What are the odds? Rus­sia has a lot rid­ing on its 5-100 Project to boost its uni­ver­si­ties. Will it pay off?

Is Rus­sia’s 5-100 Project a gov­ern­ment ex­cel­lence ini­tia­tive that is work­ing? Ahead of THE’s Re­search Ex­cel­lence Sum­mit in Moscow, Si­mon Baker weighs the ev­i­dence for the trans­for­ma­tion of the coun­try’s higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

When Yuri Ga­garin be­came the first hu­man to or­bit the Earth in 1961, the Soviet Union was tri­umphant. And al­though the coun­try’s cap­i­tal­ist ri­val, the United States, won the race to put a man on the Moon, sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy re­mained one of the spheres in which the Soviet Union led the charge to demon­strate the su­pe­ri­or­ity of com­mu­nism to cap­i­tal­ism.

Yet, since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Rus­sia’s un­der­whelm­ing sci­en­tific tra­jec­tory is put into sharp per­spec­tive when com­pared with the progress of its for­mer com­mu­nist neigh­bour, China.

De­spite their both be­ing in­cluded in the BRIC group of ma­jor emerg­ing na­tions iden­ti­fied by for­mer Gold­man Sachs chair­man Jim O’Neill in 2001, the gulf that has opened up be­tween them when it comes to higher ed­u­ca­tion is as­ton­ish­ing.

In 1996, both were pro­duc­ing around the same amount of re­search in­dexed in the Sco­pus bib­lio­met­ric data­base: about 30,000 ar­ti­cles a year. Fast for­ward to 2017 and China pub­lished more than 510,000 aca­demic ar­ti­cles and con­fer­ence papers, com­pared with Rus­sia’s 85,000. In­deed, Rus­sian re­search out­put hardly moved at all for 10 years, lead­ing it to fall be­hind other BRIC na­tions In­dia and Brazil, too, by 2010 (al­though still ahead of South Africa, which joined what is now the BRICS group­ing in 2010) (see graphs, right).

Ad­mit­tedly, Sco­pus does not show the com­plete pic­ture as it does not fully re­flect the large amount of re­search that is pub­lished in Rus­sian. But, at the very least, it is clear that other BRICS coun­tries have been quicker to plug them­selves into the English-speak­ing global sci­ence ecosys­tem. And Rus­sian uni­ver­si­ties have lan­guished in in­ter­na­tional rank­ings as a re­sult.

How­ever, in the past five or six years, some­thing seems to have changed. From 2012 to 2017, Rus­sia’s schol­arly out­put in Sco­pus more than dou­bled (tak­ing it back past Brazil), and its rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion’s World Univer­sity Rank­ings has risen from just 13 in­sti­tu­tions out of 800 in 2016 (1.6 per cent of the to­tal) to 35 out of 1,258 (2.9 per cent of the to­tal) in the most re­cent rank­ings, for 2019.

The ma­jor change in Rus­sian pol­icy in that time has been the launch of Project 5-100 in 2013. In this, 21 uni­ver­si­ties have been se­lected – an ini­tial 15, then six more in 2015 – through an open com­pe­ti­tion to re­ceive up to 1 bil­lion rou­bles (£11.6 mil­lion) a year in an at­tempt to pro­pel five of them into the top 100 of global rank­ings by 2020. The uni­ver­si­ties were cho­sen af­ter pre­sent­ing pro­pos­als – or “roadmaps” – on how they aim to im­prove their in­ter­na­tional stand­ing. Their progress has then been judged against these roadmaps and also per­for­mance in­di­ca­tors drawn up by the project. Not ev­ery univer­sity re­ceives the same amount of fund­ing – those deemed to be per­form­ing well have been re­warded with ad­di­tional money.

