Prague, 15 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Politicians in most countries agree that education should be a national priority. But when it comes to funding teachers and academic institutions, money is usually short.
Russia is no exception, which is why Education Minister Fursenko’s proposal to reorganize Russia’s institutions of higher learning is getting a mixed response.
Fursenko, who outlined his plan in an interview with the newspaper “Vedomosti” yesterday, says it is time to face reality and use limited resources wisely. Critics fear it may signal pending cuts in education funding.
In recent years, hundreds of institutions of higher learning have cropped up across the country. This is in addition to an already extensive network of universities and technical colleges established in the Soviet era. The problem, argues Fursenko, is that the quality of the education these institutions provide varies greatly, and the state funds that are distributed to them could be used more efficiently.
According to Fursenko’s plan, Russia’s top 10 to 20 universities would be grouped together under the category of “national universities.” They would receive the bulk of state funds and be given full authority to implement their own academic programs, preparing students for bachelors and masters degrees as well as doctorates.
"The thing that concerns me about the Education Ministry’s current policies is that behind all reform initiatives lies an attempt to cut budget funds -- no matter what."
Under these elite universities, a larger group of 100 to 200 institutions of higher learning would be selected. They would get most of the remaining state funds and be allowed to issue bachelors and masters degrees.
All institutions that do not fall into either category would lose most state funding and only be allowed to issue bachelors or lesser degrees or certificates.
Yevgenii Bunimovich, head of the Moscow City Duma’s Special Committee on Education, welcomes the idea. It is a recognition of reality, he tells RFE/RL.
"I consider it a step towards honesty because the [current] situation, where Moscow State University and a construction institute issue identical diplomas is simply a lie. It is clear that they represent two completely different levels of education. This idea that these degrees were equal only applied domestically because for the rest of the world that wasn’t the case. You can go to the American Cultural Center in Moscow and they have a list posted of all of our elite higher-education institutions, whose students are eagerly accepted for graduate studies in the United States. So the rest of the world has already classified our institutions of higher learning into better and worse categories," Bunimovich says.
Bunimovich says there is nothing wrong with creating a group of elite universities that receive additional funding.
The idea has been floated in other countries. For example, last month, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder proposed a plan to spend 250 million euros ($325 million) over the next five years to develop five “elite universities” to help Germany increase its global competitiveness and counter an academic “brain drain” to the United States.
Sweden and Italy have announced they are considering similar plans. But Bunimovich worries that Russia’s Education Ministry, instead of apportioning extra funds to elite institutions, will merely cut the purse strings to most Russian universities that do not make it onto the list.
"The thing that concerns me about the Education Ministry’s current policies is that behind all reform initiatives lies an attempt to cut budget funds -- no matter what. If classifying institutions into national universities, elite universities, and others means that the national universities will get additional funds, then that is good. But if it means that the other universities will be funded even less than they are today, then that is bad," Bunimovich says.
Irina Abankina, of the St. Petersburg-based Higher School of Economics, questions the criteria that will be used to rank universities. She notes that many well-known universities have a few weak departments while some smaller institutions can have one or two exceptionally strong faculties.
She says a better idea when examining funding priorities is to look at individual departments and programs and judge them by where their students end up after they graduate. Competition among the faculties at different universities should be encouraged. Fursenko’s proposal, she argues, would create a caste system under which a few large institutions would be guaranteed the lion’s share of government funds, while smaller universities and their students -- starved of money -- would be permanently disenfranchised.
"We don’t need to support one set of institutions or another but rather to support effective ones, to support quality products. When we talk about putting institutions into different categories regardless of the results they produce and the education they provide and to finance them on this basis, we are once again not resolving the problem. Institutions of higher learning that receive few funds will provide pseudo-education and offer low-level education. This is what this measure could lead to," Abankina says.
Fursenko’s plan is likely to be debated widely in the weeks ahead as Russia continues to tackle reforms in its education system.
(RFE/RL’s Russian Service contributed to this report.)