5-100 group very closely and are comparing themselves to the universities of the group. Many of them are thinking about their own transformation for the first time. A few dozen have taken steps on the path laid by the project participants.

We must also remember that the first 18 months to two years were spent on mobilising internal resources. Changes in the universities are only now picking up speed, and the most impressive results are ahead.

Ideology and design of the project

From the start, the 5-100 Initiative was aimed at transformation, not modernisation. Russian universities have to cover the distance their Western counterparts have covered in the past 60-70 years five times as fast to catch up, and then make a breakthrough in order to partake in the global game on equal terms, rather than from, in the view of students, the second echelon, or ‘periphery’.

To go beyond what is possible in higher education now, we are critically rethinking the rules of this game and looking for out-of-the-box solutions.

Meanwhile, today the world of innovation in higher education has expanded beyond the West. Innovations are occurring everywhere, in India, China, Indonesia, in South Africa, in the Arab world. But transformational transitions do not occur to national systems in their entirety. The same principle is at work everywhere: selection and concentration. A group of leaders is selected; they receive extra resources and in return promise development.

It is very important that in the beginning of the project we avoided the mistake of choosing just five or six universities and investing all the resources into their growth. We remember the experience of the 1990s – in 1991 a group of leading universities was identified and provided with increased funding unconditionally, which created uncompetitive conditions for the entire sector of higher education.

Just like other organisations, universities can both develop and stagnate all the way down to organisational bankruptcy. It is critically important that the boundaries of the programme of Project 5-100 are passable. A place among 21 participants of 5-100 is not guaranteed forever, and any university in the country has the potential to become a member of the group.

Under the conditions of competitive support, a strong-willed leadership team, and a well thought-out model, any university can surprise you.

For example, in Russia, National Research University of Information Technologies, Mechanics and Optics has suddenly begun actively developing entrepreneurial culture; Moscow Engineering Physics Institute is channelling its nuclear competencies into biomedicine; the University of Tyumen has made astonishingly innovative moves in humanities, social sciences, environmental and agricultural biology; the Far Eastern Federal University is experimenting with new methods of project learning; and Tomsk State University is making bold moves with computer science education.

Every year the participants of the 5-100 Initiative must defend their place. According to the results of a yearly evaluation, the funding is distributed differently – by an order of magnitude – according to progress made. That is, the leading group, the composition of which is unstable and varies depending on universities’ success, takes 70% of the programme's funding. This creates a powerful reputational pressure for the leadership of the universities.

Laying foundations

With our geography and history, we will not be able to confine ourselves to a few world-class universities. Using the Times Higher Education top 300 ranking, the United States has 84 universities, the United Kingdom 38, Germany 36, China 7, and Russia, as has already been mentioned, has only 2. However, now is the crucial moment in history when we can lay the foundation for the future network of universities occupying key positions in the global division of intellectual labour.

Despite the recent discussion, which, paradoxically, in the end has proved to be useful for the project, bringing it into the spotlight of public attention, I hope that the programme will continue well into the future and will keep being impactful and beneficial for the whole Russian higher education system.

Andrei Volkov is academic policy advisor of the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo in Russia and deputy chairman of the Project 5-100 Council.