From secondary school to university. One examination. Russia

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Prof Vladimir Filippov

By Prof Vladimir Filippov
RUDN University, Russian Federation

In Russia, the percentage of people with higher education is very high and normally school leavers go directly to universities, which is at 16–18. In the last form at school students take the so-called “National State Exam” (NSE), where they can get maximum 100 grades. The Russian language and mathematics are compulsory, the latter has 2 variants – basic and specialised. The other subjects are chosen by the teenagers themselves depending on the chosen major at university, for example one has to take biology and chemistry to study medicine or literature and a foreign language to study philology. Usually to enter a Russian university you need only a few national state exams results – at least minimal grades in 3–4 subjects. Some majors need extra exams – drawing for future architects or an essay for journalists. A school leaver has the right to apply to five universities, three majors in each – thus having 15 variants.

In 2017, more than 618,000 school leavers took NSE. Russian citizens have the right to free higher education (it is covered by the RF budget), so most school leavers apply for these state-funded places. This year there were 57% state-funded places from the total number of school leavers, i.e. every second school leaver could have a chance to study free of charge. Also, every year the government allocates 15,000 places for international students. This situation makes universities compete both for talented students and students who can pay for tuition. It makes university teams work hard the whole year round. RUDN builds new student residence halls, holds contests and Olympiads, and meets future students. To attract talented, young people we have our own scholarships, and we grant supplementary educational programmes to Olympiad winners and school leavers with high NSE grades. The competition among Russian universities is very tough and recent years have shown which universities are really strong and attract talented Russian and international students.

Standards of education quality in Russia

From 1998–2004, I was minister of education for the Russian Federation. During these years a lot was done to harmonise the Russian and European education systems. Substantial research on higher education in other countries revealed astonishing facts. For example, comparing curricula of the journalism major in 19 US universities we found that only two coinciding subjects – the English language and the USA history. The rest is taught differently in each university. This example is good proof that it is not right simply to choose countries with traditionally good education as role models. Further, we selected the strongest sides of the Russian education, one of them being educational standards for each major, which regulate the number of subjects, number of academic hours, mode of study etc. If these standards are not met, the university can lose the license or even be closed down. This is what sets Russia apart in the global educational space, when the state acts as the guarantor of education quality. If we remember that both Russian and international students can study for free, and the cost of paid tuition in Russia is much lower than average prices in the global market (for example, most RUDN majors cost US$2,500 per year, and the most expensive is general medicine – an English-taught programme – US$8,500 per year), “guaranteed quality at a reasonable price” becomes one of the advantages of best Russian universities.

International students in Russia

Every year Russia allocates 15,000 places (called “quotas”) for international students – a different number for different countries, depending on the demand for specialists in certain areas. In Russia, there is a special federal agency – Rossotrudnichestvo – that searches for talents all over the world. There is also a possibility to study and pay for tuition – in RUDN the ratio between state-funded students and those who pay for tuition is approximately 50/50. Now that the competition in finding talented international students has become so intense, many Russian universities have started realising various international students enrolment strategies. Peoples’ Friendship University was originally founded as an international university and has its own strategy. In particular, there is a number of agreements with private companies, state organisations and even ministries on training specialists for certain countries – they choose candidates to be taught at RUDN themselves. Such grants often include not only tuition and accommodation but the flight tickets, and sometimes a good scholarship and even winter clothes. Of course, companies do this only when they fully trust the university.

Since 2016, we have been independently selecting talented international students. We have been holding Olympiads on mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, Russian and social science in Ecuador, China, Columbia, Peru, Senegal, Vietnam and other countries. The winners got state-funded places and an additional scholarship. We are opening RUDN centres of the Russian language and specialised classes in partner universities abroad, working out a strategy of the so-called “cluster concept”. The cluster concept implies scientific and academic activity of RUDN staff in base points at foreign universities. In 2018, we will start active work in Lebanon, Jordan, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Zambia and China. Students of the neighbouring countries will also enjoy the fruits of our work.

Since its foundation, RUDN has been working with international students. Not only do we have a tested enrolment system, but also adaptation and teaching methods. Each third student at RUDN is a foreigner; today we have about 7,500 international students from 154 countries – a whole planet. This year among new countries are Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Iceland and Australia.

International rankings and the Russian project “5-100”

It is worth explaining why even the best Russian universities do not occupy leading positions in world rankings. The Russian tradition of higher education implies first and foremost academic activity i.e. teaching. The quality of education has always been priority, while in the world rankings this indicator is rather unimportant, priority being given to research. Quoting, Nobel prize winners, publication activity… these indicators have always been minor for Russian rectors. Practically, all research in Russia is done in the Russian Academy of Science and branch research institutes, not in educational institutions.

Due to the competition for the best Russian and international entrants, the best Russian universities came forward. In 2013, the “5-100” programme of enhancing competitiveness of Russian universities was initiated to render financial support to 21 best Russian universities and advance them in world rankings. This was new practice – never before had the rectors built development strategies based on global rankings requirements. Preserving the traditions of education quality universities-participants of “5-100” programme set a course for strengthening research and international activity and upgrading infrastructure. RUDN has been in this project for only a year and during this short period of time we have risen 100 places in QS World University Rankings 2018 and are planning to continue moving up.


The Russian education is characterised by high quality guaranteed by the state and a relatively low tuition fee. Also, there is an opportunity to study free of charge – there are thousands of quotas for international students. Among Russian HEIs a group of recognised leaders has been singled out – Moscow State University, Saint Petersburg University, “5-100” project universities and some others. The universities have started developing science, looking for talented entrants and inviting leading researchers. Focus on international rankings determined the aims, priorities and development strategies of leading universities. Notwithstanding the priority of research in most rankings, the priority of Russia is the quality of education. Lastly, the Russian education is definitely becoming more open, which presents significant prospects both for universities and students all over the world.

Professor Filippov started his career as a graduate of RUDN Faculty of Science (majoring in mathematics), and came a long way from student to dean and from rector to minister. He defended both PhD and doctoral theses in V.Steklov Mathematic Institute, and did scientific internship at Brussels Free University (Belgium). He has been a public and political figure, and from 1987 to 1993, was chairman of the Moscow City Duma Commission for interethnic relations. In June 1993, he became rector of Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia. From 1998 to 2004, Vladimir Filippov was Minister of Education of the Russian Federation and till March 2005, assistant to the RF Prime Minister for education and culture. He has been rector of RUDN University Since March 2005. Prof Filippov has authored more than 240 scientific and methodological works, including 30 monographs, two of which have been translated and published by the American Mathematical Society (USA). He is proficient in French and English.