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Cristina Parulava883
HED news editor
Publication is placed in the group «Trends, Analysis & Statistics»

The Russian Federation, more commonly and simply known as “Russia,” is a complex, heterogeneous state. Home to some 143.4 million citizens, its population includes a sizable number of ethnic minorities besides the Russian majority. Most citizens consider their mother tongue to be Russian. However, up to 100 other languages, including 35 that are “official,” remain in use. Russia, the largest nation in the world in terms of landmass, shares borders with 14 neighbors: Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, North Korea, and China.

The Federation, like the Soviet Union before it, is a nominally federal system that consists of 85 “federal subjects,” including “republics,” “oblasts” (provinces), “krais” (districts) and “cities of federal importance.” However, Russia is not a truly federal system. Because of the re-centralization of power under the rule of Vladimir Putin, Russia is often referred to as a “quasi-federal” state, or a system that is “unitary in function.” The autonomy of provinces, republics, districts and cities of federal importance is limited.

The Russian government has pushed an ambitious higher education agenda focused on improving quality and international standing. The country is seeking to radically enhance the global ranking of its universities by 2020, and to attract substantial numbers of internationally mobile tertiary-level students from around the globe. At the same time, the government has actively sought to send scholars abroad.

Reforms, Mergers, and University Closures

Declining student enrollments have coincided with a decrease in the number of Russian higher education institutions.  In 2012, the government initiated a process of reforms and consolidation that had, by 2017, already reduced the number of institutions by more than 14 percent, from 1046 accredited tertiary institutions in 2012/13 to 896 in 2016. In 2015, it  announced that it intended to close or merge as many as 40 percent of all higher education institutions by the end of 2016, with a particular focus on  the private sector. It also intended to reduce the number of branch campuses operated by universities by 80 percent. It is presently unclear, however, to what extent these cuts will go forward. In late 2016, Russia’s newly appointed minister of education suspended the mergers because of resistance from affected universities.

The reform effort is driven by concerns about educational quality. The main goal of the reforms is to merge poorly performing universities with higher quality institutions, an objective that was spurred by a 2012 quality audit that revealed severe quality shortcomings at 100 universities and 391 branch campuses.[1]

Other objectives included modernization and the effort to shift education and to focus on technical innovation: Simultaneous to the cuts among existing universities, plans were announced to create up to 150 new public universities specializing in technological innovation and high-tech in order to improve Russia’s international competitiveness. In 2012, Russia also established a “Council on Global Competitiveness Enhancement of Russian Universities” and launched the so-called 5/100 Russian Academic Excellence Project, an initiative that provides extensive funding for a group of 21 top universities with the goal to strengthen research and place five Russian institutions among the top 100 universities in global university rankings by 2020. The initiative also seeks to shift the mix of students and scholars on Russian campuses, pulling 10 percent of academics and 15 percent of students come from abroad.

International Student Mobility

Inbound Mobility

Top-10 Countries of Origin of Foreign Students in 2015

Foreign student quotas are seen as a measure of the effectiveness of higher education institutions, and the Russian government has, as part of its effort to boost the rankings of its universities, made it a priority to boost international enrollments. In 2015, Russia raised the international student quota at Russian universities by 33 percent. It also significantly increased the scholarship funds available to foreign students. That same year, a number of top Russian universities included in a newly-founded Global Universities Association to jointly recruit at least 15,000 international students to Russian annually.

The measures are expected to enhance already strong growth in international enrollments. Reliable estimates of inbound students vary according to how such students are defined and counted, however Russia consistently ranks as one of the ten most popular destination countries for international students in the world. As for the precise numbers, data provided by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) indicates that inbound students in Russia increased almost three-fold between 2004 and 2014, from 75,786 to 213,347 students. The Institute of International Education’s Project Atlas, which counts non-degree seeking students in its tally, puts the estimate even higher at 282,921 students as of 2015.[2]

The majority of foreign students in Russia are enrolled in undergraduate programs at public universities. Beyond that, the trends in inbound mobility and the reasons behind them vary, depending on students’ place of origin.