The epony­mous goal of the project looks a long way from be­ing met: the only Rus­sian univer­sity in the lat­est top 200 is Lomonosov Moscow State Univer­sity, at joint 199th. More­over, Lomonosov is not a 5-100 univer­sity: the high­est ranked of those, the Moscow In­sti­tute of Physics and Tech­nol­ogy, is in the 251-300 band. How­ever, the data sug­gest that 5-100 in­sti­tu­tions have been im­prov­ing fast on some im­por­tant mark­ers. For in­stance, from 2012 to 2017, the uni­ver­si­ties – 18 of which make the lat­est rank­ing – have quadru­pled their re­search out­put in­dexed in Sco­pus, from about 7,000 to 28,000 ar­ti­cles. This takes them above the whole schol­arly out­put of South Africa.

Their growth in re­search pro­duc­tiv­ity has been es­pe­cially strik­ing. Out­put per aca­demic for 5-100 uni­ver­si­ties in the rank­ing has been rac­ing ahead of that of other ranked Rus­sian uni­ver­si­ties. It has also passed that of Brazil and is al­most on a par with that of In­dia (see graph, right).

So is 5-100 an ex­am­ple of a gov­ern­mentim­posed ex­cel­lence ini­tia­tive that is work­ing? And what would that re­ally mean? Is it rais­ing the stan­dard for all Rus­sian in­sti­tu­tions or cre­at­ing a two-tier sys­tem? And what is the fu­ture for the project now that the orig­i­nal 2020 dead­line is round the cor­ner?

An­drei Volkov is deputy chair­man of the 5-100 gov­ern­ing coun­cil, a panel of gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, aca­demics, busi-

ness fig­ures and other ex­perts from Rus­sia and around the world that over­sees the project and ad­vises the Rus­sian Min­istry of Sci­ence and Higher Ed­u­ca­tion on where money should be spent. As a nu­clear physi­cist and for­mer univer­sity vice-rec­tor, Volkov has seen the Rus­sian sys­tem both be­fore and af­ter the col­lapse of the Soviet Union, and he firmly be­lieves that 5-100 is the “most in­flu­en­tial re­form” of the past 20 years in Rus­sian higher ed­u­ca­tion.

Key to its suc­cess, he says, has been end­ing the sep­a­ra­tion of teach­ing and re­search, by bring­ing uni­ver­si­ties – which were tra­di­tion­ally teach­ing-fo­cused – to­gether with cen­tralised re­search in­sti­tutes, pri­mar­ily the Rus­sian Academy of Sciences (RAS).

“In Rus­sia, there were no uni­ver­si­ties at all: just train­ing in­sti­tu­tions, [al­beit ones of] ex­tremely high qual­ity…The shift from be­ing a train­ing in­sti­tu­tion up to be a re­search­based in­sti­tu­tion is a cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion in my coun­try,” he says.

In prac­tice, this shift has meant RAS re­search units be­com­ing much more in­te­grated with uni­ver­si­ties, through merg­ers, in­creased col­lab­o­ra­tion or re­searchers be­ing given joint ap­point­ments.

Igor Chirikov, se­nior re­search fel­low at the Cen­ter for Stud­ies in Higher Ed­u­ca­tion at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, has looked in de­tail at how the 5-100 project has changed Rus­sian uni­ver­si­ties, and he agrees that this shift has been im­por­tant. “We had a sec­tor of uni­ver­si­ties that had no his­tor­i­cal mis­sion to do re­search and in­vest­ing through the 5-100 project made at least a por­tion of these uni­ver­si­ties more re­search-ori­en­tated,” says Chirikov, who was pre­vi­ously vice-rec­tor at the Moscow­based Higher School of Eco­nomics, one of the high­est ranked 5-100 in­sti­tu­tions.

“Right now uni­ver­si­ties and the [RAS] are work­ing much more closely than they did be­fore,” he agrees, not­ing that a sim­i­lar phe­nom­e­non is ev­i­dent in Ger­many and China, where Max Planck In­sti­tutes and in­sti­tutes of the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences have also

In Rus­sia, there were no uni­ver­si­ties, just train­ing in­sti­tu­tions. The shift from be­ing a train­ing in­sti­tu­tion up to be a re­search-based in­sti­tu­tion is a cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion

be­come more in­te­grated with higher ed­u­ca­tion.

