Sophia Kishkovsky. After it was reported this month that not a single Russian university had cracked The Times Higher Education’s ranking of top 100 schools by academic reputation, Education Minister Andrei Fursenko said that Russia was in the process of creating its own rating system. A brain drain from Russia has been funneling its brightest minds to the West, while the nation’s embattled higher education system struggles to find its place in the post-Soviet world. Each new rating announcement sets off hand-wringing about the predominance of the United States and the rise of China, both sore points and models for Russia.
“Russia has had some internal debate about their academic community,” Phil Baty, the editor of the Times Higher Education rankings, said by telephone from London. “They have suffered from appalling brain drain, and there is also concern that their scholastic community is isolated.
“There are some schools that are extremely impressive, but it is also struggling, and it’s all down to resources,” Mr. Baty added.
Dr. Fursenko told the Interfax news agency that ratings were an “instrument of competitive battle and influence” and should not be monopolized. He said that Russia was working with international specialists to create its own “international and universally recognized” university rating, Interfax reported this month.
Two days earlier, the Kremlin chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, said Russia should create its own corruption rating. The Times’s reputation rankings are based on responses by more than 17,000 academics, chosen in part according to Unesco data on the geographic spread of professors around the world. As early as February 2011, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was calling on Dr. Fursenko and his ministry to work out its own ranking of foreign universities.
“You must know that certain experts think that these Western ratings are, in fact, an instrument for raising their competitiveness on the labor market,” Mr. Putin said at their meeting, where they discussed a law that would recognize foreign university diplomas in Russia. “That’s why we need to be very cautious about them, and work out our own objective method of evaluating the quality of education that graduates of these universities receive.”
Last August, Mr. Putin promised 70 billion rubles, or $2.38 billion, for higher education innovation in Russia over the next five years. Dr. Fursenko told Interfax that he would investigate why Russia had fallen on the Times Higher Education lists. Lomonosov Moscow State University, which is known for its mathematics and physical sciences programs, had been ranked 33rd by the Times last year, the first year it compiled a reputation ranking. Only two Russian universities — Moscow State and Saint Petersburg State University — made it onto The Times’s regular Top 400 ranking, placing in the 276-300 and 351-400 bands.
Russians take any blow against Moscow State very personally. It was founded in the 18th century by Mikhail Lomonosov, who is regarded as a Russian Leonardo da Vinci. The Stalin-era skyscraper that serves as its main building is one of the Russian capital’s landmarks, visible for kilometers around, and the vast university serves the function of Harvard, Oxford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology all rolled into one. Viktor Sadovnichy, the rector of Moscow State, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a Moscow newspaper, that the university had suffered in the rankings because the quality of research at universities was weighted over teaching, but that such a year-on-year drop was too precipitous.
It was most likely set off, he said, by respondents being asked a new set of questions. Mr. Sadovnichy told the newspaper that the only question mentioned in the methodology described on The Times Higher Education’s Web site is “Which university would you send your most talented graduates to for the best postgraduate supervision?” which places Russian universities at an immediate disadvantage since there is no official “postgraduate” category in Russia.
In 2009, the Russian government designated a group of research universities for an influx of funds and development, something that China did years ago, said Martin Gilman, who was director of the International Monetary Fund’s Moscow office in the 1990s and has been director of the Higher School of Economics’ Center for Advanced Studies since 2006. The Higher School of Economics, one of the designated research universities and widely regarded as Russia’s most Western-style school, has lured 25 new faculty from the international academic job market — both overseas Russians and foreign-born nationals — with the promise of research opportunities and a smaller teaching burden than they would most likely encounter in the United States.
New hires are offered tenure-track positions and the resources to publish and to travel to conferences, which, in turn, raises the university’s international profile, said Dr. Gilman. The university has been transitioning to teaching and publishing in English, as well as introducing practices like blind peer-reviewed publications that are not yet the norm in Russia.
“We know that this is not going to have big payoffs in the short term in terms of international rankings, but we are hopeful that given our strategy of 2020” — by which time H.S.E. aims to be a world-class research university — “that over the longer term, this will be a much more solid basis in creating the kind of critical mass of faculty in certain disciplines,” Dr. Gilman said.
Russia has been faced with revamping its primary and secondary education systems as well in the wake of the collapse of Communism. The introduction of a standardized college entrance exam similar to the SAT in the United States, has been controversial, but is an important step to introducing national standards in Russia, Dr. Gilman said. On the university level, the social sciences were devastated during the Soviet era and are being built virtually from scratch.
“Those involved in higher education have a formidable challenge in this country because the dead weight of the past is enormous,” Dr. Gilman said.
Yefim Pivovar, rector of the Russian State University for the Humanities, one of the most prestigious liberal arts universities, known as R.G.G.U., said that Russian universities were still far behind in physical infrastructure, which, he said, also affected rankings. He said that R.G.G.U. had been exchanging students with Laval University in Canada for 20 years.
“They have kilometers of underground passageways between buildings,” he said. “We don’t have a single university with such passageways. I’m talking about the material base. I think they have seven rinks for Canadian hockey. That’s what we need to be doing. It’s not a question of ratings, but of the quality of our material base,” he said.
Dr. Pivovar said that Russia could not ignore rankings, but that R.G.G.U.’s 200 exchanges and agreements with schools like the University of California, Berkeley, and the universities of Bochum and Freiburg in Germany also proved its connection to international academia. Joyce Hor-Chung Lau contributed reporting.