  1. Former Soviet Republics: Geographic proximity, linguistic and economic ties make Russia the top destination of mobile students in the majority of post-Soviet Republics, where most students speak Russian as a second language. The vast majority of foreign students in Russia, more than 60 percent, come from these countries. The three top sending countries in 2015 were Kazakhstan, which accounted for 25 percent of all students, Belarus (7.8 percent), and Ukraine, accounting for 7.2 percent.
  2. China: The number of Chinese students enrolled at Russian universities has increased considerably in recent years, and in 2015, China became the fourth-largest sender of international students to Russia, accounting for 7.1 percent of enrollments. Governments on both sides have in recent years taken steps to boost student exchange, and many Russian universities are expanding their recruitment efforts in China. Efforts include dual degree programs, and the establishment of Russian language learning centers in China. Russia offers Chinese students a low-cost alternative compared to Western countries like the U.S., and enrollments can be expected to rise in the years ahead. (Geographic proximity is another factor.) At the same time, the inflow of Chinese students is impeded by language barriers, since most education programs in Russia are taught in Russian.
  3. Other Asian countries: India and Vietnam are other Asian countries that send significant numbers of international students to Russia. Enrollments from outside of Asia, by comparison, are small. European countries (excluding Turkey, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus) in 2014 only accounted for about one percent of international degree students in Russia, more than half of them from the Baltic States.

In 2014, students from Africa and the Americas respectively made up only about two percent, and less than one percent of the total international student population.

Outbound Mobility

As of 2017, Russia’s government encourages Russian students to further their education abroad. In 2014, the government introduced a Global Education Program that seeks to facilitate human capital development in Russia, and remedy shortages of skilled professionals by funding Russian graduate students at 288 selected universities abroad. Some 72 are located in the United States. The program is intended to support up to 100,000 Russian citizens over a time period of ten years, and targets master’s and doctoral students in disciplines, such as engineering, basic sciences, medicine and education. It covers students’ tuition costs and living expenses up to 2.763 million rubles (USD $48,372) annually. At the same time, the government is seeking to curtail outmigration. Grant recipients are required to return to Russia within three years to take up employment in a number of select positions, mostly in the public sector.

As of recently, such scholarship programs appear to be bearing fruit. Between 2008 and 2015, UIS data indicates that the number of outbound Russian degree students increased by 22 percent, from 44,913 to 54,923. This increase in mobility has likely been influenced by the rising cost of education in Russia, as high tuition fees have spurred students’ interest in the comparatively inexpensive universities of Central and Eastern Europe, for instance. The number of Russian applications in the Baltic countries, Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as China and Finland, has reportedly increased by 50 percent in recent years. Given Russia’s population size, however, the overall number of degree students going abroad is still quite small, and makes up just about 1 percent of Russia’s 5.2 million tertiary students (2015).

The most popular destination choice among Russian degree students abroad in recent years has been Germany, where 18 percent of outbound students were enrolled in 2015 (UIS). The U.S., the Czech Republic, Great Britain, and France were the next popular choices, accounting for 9 percent, 8 percent, and 7 percent of enrollments, respectively.

China, Russia’s neighbor and an increasingly important international education provider, is another notable destination. UIS data, which tracks degree-seeking students only, does not rank China as a top-50 study destination. But China is presently ranked as the number one destination of Russian students if non-degree candidates are included in the count. According to the Project Atlas data, 21.6 percent of outbound Russian students studied in China in 2015, reflecting the strong growth in exchange programs, language training programs, and internships that has accompanied the strengthening of Sino-Russian cooperation in recent years.

Russian student mobility to the U.S. is, by comparison, anything but booming. After peaking at a high of 7,025 students in 1999/2000, the number of students has fluctuated over the past decades. The country has not been among the top 25 sending countries since 2012 (IIE, Open Doors). In 2015/16, 5,444 Russian students were enrolled at U.S. institutions, a decrease of 2.1 percent over 2014/15. In Canada, on the other hand, Russian enrollments have been mostly increasing in recent years – the number of students grew by more than 200 percent between 2006 and 2015, from 1,252 to 3,892 students, according to the data provided by the Canadian government.

Tertiary Education Institutions

In 2015/16, there were a total of 896 recognized tertiary education institutions in operation in the Russian Federation. Public institutions are categorized into:

  • Big multi-disciplinary universities
  • Academies specialized in particular professions, such as medicine, education, architecture or agriculture
  • Institutes that (typically) offer programs in singular disciplines, such as music or arts.

There are 50 specially-funded and research-focused National Research Universities and Universities of National Innovation, as well as nine Federal Universities, which were established to bundle regional education and research efforts, and focus on regional socioeconomic needs in more remote parts of Russia.

Finally, there are two National Universities, the prestigious Lomonosov Moscow State University and Saint Petersburg State University. These well-funded elite institutions have special legal status, and are under the direct control of the federal government, which appoints their rectors and approves university charters. Moscow State University is arguably Russia’s most prestigious institution and currently enrolls more than 47,000 students. Modeled after German universities, it was founded in 1755.

