Why Putin’s 5-100 project is doomed to fail

In 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a highly ambitious Russian academic excellence project, known as the 5-100 Project. It aimed at getting at least five Russian universities into the top 100 in world university rankings by 2020.

A special Council on Enhancing the Competitiveness of Leading Russian Universities among Global Research and Education Centres was established to advance towards this goal. The council, which includes leading Russian and international experts, is chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets, with the Minister of Education and Science, Olga Vasilieva, serving as the deputy-chair. This shows the high level of the council’s standing.

Significant financial allocations were authorised by the government, totalling well over RUB60 billion (US$915 million). Twenty-one universities competed to be selected to participate in the project. Soon the money started pouring in to the selected higher education institutions. These institutions were deemed the most promising at the time.

On 26 September, Times Higher Education (THE) released its annual World University Rankings 2019. The results for Russian universities are less than favourable. They show that Putin’s plan has failed, and failed badly.

According to THE, the top Russian achiever is Lomonosov Moscow State University, which only occupies the 199th position in the ranking. Other top Russian universities are far behind the ‘leader’. Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology is in the 251-300th band, the Higher School of Economics is in the 301-350th band, the National Research Nuclear University MEPhI is in the 351-400th band and ITMO University is in the 501-600th band.

With only one year left until the THE 2020 rankings release (with, confusingly, the 2021 rankings due to be released in September 2020), Russian universities appear to be falling far short of what was hoped.

But Russians are not frustrated with their failure. In fact, they are proud of their results. So much so that they even titled the official report on the rankings “The Times Higher Education World University Rankings: Russia’s success story”. It has been published both in Russian and in English. This “success story” comes down to a few advancements made by the chosen universities.

For instance, the Higher School of Economics moved from the 351-450 band to 301–350th, which might be just a matter of moving one step up the ladder. After all, one has to justify the tens of billions spent on the 5-100 Project.

The former Soviet republics

This optimism should be understood in comparative perspective. The situation in the former Soviet republics is even worse than in Russia, much worse.

Kazakhstan, the oil rich Central Asian republic ruled by former Communist Party leaders, managed to get only one of its universities in the first one thousand. Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty is placed somewhere between 801 and 1,000 in the THE World University Rankings.

Another leading Kazakhstani institution that has strong Russian influence, LN Gumilyov Eurasian National University, is placed somewhere beyond 1001, meriting a mere mention in the rankings. Surprisingly, the much advertised Nazarbayev University that cost Kazakhstani people billions of dollars is nowhere to be found.

However, Kazakhstan is the only former Soviet republic other than Russia that has at least one of its universities in the first one thousand. Other republics, including the most advanced, have not even achieved this.

Ukraine has no universities in the top one thousand. Four of its universities, including Karazin Kharkiv National University, Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, Ivan Franko National University of Lviv and Lviv Polytechnic National University, are in the 1001+ category.

Russia’s closest political and economic ally, Belarus, has only one university, the Belarusian State University in Minsk, in the 1001+ category.

Stalinist legacies

Why have Russian and other post-Soviet universities failed so badly? The immediate reason is obvious: they tend to have low level research output in terms of publications in Western journals, making their universities non-competitive.

But there are more fundamental problems underlying their failure to achieve and retain the status of world-class universities. And these fundamental reasons come down to Stalinist legacies that remain very strong in Russia’s higher education sector.

First, Russian universities continue to operate based on the Soviet model of knowledge creation and transfer. The separation of research and teaching is the norm, with research institutes performing the former and universities focusing on the latter.

Russian universities are also characterised by overspecialisation. And this is no surprise since they were established or re-modelled under the Communist rule in order to supply specific branches of the national economy.

Another major challenge is the low level of faculty preparation due to undeveloped doctoral programmes, which also explains the low research output. Inbreeding and nepotism in hiring and promotion are also the norm. A very weak meritocracy and the non-transparent allocation of research funding result in an inability to publish in top Western journals with an international reputation.

Another issue is that Russian universities continue to experience a severe lack of internationalisation. Foreign faculty as well as holders of advanced foreign degrees are not hired, with very rare exceptions. The Russian higher education sector has a comparatively small number of international students relative to other major players on the world educational services market.

The old and outdated Stalinist structure of university governance and management, with academic bureaucrats retaining a monopoly over all university decisions, prevents university development. The heavy influence of the state on universities and university politicisation continues to be among the major factors that determine universities’ long-term planning and day-to-day operations.

Above everything else, the absence of true university autonomy prevents Russian universities from realising their potential and talent. Without drastic changes in these areas, even mountains of oil dollars will not be able to move Russian universities upward in the world university rankings.

As 2020 nears, it becomes obvious that not one of Russia’s universities will make it to the top one hundred. As a result, it would be accurate to conclude that Putin’s 5-100 has failed and is more like 0-100.

Ararat L Osipian is a fellow of the Institute of International Education, United Nations Plaza, New York, and honorary associate at the department of political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States. He holds a PhD in education and human development from Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, where he was a fellow of the US Department of State.