The 5-100 pro­gramme has also led to more sci­ence that was pre­vi­ously pub­lished in Rus­sian through the RAS be­com­ing “vis­i­ble” to in­ter­na­tional schol­ars by be­ing pub­lished in­stead in English-lan­guage jour­nals, Chirikov adds.

An­other ex­plicit aim of the project has been about plac­ing the uni­ver­si­ties on a more global foot­ing, by in­creas­ing in­ter­na­tional staff and stu­dent num­bers. The data sug­gest that this push, too, has had an im­pact, with worl­dranked 5-100 in­sti­tu­tions im­prov­ing more quickly than Rus­sian uni­ver­si­ties as a whole on these met­rics (see graph, right).

How­ever, there are im­por­tant caveats to this. On stu­dents, Philip Alt­bach, found­ing di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for In­ter­na­tional Higher Ed­u­ca­tion at Bos­ton Col­lege and a mem­ber of the 5-100 ad­vi­sory coun­cil, points out that “in­ter­na­tional stu­dents” in Rus­sia also in­clude those from for­mer Soviet re­publics.

“The num­bers that are not from the for­mer Soviet Union have been grow­ing, I think, but mod­estly. They are a small part of the to­tal,” he says.

Alt­bach says that the 5-100 uni­ver­si­ties are “con­cerned about that. They are happy to have these folks, in part be­cause some of them are pay­ing higher tu­ition [fees]…but they re­ally want to di­ver­sify where the in­ter­na­tional stu­dents are com­ing from.”

Mean­while, Rus­sian in­sti­tu­tions’ ef­forts to re­cruit more in­ter­na­tional staff have been ham­pered both by the lan­guage bar­rier – most po­ten­tial over­seas re­cruits will not know Rus­sian – and by drops in the value of the Rus­sian rou­ble, which have made salaries unattrac­tive com­pared with those avail­able abroad.

Chirikov has also writ­ten about how the drive to quickly pro­duce uni­ver­si­ties that are sim­i­lar in their global out­look to those in Europe or North Amer­ica has led to “par­al­lel” struc­tures on some cam­puses for over­seas staff re­cruit­ment and re­ten­tion. He says that lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional staff rarely meet on some cam­puses, with the lat­ter “ghet­toised” – al­though he adds that the de­gree of as­sim­i­la­tion may de­pend on whether the in­sti­tu­tion is in a large city like Moscow or St Peters­burg, or a more iso­lated lo­ca­tion.

Volkov ac­cepts that there are chal­lenges around at­tract­ing aca­demics from over­seas, with bar­ri­ers vary­ing ac­cord­ing to dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines. For in­stance, re­cruit­ing in maths and en­gi­neer­ing is ex­pen­sive be­cause uni­ver­si­ties want the “best of the best”, to com­ple­ment the high cal­i­bre of the Rus­sian aca­demics they al­ready have, while in the so­cial sciences lan­guage is more of an is­sue.

“At the same time, I am sur­prised how, in just five years, the best in­sti­tu­tions have man­aged to find good PhD [stu­dents] and bring in very promis­ing aca­demics glob­ally,” he says. As an ex­am­ple, he cites the Univer­sity of Tyu­men in Western Siberia, which has at­tracted sev­eral aca­demics from “re­ally ex­cel­lent in­sti­tu­tions” abroad, de­spite its rel­a­tively re­mote lo­ca­tion.

“It is not the whole of Rus­sia [that is at­tract­ing aca­demics from abroad] but we have a cou­ple of spots where peo­ple from the global market would like to be.”

Cast­ing a shadow over all these in­ter­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion ef­forts, how­ever, is the dire state of po­lit­i­cal re­la­tions be­tween Rus­sia and the West, and it is an open ques­tion whether the 5-100 would have glob­alised even quicker had things been dif­fer­ent. There is cer­tainly ev­i­dence that it has hit in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion: al­though the 5-100 in­sti­tu­tions them­selves have just about

It is not the whole of Rus­sia that is at­tract­ing aca­demics from abroad but we have a cou­ple of spots where peo­ple from the global market would like to be

man­aged to hold their own on cross-bor­der col­lab­o­ra­tion, Rus­sia is vir­tu­ally the only large re­search na­tion in which in­ter­na­tion­ally co-au­thored papers have fallen as a pro­por­tion of to­tal out­put over the past few years (see graph, page 39).

