Russia fails to achieve international excellence target

Russia’s much advertised attempt to move five of its universities into the top 100 globally has ended in failure. The declared goal of getting five Russian universities into the top 100 in leading and widely recognised world university rankings by 2020 was one of the nation’s top priorities in science research and education.

For that to happen, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a generously funded Russian Academic Excellence Project in early 2013, also known as ‘5-100’. Seven years later, it has become obvious that what was conceived as a successful plan on paper turned out to be a disaster in reality.

In the latest Best Global Universities ranking, released by US News this week, none of Russia’s universities made it to the top 100. And there is no time left to improve the situation, as the rankings produced and published by US News in late 2020 are actually for 2021.

It was clear even in 2018 that Putin’s 5-100 project was doomed to failure. Nevertheless, Russian political and educational leaders did nothing to avoid this failure.

Of 21 Russian universities showered with state money from the Russian Academic Excellence Project, only five managed to secure a spot in the top 500. These are Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (385), the National Research Nuclear University MEPhI (402), Saint Petersburg State Polytechnic University (447), Novosibirsk State University (453) and Tomsk State University (490). All of these universities are known primarily for mathematics, sciences and natural sciences, which were traditionally strong and well-developed during the Soviet era.

Politics over autonomy

Russia now faces the tough choice of renaming its ambitious 5-100 programme so that it is a bit more realistic: either 0-100 or 5-500. Either way, that would signify a clear failure, not a success.

But the situation with Russian higher education is even more disturbing. If a university is not included in the top 200 of global rankings, this university usually cannot be regarded as a world-class university. The closest bet that Russia has is Lomonosov Moscow State University which comes in at 285 in the Best Global Universities ranking.

This implies that, despite all of its centralised effort and funding, Russia has failed to acquire an internationally recognised status for its higher education institutions. This must be a particularly hard blow for Lomonosov Moscow State University as it was regarded as one of the best universities in the world during the Soviet era. Furthermore, this failure undermines Putin’s reputation as a capable national leader.

To be fair, in one ranking, the latest QS World University Rankings published in June, Lomonosov Moscow State University rose to 74th place and thus made it into the top 100. However, it is not part of the Russian Academic Excellence Project.

Of the 21 Russian universities participating in the project, not a single one was included in the QS top 200. Similarly, their results in the latest Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings are very weak and in line with those in the US News rankings. Only Lomonosov Moscow State University achieved a position in the top 200, landing 174th spot in the THE ranking.

Lomonosov Moscow State University, the flagship of Russian higher education, has been led by Viktor Sadovnichy since 1992. Despite a continuous fall in world university rankings, Putin re-appointed Sadovnichy, who is 81, by Presidential Order #578 on 4 December 2019 for the next five years, until the end of 2024, when Sadovnichy will turn 85.

The autonomy of the university is regulated by the federal law “On Lomonosov Moscow State University and Saint Petersburg State University”, enacted in 2009. Nevertheless, Putin has the right to re-appoint the rector of Lomonosov Moscow State University for an unlimited number of times.

Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, Sadovnichy chaired the Communist Party committee at Lomonosov Moscow State University. Apparently, admiration for old Stalinist cadres is part of Vladimir Putin’s strategy for strengthening Russian academia and is clearly prioritised over any principles of university autonomy.

Failure to speak out

There are other losers in the race to the top, including much younger universities that are part of the Russian Academic Excellence Project. Much cherished by the ruling political regime, the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow (HSE) fails to claim a spot in the new US News ranking, even in the top 500.

Placed 547, with subject rankings of 208 in economics and business and 295 in social sciences, HSE occupies only the 235th spot among universities in Europe.

HSE is led by Yaroslav Kouzminov, the university’s founder and rector. Given that HSE was founded in 1992, Kouzminov has been in office for almost three decades. Yaroslav Kouzminov’s spouse, Elvira Nabiullina, serves as the head of Russia’s Central Bank. Prior to that, she served as the minister of economic development.

Closeness to Putin may guarantee generous funding for a university, but places in world university rankings are assigned based on different criteria.

Russia’s political opposition leaders continuously criticise Vladimir Putin for staying in power for more than two decades. Why don’t Russian academics criticise their aged and long-standing university leaders who fail to lead them to success?

Perhaps it is because they are very comfortable with the way things are. Russian academics prefer to preserve the status quo and their professorial positions. They receive a substantial supplementary pay from the government for arranging international cooperation projects with the best US and British universities and producing generously funded co-authorships with Western professors. Apparently, they are smart enough to fool even Putin.

While showing poor results in the international arena, they keep demanding more and more money. But the cash flow may not last for another five years. With world oil prices plunging, the flow of oil dollars into Russian universities may soon be over. What seems here to stay is the complete and unconditional failure of Russian universities to stand out on the international stage.

Ararat L Osipian is a fellow of the Institute of International Education, and fellow of the New University in Exile Consortium, USA, and holds a PhD in education and human development from Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, where he came as a fellow of the US Department of State.