Interest in Higher Education as Russia's Competitive Advantage
On March 3, 2016, HSE Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov gave a talk about possible future scenarios for Russia's higher education at the All-Russian Research Centre for Aviation Materials (VIAM) as part of the Syncletos at VIAM series of meetings with prominent guest speakers such as academics, government officials and politicians.
Universities and Vocational Shools
According to Kuzminov, in Russia, just like elsewhere in the world, higher education has become almost a social imperative, with 90% of Russian parents wishing to send their children to university at any cost – even though a degree may actually bring less pay than vocational training. In terms of higher education coverage, Russia has caught up with the U.S. over the past 15 to 20 years, since following the collapse of the command economy, the first things people did with their newly found social and economic freedom were to buy a car and send their children to university. The currently reported decline in the number of university students is due solely to demographic factors and will be followed by an increase after a while, Kuzminov argues.
Until recently, Russia experienced an excess of trained economists, lawyers and managers, as many Russians did not believe in having a successful career as engineer or doctor, despite these being among the highest-paid occupations in most western countries. Even today, a good economist or lawyer in Russia can expect to be paid less than a good engineer or programmer.
Another challenge for Russia is the low take-up of vocational training, about 30% of the relevant age cohort. Vocational schools and colleges attract students who cannot or will not leave their small town or village, those who find it too hard for medical or psychological reasons to study at a university, or those who plan to move to university after vocational school, while avoiding the USE tests. Indeed, successful vocational school graduates often end up in universtities, leaving the economy without skilled workers.
University students in Russia and China spend three times as many hours in the classroom as their U.S. peers who end up better prepared for problem-solving and independent work. Both Chinese and American students tend to be active socially – virtually all of them are engaged in some form of student life – while in Russia, with just 25% of students are involved in social activity, among the lowest figures for this in the world.
Russia's top students attend the country's leading universities, including 10% to 15% of high-ranking engineering schools, such as a few universities in Moscow, the Polytechnic Universities in Tomsk and St. Petersburg, ITMO, with these institutions sending their elite graduates on to complete doctorate courses in Western universities and boast a high demand for fee-based slots and applied research products.
Higher Education for All
However, Kuzminov would also like to see Russian enterprises staffed with highly skilled, self-respecting blue-collar workers. He strongly believes that vocational training should not be inferior in quality to a university course, and refers to the example of Germany where a vocational school degree is as prestigious as a university degree, and vocational school graduates are by no means regarded as second class citizens.
Kuzminov suggests that perhaps people who insist on going to university for reasons such as social status should not be pushed towards vocational schools; instead, vocational training can be redefined in terms of higher education as an applied bachelor's degree, which one can apply for immediately after secondary school or after two years of an academic bachelor's course as a one-year technical major.
We are witnessing a revolution in education similar to that driven by the invention of the printed book in the 14th to 16th centuries. Today, anyone can enrol in an online course read by the best professors at Harvard – or Tomsk Polytechnic University – and obtain a certificate. The number of students taking open online courses with Coursera, EdEx and Udacity doubles every year and currently stands at 220 million people. According to Kuzminov, at some point one-half or perhaps two-thirds of modern-day brick-and-mortar universities may cease to exist, replaced by online degree programmes.
Leaders Need Support
Acccording to Kuzminov, supporting a few dozen of Russia's leading research universities is essential.
By President Putin' decree of May 2015, by 2010, university teachers and researchers in Russia should earn twice the average salary in the respective region, which Kuzminov describes as normal practice in most countries. He believes that a salary of 120,000 rubles in Moscow – twice the 60,000 ruble average – can help retain top professionals in Russian universities.
In a globalised market, the best university teachers choose to work in countries which can offer the highest pay, adequate funding of research work, and a favourable academic environment. In Western countries, professors at research universities earn approximately US$ 10,000 per month, and their Russian peers should earn at least US$ 6,000 to 7,000 per month, adjusted for purchasing power parity.
In addition to that, more investment is needed in equipment and research. Many funders in Russia finance R&D teams, but refrain from investing in long-term university-based research efforts, based on unfounded fears that universities may fail to make efficient use of such funds. The demand for higher education in Russian society means that people are not only seeking a better life, but are prepared to change and invest in themselves. Despite a lack of student motivation and outdated study methods observed in quite a few universities, people's desire to learn may be higher in Russia than in its competitor countries, according to Kuzminov. Alongside the U.S., South Korea and several European countries, Russia is among the global leaders in terms of demand for higher education and should capitalise on this interest, Kuzminov concludes.
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