Chirikov ad­mits that the po­lit­i­cal ten­sion doesn’t af­fect Rus­sian uni­ver­si­ties’ abil­ity to in­ter­na­tion­alise “in a pos­i­tive way”, and con­cedes that “for some schol­ars Rus­sia be­came less at­trac­tive as a place to work and as a place for col­lab­o­ra­tion”. How­ever, he thinks that the weak rou­ble has ac­tu­ally been the big­ger dis­in­cen­tive, and makes the point that Rus­sia’s promi­nence in global head­lines has made it more in­ter­est­ing to schol­ars as a re­search topic.

For his part, Volkov be­lieves that the neg­a­tive po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere has only per­me­ated re­la­tions at an in­sti­tu­tional level, rather than be­tween in­di­vid­ual re­searchers. But he ac­cepts that it may have been a bar­rier to greater progress.

“It is not a ten­sion…but [in­sti­tu­tions] try to ask more ques­tions [about] each other. It is not healthy, but it is be­yond [the con­trol] of the project,” he says.

Not all 5-100 uni­ver­si­ties are find­ing in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion a prob­lem, how­ever. For in­stance, al­most half of all Sco­pus-in­dexed re­search pro­duced by ITMO Univer­sity in St Peters­burg in 2017 featured in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion, up from about a third five years ear­lier.

The univer­sity’s first vice-rec­tor, Daria Ko­zlova, says that this is down to chang­ing how re­search teams are or­gan­ised. She re­gards as par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant the launch of “an open com­pe­ti­tion for in­ter­na­tional re­search labs, which had to have Rus­sian and for­eign co-heads. Our top ar­eas of re­search got a tremen­dous boost through this process.” The fact that co-heads are not asked to re­lo­cate full-time but, in­stead, to main­tain their links with their home in­sti­tu­tions means that “the re­search ben­e­fits from true in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion”, Ko­zlova says.

One ques­tion raised by all this is the ex­tent to which such pro­grammes and ini­tia­tives such as re­searchers hav­ing joint RAS af­fil­i­a­tions are, at heart, sim­ply ex­er­cises in met­ric chas­ing. For his part, Alt­bach be­lieves that al­though some of this is go­ing on, he is also sure that the 5-100 uni­ver­si­ties are “re­ally com­mit­ted” to im­prove­ment for its own sake.

“I would say that all of them – some more suc­cess­fully than oth­ers – are re­ally try­ing to re­form them­selves, both be­cause they want to sat­isfy the met­rics and be­cause they do un­der­stand that they want to be bet­ter and be part of the in­ter­na­tional aca­demic com­mu­nity,” he says.

The Rus­sian gov­ern­ment also seems wary of bla­tant at­tempts to game the met­rics and has im­posed fi­nan­cial penal­ties on uni­ver­si­ties found to be us­ing preda­tory jour­nals to boost pub­li­ca­tion rates. At the end of the day, Chirikov says, tar­gets al­ways lead to “gam­ing strate­gies be­cause ev­ery time that you mea­sure quan­ti­ta­tively, [peo­ple] try to adapt [their] be­hav­iour to that mea­sure­ment. Uni­ver­si­ties are not ex­cep­tions.”

An­other ques­tion is whether there are other re­forms that could help Rus­sian uni­ver­si­ties im­prove fur­ther. Greater au­ton­omy from the gov­ern­ment is the one of­ten sug­gested by all in­volved: uni­ver­si­ties, 5-100 lead­ers and aca­demics that have stud­ied the project.

“Right now, Rus­sian uni­ver­si­ties have some de­gree of au­ton­omy but there’s still a lot of in­put from the min­istry…about who we should train,” says ITMO’s Ko­zlova. “But uni­ver­si­ties have a much bet­ter feel for that. Given more au­ton­omy, the uni­ver­si­ties [would] be more nimble and ef­fec­tive in train­ing the top ex­perts for the fu­ture.”

