Russian higher education : poised to be global

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Professor Mikhail Fedoruk

By Professor Mikhail Fedoruk • Rector, Novosibirsk State University

Some history of Russian higher education

The oldest Russian universities, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, were founded in the mid-18th Century, at the time when much higher education in Europe was well established and mature, and the only two Russian universities until the 19th Century. 150 years later only 10 more universities were established in Russian regions. Almost half of them were located in the economically developed dominions of the Russian empire such as Ukraine, Warsaw and Kiev. Other institutions were high technical schools, for training top level engineers, such as Saint Petersburg Mining School or Bauman University. And only two comprehensive classical universities had been opened in the deep provinces of Russia: Kazan and Tomsk.

The Soviet Union dramatically reformed Russian higher education: most of the classic universities were divided into specialised higher schools called institutes, while new medical, technical, agrarian, and pedagogical institutes were opened in almost every center of the Russian provinces. Between the First and Second World Wars, the number of higher schools in the Soviet Union increased from 100 to almost 500. All Soviet universities and institutes were funded and governed by the state through the Ministry of Education. Research was also taken largely away from the universities and concentrated in the Academy of Sciences. Despite a much wider spread of higher education, only 10 % of school leavers entered higher schools, institutes or universities and, at that time, higher education was free of charge.

The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in more dramatic changes to higher education. In addition to state run higher schools and universities, a number of private higher institutions were created. They become increasingly popular, especially in the social sciences and humanities. Commercial higher education became available together with state sponsored students. The number of institutions of higher education increased to more than 1000, and now, more than half of school leavers were entering the universities and institutes. Higher education became mass oriented and driven by the market of applicants. At the same time most of the specialised institutes attempted to become comprehensive universities, opening programs in social sciences, humanities and natural sciences. This move was accompanied by broad renaming of former institutes to “Academies” and “Universities”.

The government responded to the perceived loss of the traditional identity of Russian higher education institutions with a series of initiatives with the following goals:

  • to select on a competitive basis and support those universities which had the potential to be among world leading institutions,
  • to reintroduce research and start innovations at university campuses,
  • this latter initiative aiming to making Russian higher education highly demanded and attractive for international students.

Project 5-100 program and Russian universities in rankings

A number of federal projects were completed including the program of development of federal universities, and the project, started in 2013, to create National Research Universities, a government initiative designed to improve the international reputation and the visibility of Russian universities and their research level. Project 5-100 uses three international university rankings (QS, ARWU and THE) as the indicators of performance and is often called 5-top-100, following the idea to have five Russian universities in the top 100 of international rankings by 2020. During the first stage, 15 universities were selected, followed later by six more. Five are based in Moscow, three Saint-Petersburg, while others are located from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, covering the whole Russian territory.

Project 5-100 allowed NSU and other Russian universities to renew a number of old programs in Physics and Astronomy, Mathematics and to start novel interdisciplinary educational courses in fields including  Chemical, Mechanical, Mining, Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Economics, Sociology   and Pedagogical Sciences. These actions resulted in an increase in the number of Russian universities entering QS faculty area and subject rankings: from 107 in 2016, to 189 in 2018. In the strongest Russian research subject ranking, Physics and Astronomy, the total number of Russian Universities qualified in the field has increased from seven to 15 since 2015. NSU, MEPHi, MIPT and MSU have received their highest Top-100 positions in the QS Physics and Astronomy rankings to date.

Fees, Grants and Scholarships

Every year international students have an opportunity to apply for Russian Government Scholarships, which cover full tuition and monthly living allowance; travel costs, living expenses and health insurance are not usually included. In Russia, students do not have to pay for their books and other learning materials and accommodation fees for a room on campus are usually low by international standards, often around US$20 – US$25 per month. These Scholarships are awarded granted on a competitive basis and selection criteria, the process beginning each January, the deadlines, as well as the number of scholarships, all depend on the country of the applicant. Additionally, for students from partner universities, there is the opportunity to freely apply to study in Russia through such programs as Erasmus+, DAAD, and Fulbright.

Novosibirsk State University : the real Siberian Science

In terms of resources, vast Siberia has always been and remains an essential region for the whole of Russia. In the late 1950s, Siberia provided the country with 75% of its coal, and possessed 80% of hydropower resources. Siberia quickly became industrialised, at a time when science was largely of the applied type and did not fully satisfy its needs. The USSR Academy of Sciences arrived at an  understanding that there was the need for fundamental science. In 1958, the idea was implemented with the establishment of the Siberian Division of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union near the large industrial city of Novosibirsk.

From the very outset, the founders were concerned about being able to provide the future scientific center in Siberia with sufficient personnel of a high enough quality. In order to have a constant source of replenishment for the Siberian scientific institutions, it would be necessary to provide personnel training locally. Thus the idea was born to establish Novosibirsk State University (NSU), located in the world-famous scientific center – Akademgorodok. The main areas of training and research at NSU are Archaeology, Biomedicine and Cancer Therapy Innovation, Chemical Engineering, Elementary Particle Physics, Low-Dimensional Hybrid Materials, Mathematics, Omics Technologies, Photonics and Quantum Optics, and Research of the Arctic. The university is located 30 kilometres from Novosibirsk, a vibrant city of two million and the unofficial capital of Siberia. Today the third-most populous city in Russia, it ranks among the world’s top 100 in the QS Best Student Cities.

NSU is one of the few universities in Russia tightly linked to the Russian Academy of Sciences and over 60 years, it has developed a technology for training researchers. A special Physics and Mathematics Boarding School, the first institution of this kind in the world, is the basic element of the unique NSU system. This outstanding performance experience of working with motivated and talented children was borrowed later by other educational systems, for example in Korea.

Students call their alma-mater ‘Siberian Hogwarts’ because of the unbelievable growth they experience in their personality and creative skills. The best 60% go on to NSU, and they already know exactly which science they want to do, be it Biochemistry, Catalysis, or Particle Physics. Once at university, we continue to prepare researchers in the best conceivable way: with practical experience working on real research projects. The NSU system is able to turn any school student into a scientist, a reason perhaps why, of Russian universities, NSU has the most significant scientific diaspora abroad.

Similar to Toronto and Harvard Universities with their Medical Schools, NSU is a part of Akademgorodok 2.0 Research Consortium and is fully affiliated with the Research Institutes of the Novosibirsk Area. This inherent model of interaction with partners helps NSU to already rank highly in the Natural Sciences broad subject area and to push for higher positions in Engineering & Technology and Arts & Humanities. In particular, NSU and Akademgorodok 2.0 partners have started a number of interdisciplinary educational programs in Chemical, Mechanical, Mining, Electrical and Electronic Engineering.

Tangible results

There is evidence that such programs of change by NSU and other Russian universities, in conjunction with the help of the Federal Project 5-100 of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of Russia, have already brought about a giant leap in Russian higher education: the number of Russian universities in Top-500 positions in the QS World University Rankings® has grown from just six to 15 since 2012.

Professor Mikhail Fedoruk is Rector of the Novosibirsk State University. He is an expert in mathematical modelling of nonlinear problems in physics and engineering, including nonlinear photonics, fiber lasers, optical communications and nano-photonics. He has co-authored more than 270 scientific papers, including four monographs, four multi-authored monographs, and three   patents. He heads up a leading computational center, and has experience of managing large scale research grants. In 2016, Professor Fedoruk was elected Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences with a specialisation in ‘Mathematical Modelling’.