Skepticism About Reform
Ivan Kurilla, head of the international relations department at Volgograd State University, is skeptical about the government's ability to achieve its goals.
"When [President Vladimir] Putin speaks about education he usually speaks in the same vein as he speaks about pensions. For him, [education] is a burden," Kurilla said. "I think that education should be considered part of the economy if you want to ensure that Russia is more than an oil and gas exporter."
Kurilla worries that the reforms will fracture society and deepen regional divisions. Plans to reduce the number of students mean that poorer children will be less able to go to university, thus increasing social tensions, he said.
Meanwhile, focusing on top-tier universities means that some good departments could close and some regions risk losing their institutions altogether.
"There are a lot of regions with neither federal universities nor national research institutes," Kurilla said. "We have 80-something regions in Russia, but we don't have 80-something with universities that meet all the criteria."
"To get a better education people will leave the region," he added, "and it is unlikely that they will come back."
Problems in Russian universities mirror the story of the last two decades: falling student numbers reflecting demographic decline, corruption, low wages and resulting brain drain, over-weening central management, as well as hyper-dominant Moscow attracting talented people from poorer regions.
Russia spends less on education than the European average and even less than its BRIC peer Brazil — 4.7 percent of national income compared with 5.3 percent spent by its South American peer — although it still outspends China.