Russia: Higher Education vs. The Economic Crisis

ULYANOVSK, Russia | Higher education in Russia has not escaped the impact of the global economic downturn, prompting the government to launch several reforms aimed at supporting students and maintaining a productive learning environment throughout the crisis.

Most significantly, it is facilitating the transfer of a large number of paying students to state-funded places in Russian universities. Traditionally, state-funded spots are only available to those students who successfully pass their exams upon graduating from high school – from this year, their results on the Unified State Examination. These high achieving students also receive a monthly stipend from the government to support them during their studies.

However, students who did not fare so well on their exams and, as a result, pay their own tuition, are not eligible for a stipend even if their grades in university are excellent. The economic crisis has meant that many of these students are now unable to afford their studies, putting their education and future prospects in jeopardy.

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In order to tackle the problem, the government is now encouraging universities to transfer more high-achieving, tuition-paying students to state-financed places. President Dmitri Medvedev recently made the suggestion in his videoblog, arguing: “Higher education institutions are already capable of doing so. However, they do so reluctantly, as it obviously means a loss of income. But, I suppose, under the circumstances, we should use those capabilities.”

Russian university graduates celebrate, but many lament their prospects upon entering the job market during a recession.

Russian university graduates celebrate, but many lament their prospects upon entering the job market during a recession.

According to a statement by Vladimir Miklushevskiy, the deputy minister of education and science, higher education institutions have been recommended to henceforth transfer these students to state-funded places twice a year, after their exams. The press service of the Kremlin announced on 7 May that more than 26,000 students would be transferred to state-funded places in the near future.

Veronika Kutkina, a student at St. Petersburg State Polytechnical University, welcomed the news, but not without concerns: “I am very proud of it. But the government should set up a special commission to control the process, since some student could, unfortunately, find a loophole and bribe some official [to secure a state-funded spot]. In general, the idea is excellent, but the main thing is to assure anti-corruption measures.”

“I think it is very encouraging,” agreed Yulia Andreyeva, a student at the Russian State University of Trade and Economics. “I personally know many students who, unfortunately, are paying for their higher education because they were too stressed during their exams and their grades were poor, as a result. In fact, some are much more clever and talented than other students who are lucky enough to study for free. At the same time, it seems to me that it is not enough to transfer a student [to a state-funded spot] after he passes a couple of exams, but to follow up on his progress, so he doesn’t lose his motivation to study.”

President Medvedev has also suggested that Russia’s student loan system needs to be better developed. “Such loans should be given for the study period at minimal interest, and repaid after graduation. Good grades are a must [in order to receive them], of course,” he stated.

He also called for universities to fix tuition fees in rubles, instead of adjusting them vis-à-vis the exchange rate – a common practice in Russian universities. “It will help students to feel more confident,” he argued. As of May, tuition fees are now fixed in rubles in all state universities.

Post-Graduation Prospects

Graduating students fear that they are entering an abysmal job market, and not without good reason. Aside from cutbacks, some companies have suspended the hiring process until the economic situation picks up, while others are deliberately giving preference to applicants with more work experience.

As a result, many higher education institutes have launched special services to help graduating students find jobs.

“I am looking for a job through the newspapers and the Internet, calling around and running about, following up on all interesting positions,” explained Anastasia Bolonina, a recent graduate. “My university helps its graduates with job hunting, especially with finding information about jobs, but usually its suggestions are not so good. Still, it’s a start,” she added.

However, the dearth of jobs does not extend across the entire spectrum of professions. While lawyers and accountants may not be in demand, the newspaper ads are full of vacancies for graduates of vocational schools, like metalworkers and wood turners. In other words, the need for vocational and technical training is critical in spite of the economic crisis.

This fact has not escaped the government’s attention. As Andrei Fursenko, the minister of education and science, announced during an international conference on training and vocational education in Minsk on 14 May, “The main task under all economic conditions, and especially during the economic crisis, is to train such experts [skilled workers], who are always able to find a profitable and pleasant job, and thereby they will multiply the wealth of the country.”

Nevertheless, vocational education generally remains the last choice of graduating students. “The majority of graduates go straight to the universities, since there is no advertising of vocational education,” explained Vera Gurskaya, the deputy director of vocational school #14 in Ulyanovsk. She is pleased that the government is now encouraging more students to go into skilled trades. “Vocational education is an important issue nowadays, and I believe the government is taking steps in the right direction.”

Other proposed initiatives have not been met with such enthusiasm. Kommersant newspaper recently reported that an expert panel under the direction of First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov suggested increasing the number of years of mandatory schooling to 12 years, and funneling more undergraduates into post-graduate studies as a solution to the less-than-ideal job prospects faced by graduates. Many feel that this proposal merely warehouses students until better times, postponing their entry into the job market. The Ministry of Education and Science, as well as many other officials, disapproves of the proposal.

Marina Zakharova, a vice-dean of the faculty of linguistics and international cooperation in Ulyanovsk is concerned about the potential impact on the quality of graduate students in Russian universities. “Post-graduate study is a wonderful way of learning,” she said. “However, under such a policy, all and sundry will enter it.  Only students with great potential and clear thinking should be there.”




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