Private Universities

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought about the de-ideologization of education, and successively replaced the rigid centralization and state planning of the Soviet Union with new paradigms of institutional autonomy, effectiveness, innovation and internationalization. In contrast to other sectors, the education system, however, was spared the “shock-therapy” of economic liberalization, which brought about what has been described as “the most cataclysmic peacetime economic collapse of an industrial country in history.” There was no large-scale privatization of state universities and the overall structure of the education system remained largely intact. Over time, however, Russia has seen the emergence of a healthy private higher education sector following the legalization of private education in 1992.

Private institutions now account for some 366 accredited institutions – just over one third of all higher educations in Russia. The number of students enrolled in these universities has increased considerably over the past decades – between 2000 and 2014 alone the number of students at private universities grew by 88 percent, from 470,600 to 884,700 students.

Today, private universities tend to supplement public education with more specialized niche offerings, rather than compete directly with the bigger state-funded universities. Private enrollments account for only about 16 percent of all tertiary enrollments. And, as demonstrated by prestigious funding projects for state universities, and the closure of private niche universities, the Russian government does presently not prioritize the development of the private sector. Private education, thus, is for the time being expected to primarily gain traction in the “sphere of non-formal and extra-system education.”

Rankings and International Reputation

The Russian Ministry of Education maintains a webpage dedicated to tracking the progress of Russian universities in global rankings. As of 2016 rankings, the goals of the 5/100 project to place five Russian universities in the top 100 of global rankings still seem distant. Lomonosov Moscow State University was the only Russian university among the top 100 in the most common rankings. It was ranked at 87th place in the Shanghai ranking (followed by St. Petersburg State University and Novosibirsk State University at 301-400 and 401-500, respectively). In the Times Higher Education Ranking, Lomonosov reached 188th place in 2016/17 with no other Russian universities among the top 300. In the QS ranking, Russia’s flagship university reached 108th place followed by St. Petersburg State University ranked at place 258. Of note is also that Russia in 2016 announced that it will launch its own international ranking, including universities from Russia, Japan, China, Brazil, India, Iran, Turkey and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Funding and Education Spending

While higher education in Russia is predominantly state-funded, the percentage of private funding – about 35 percent of all expenditures on tertiary educations institutions in 2013 – is relatively high compared to most OECD countries. Governments at the federal and local level provide large parts of public university budgets and provide premises, dormitories and other properties. Recent legal changes have also allowed private universities to apply for state funding, if to a lesser extent. However, the share of university funding coming from tuition fees has increased over the past decades; between 1995 and 2005, for instance, the percentage of students paying tuition fees increased from 13.1 to 57.5 percent.[3]

As a result, education has become more expensive for many students, even in the public sector. Students with high EGE scores are usually allowed to study for free; however many students pay annual tuition fees averaging 120-140 thousand rubles (USD $2,084 to $2,432) for a bachelor’s degree and 220-250 thousand rubles (USD $3,822-4,343) for a Specialist degree (described in more detail below). Although students can take out low-interest loans, these costs are high considering Russian income levels. Inflation rates of more than 11 percent in 2014 caused many Russian universities to raise tuition fees by significant margins, while the average monthly income simultaneously dropped by 35 percent to USD $558 in 2015.

As noted earlier, federal spending on education decreased by 8.5 percent between 2014 and 2016.  This downturn reverses spending increases in previous years. Between 2005 and 2013, overall Russian higher education spending as percentage of GDP increased from 2.7 percent in 2005 to 3.8 percent in 2013. In the tertiary sector, spending levels stayed mostly constant between 2005 and 2013, but because the number of students simultaneously declined, the amount spent per student actually rose by 32 percent to $USD 8,483. This number, however, is still low when compared to the average spending in countries at comparable levels of development, causing observers like the World Bank to recommend that Russia increase education spending and prioritize human capital development in order to ensure sustained and inclusive economic growth.

Quality Assurance: State Accreditation and the Role of the Bologna Process

All higher education institutions in Russia, public or private, must have a state license to deliver education programs. To award nationally recognized degrees, institutions must also obtain state accreditation. The accreditation process is overseen by the Federal Service for Supervision in Education and Science (Rosobrnadzor), and is based on institutional self-assessments, peer review, and site visits certifying compliance with standards set by Russia’s National Accreditation Agency (subordinated to Rosobrnadzor).

Accreditation is granted for six-year periods, and entitles institutions to award state-recognized diplomas in a set number of disciplines, and to apply for funding by the government. Both the National Accreditation Agency and Rosobrnadzor maintain online databases of accredited institutions and the degree programs they are authorized to offer.