Chirikov, too, be­lieves that more au­ton­omy “is prob­a­bly the right di­rec­tion”, and he points to a de­ci­sion last year to al­low most of the 5-100 uni­ver­si­ties to grant their own de­grees – a ma­jor de­par­ture for Rus­sia – as a sign that it is hap­pen­ing.

He says that the other ma­jor de­vel­op­ment should be “a fun­da­men­tal shift from at­ten­tion on the quan­tity of aca­demic work to the qual­ity. The sci­en­to­met­ric in­di­ca­tors that are used heav­ily by the min­istry and the uni­ver­si­ties to eval­u­ate them­selves need to be com­ple­mented with ex­ter­nal eval­u­a­tion…and the ba­sic con­di­tion is that it has to be an in­ter­na­tional eval­u­a­tion,” Chirikov says.

World rank­ings data un­der­line that 5-100 in­sti­tu­tions are mak­ing slower progress on re­search qual­ity (al­though their share of re­search in the top 10 per cent of cited ar­ti­cles is climb­ing). Their in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion also con­tin­ues to lag. Crack both these nuts – which rep­re­sent two-thirds of the scor­ing in the rank­ings – and the 5-100 project may even be in with a chance of ul­ti­mately re­al­is­ing the orig­i­nal goal af­ter which it is named (see graphs above).

The Project 5-100 web­site now states its goal, less pre­cisely, as be­ing to “max­imise the com­pet­i­tive po­si­tion of a group of lead­ing Rus­sian uni­ver­si­ties in the global re­search and ed­u­ca­tion market”. And Chirikov points out that the goal of get­ting five Rus­sian uni­ver­si­ties into the global top 100 was quickly re­cali- brated to be ap­pli­ca­ble to suc­cess in in­di­vid­ual sub­ject rank­ings, given the spe­cial­ist na­ture of many Rus­sian in­sti­tu­tions.

For in­stance, ITMO (pic­tured be­low), which spe­cialises in in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy and en­gi­neer­ing, is now firmly in the top 100 uni­ver­si­ties in THE’s com­puter sci­ence sub­ject rank­ing.

Such suc­cess, ac­cord­ing to Ko­zlova, is down to Project 5-100’s “am­bi­tious goals and the open­ness of the se­lec­tion process, which is car­ried out in pub­lic and in­volves an in­ter­na­tional coun­cil and for­eign ex­perts. We’re a small and dy­namic univer­sity, and the project has al­lowed us to un­dergo dra­matic trans­for­ma­tion in just about ev­ery area: from re­search to aca­demics to man­age­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion. We were able to overhaul ba­si­cally our en­tire sys­tem.”

As for Volkov, hav­ing once climbed Ever­est, he is very fa­mil­iar with what it takes to un­der­take steep as­cents. For him, 5-100 was never “just a rank­ing game”. Its pur­pose was to fun­da­men­tally trans­form the en­tire Rus­sian sys­tem by aim­ing high. And al­though the global sum­mit re­mains a dis­tant prospect, he is in no doubt that progress is be­ing made. So when a de­ci­sion about the fu­ture of the project is taken by the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment – pos­si­bly next year – it should not only be re­newed but ex­panded, he be­lieves.

“It is about hav­ing an ex­cel­lent ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and mak­ing it at­trac­tive for global stu­dents and global fac­ulty to come to Rus­sia,” he says. “It is a very good goal, a very good idea, and Rus­sian uni­ver­si­ties should fol­low this idea and sooner or later… some will be in­side the elite group.”

All the 5-100 uni­ver­si­ties are try­ing to re­form them­selves, be­cause they want to sat­isfy the met­rics and be­cause they want to be part of the in­ter­na­tional aca­demic com­mu­nity

Stamp of ap­proval Dim­itry Medvedev speaks at the open­ing cer­e­mony for a technopark of the Moscow In­sti­tute of Physics and Tech­nol­ogy

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