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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- When Enrollment Patterns Shift

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 11 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's institutions of higher education are increasingly dominated by native Muscovites rather than by students from around the country, a shift that appears likely to transform both the intellectual and political role these schools play in the Russian Federation.

A Moscow newspaper reported on 9 April that at the end of the Soviet period, 75 percent of the students in the universities of the Russian capital came from outside the city, but that now, ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, only 26 percent of those enrolled come from outside the city.

This shift reflects a variety of factors: the increasing costs students and their families must bear when attending a university far from home given subsidy cuts, the refocusing of non-Russians on their own university centers, the growing ability of some to attend universities abroad, the ever more successful efforts by Moscow parents to ensure that their children attend elite institutions, and growing interest in and support for regional institutions.

But the consequences of this shift are already obvious. In Soviet times, Moscow's universities attracted the best and the brightest from around the country, and children of the Moscow elite often found it difficult to enroll in those institutions unless they were especially well-prepared or even better connected.

Among those who benefited from this pattern were those like Mikhail Gorbachev, whose upward trajectory began when he was accepted by Moscow State University, but who, if they were 18 again and living in a distant region like Gorbachev's Stavropol, might find it difficult or even impossible to enroll in that institution now.

That pattern not only contributed to a certain intellectual dynamism in the capital but also promoted significant upward social mobility and the continuing renewal of the national elite. It meant that members of the top elite often had the shared experience of attending university together. And it meant that Moscow's universities served social functions similar to the elite institutions in France, Britain, and the United States.

The shift in enrollment patterns seems certain to affect all of these things and hence to have an impact on the broader society as well in three major ways.

First, the Moscow universities may decline relatively if not absolutely as intellectual centers compared to other universities elsewhere. And that in turn will mean that regional universities are likely to become ever more important, an arrangement that many other countries have come to terms with but one that is fundamentally at odds with Russian intellectual traditions.

Second, the increasing share of Muscovites among Moscow university students will tend to slow social and geographic mobility by freezing out some of the best students from outside the city. And any such slowing down could lead to tensions between Moscow and the regions, especially if people in the regions come to view this trend as something the Moscow elite intends.

And third, and perhaps most important, this shift in enrollment patterns in Moscow higher schools inevitably means that members of the central and regional elites will lose one of the common experiences that has tied them together in the past. In many countries, those who attend the national or elite educational institutions become the national elite. Those who attend regional education centers become the regional elite.

If that pattern holds in Russia, and there is no reason to think that that country will prove to be an exception, then relations between Moscow and the regions are likely to be complicated by yet another and entirely unintended factor. Such a separation of key elites there could make it even more difficult for the center, that is, Moscow, to rule the periphery.

It is impossible to say whether the shift reported in university enrollment between Muscovites and non-Muscovites over the last decade will continue or whether all these consequences will be realized. But the possibility that these developments may occur seems certain to be at the center of both educational and social debates in the coming years.