A signatory to the Bologna declarations since 2003, Russia has adopted many of the quality assurance provisions stipulated in the declarations. Internal quality assurance systems have been established at most of Russia’s universities, and there are now at least five independent accreditation agencies operating in Russia. These agencies accredit programs and institutions in disciplines such as engineering and law, but accreditation by these agencies is not mandatory and does not replace existing quality assurance mechanisms, which remain strictly based on institutional accreditation by the government. Accreditation by European agencies, including those registered with the European Quality Assurance Register (EQAR) is presently not recognized by the Russian government.

Tertiary Degree Structure

Prior to the introduction of the Bologna three-cycle degree structure in 2003, tertiary education in Russia consisted mainly of long single-cycle degree programs of five to six-year duration leading to the award of a “Diploma of Specialist,” followed by a doctoral research degree called Kandidat Nauk (Candidate of Science). In 2007, the single-cycle Specialist program was replaced with a two-cycle degree system consisting of an undergraduate Bakalavr (Bachelor) degree, and a graduate Magistr (Master) degree in many fields of study. In these fields, Specialist degrees are being phased out, and the last waves of students studying under the old structure are currently reaching graduation. However, implementation of the two-cycle Bakalvr/Magistr system, has not been mandated across the board, and long Specialist degrees continue to be awarded in a number of fields, including the professions and technical disciplines. The three degrees still in common circulation are thus:

  • Bakalvr: Baklavr degrees in Russia are always four years in duration (240 ECTS credits). (In other European countries the length of Bachelor degrees varies between three and four years.) Bakalvr degrees are awarded in a wide variety of disciplines and require completion of a thesis (prepared over a time period of four months) and passing of a final state examination in addition to coursework. Admission is based on EGE results in disciplines related to the major of the program.
  • Magistr: Magistr degrees are research-oriented graduate degrees that are always two years in length (120 ECTS). Programs conclude with the defense of a thesis and state examination. Admission requires a Baklavr degree, but universities are free to set additional admission requirements, including entrance examinations and interviews. Bachelor graduates that completed a degree in a different field of study generally have to pass an entrance exam to demonstrate proficiency in the intended area of study. Holders of Specialist degrees are also eligible for admission.
  • Specialist Degrees: Specialist programs are at least five years in length and involve state requirements of approximately 8,200 hours of instruction, a thesis and state examination. Programs lead to the award of the “Diploma of Specialist” and are generally considered to be professionally rather than academically oriented, although the Specialist degree has the same legal standing as the Magistr degree and gives full access to doctoral programs.

Specialist degrees continue to be primarily awarded in professional and technical disciplines, which, in the case of Russia, include common professional disciplines like law, engineering or medical fields, as well as disciplines, such as astronomy, cinematography or computer security, for example. Training in medicine includes further postgraduate education after completion of a, typically six-year long, Specialist program in medicine. Graduate medical education is typically  completed in one-year internships (Internatura) followed by two to four-year study programs leading to the award of the Ordinatura certificate which entitles graduates to practice in a medical specialty in Russia (cardiology, internal medicine etc.).[4]

European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) credits are used in Baklavr and Magistr programs, but, as of now, rarely in Specialist programs. The ECTS grading scale, as well as a new 0-100 grading scale, have been introduced in recent years, but are generally not used on state format academic transcripts, which continue to be issued using the standard 2 to 5 grading scale. Degree programs at both public and private universities conclude with a state examinations and the defense of a thesis in front of a State Attestation Commission.

Diploma Supplements existed in Russia prior to the Bologna reforms, and are still issued for all Russian tertiary degrees.

University Graduates by Type of Degree (in thousands) 

Kandidat Nauk and Doktor Nauk

Students obtain entrance to doctoral research programs – or aspirantura – on the basis of Magistr or Specialist degrees. Doctoral programs are usually three years in length, including lectures and seminars, and independent original research. Upon completion of the study program, doctoral candidates are awarded a diploma of completion of aspirantura. A final Kandidat Nauk degree is conferred only after the public defense of the doctoral dissertation.

Another type of doctoral program, the Doktor Nauk (Doctor of Science), requires additional study beyond the Kandidat Nauk. It is a higher doctorate that entails completion of another dissertation and takes most candidates anywhere between five and fifteen years to complete. The Doktor Nauk is required to obtain full-tenured professorship in Russia, as well as the prestigious rank of “Professor of the Russian Academy of Sciences.” Full tenure is otherwise only granted to professors with at least 15 years of outstanding teaching service at a university.


Published in the group «Trends, Analysis & Statistics»

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