Russian Educational System

Dr. Andrei Tolstikov
Director and Coordinator of International Programs, Research Division
Tyumen State University, Tyumen, Russia

Dr. Tolstikov (left) with Drs. Annett and Mikkelson

Dr. Tolstikov is in the United States on a Fulbright Fellowship to study how International Studies Programs are run at different universities. Last week he was at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, and translated for us the lecture by Dr. Andrei Soromotin on the environmental impacts of Russian oil and gas development that we watched via the Polycom system. He has also lectured to our classes in previous years from Tyumen State University about the history of Tyumen and Western Siberia.

Dr. Tolstikov is also a Jayhawk, he was a student at KU on a special Presidential Fellowship in 1993. His current position is as the director of international exchanges for research at both Tyumen State University and Tyumen Agricultural University. 

The Russian Federation has been divided up into administrative regions, and the Tyumen Region is the largest, It extends all the way from the border with Kazakhstan to the Arctic Ocean. In the south the agricultural zone is more like Kansas, while in the north the Taiga and Tundra zones are more like Alaska.

This is an historic map that is dated 1570. On the left side you can see a drawing of Ivan the Terrible sitting on a throne in Moscow. You can also see the Urals and a region to the east labeled Tataria.  Source website

Tyumen used to be an important capital of the Siberian Khanate. For 300 years Muscovy was under Mongol rule. Tyumen city is considered the first Russian city in Siberia. Tyumen Oblast is the biggest oblast in Russia and is now the capitol of the most important oil and gas region.

The northern part of the Tyumen region has many similarities to Alaska. The slide shows a passage for reindeer at a pipeline. There must be special structures built so that the reindeer will go past pipelines for oil and gas.

In the southern part of the Tyumen region it is more similar in some aspects to Kansas, with an agricultural economy based on wheat fields, animal agriculture. They are building up cattle industry in cooperation with Europeans and Americans, and you can see some of the imported breeds of cattle in the slide.

The slide also shows a German delegation studying climate change. The West Siberian Plain demonstrates many aspects of climate change. In particular, the huge bogs are some of the biggest storehouses of greenhouse gases on the planet, and if methane is released due to Global Climate Change it will result in a huge release of powerful greenhouse gases and cause major problems.

Dr. Tolstikov works with two universities, Tyumen State University, which has 33,000 students, and Tyumen State Agricultural Academy, which has 8,000 students. In addition, there are about 20,000 distance learning students.They are the main distance learning campus.

At both universities he directs the International Programs Research Offices.

There are a number of major challenges facing universities in Russia, and a great deal of effort is being spent in reforming the university system to deal with these problems. Not only are their difficulties left over from the economic disaster of the 1990's (brain drain of scientists to the West, lack of funding) but also historical issues that need to be addressed.

The demographic disaster-- population of Russia is declining, there are gaps in age structure. You can see from the graph that there are few between 65-75 years old--these are people who were born during the Stalin era and World War II when conditions were so difficult that few children born. There is also a gap with few 35-45 years old, which is related to the previous gap-- there were few people born in the 1930's and 1940's, and this age class would have been the parent's of people who are now 35-45 years old. But also, many younger people have emigrated, the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent decline of the economy has resulted in few younger people.

As a comparison we provide the population pyramids for the United States and Russia as compiled by the US Census Bureau for 2012 below.

The result is that there are currently not enough students to fill Russian universities. Universities-- rely on tuition, and with too few students, there are budget problems. Also, since there are so few in Dr. Tolstikov's generation, there are too few to act as faculty (both are due to demographic decline but also because of emigration).

As the map shows, Tyumen is one of the only regions with an increasing population. This is due to the economic boom in Tyumen related to oil and gas development.

There has been a significant "brain drain" since the economic crisis of the 1990's. An estimated 100,000 of the best scientists have left Russia over the past 20 years, many to the US. Nearly all the top names from Soviet science in some fields (for example, molecular biology) were working outside of Russia in early 2000's. Because of the economic crisis, difficulties in modernizing laboratories, etc. it became very difficult to continue high level science and so many left for Western labs.

Another concern for Universities is that there was a change in Russia from having to take university entrance exams to taking high school standardized exams. While this reduced corruption, it had the unintended effect that children are not being trained to have a wider understanding of the world, but instead they are being taught to the test. The positive aspect of high school exams is that it is a more fair system, the negative aspect is that high school teachers are just teaching to the test.

Today, very often graduates who leave college don't fit the expectations of employers-- their knowledge is general, not specific, so additional training will be required before they are ready for jobs. Many oil companies bring in international workers and don't select Russian graduates because they don't fit well within the needs of the companies.

The Russian University system also suffers from excessive centralization and overregulation. Historically, the Mongolians gave Russians a hierarchical system during the 300 years of occupation, and then when Russia set up a system of higher education they adopted the German system (as an aside, most of the tsars were German or had strong ties to Germany). As a result of this historical legacy, Russian universities are neither independent nor flexible in their structure and curriculum. They are very tightly controlled by Moscow. Universities must be accredited every 5 years by Moscow and the process is very time consuming and burdensome. Another example is that in Russia, PhD's have to be approved in Moscow, the universities don't confer their own degrees as they do in the US.

The Bologna Process refers to the current overhaul of all European schools to restructure them to better compete with universities in the United States. Today, universities in Germany, France and the Netherlands are not competitive internationally, and their students can't transfer credit from their institutions to other universities internationally. The Bologna Process seeks to build similar system for all European universities, and Russia is taking part in it. The Anglo-Saxon system confers BS, MS,and PhD degrees, whereas the German system consisted of a 5 year course of study for the Diploma, no Masters, and a degree similar to the PhD (in Russia it is called a Candidate's degree). To change to the Anglo-Saxon system requires substantial reorganization. This year is the last for Diploma students, from now on all must have Bachelors and Masters degrees instead (typically a BS takes four years and a Masters takes two years, in contrast to the five year Diploma). The problem is that employers don't believe that a Bachelor's degree is sufficient, so there is a transition period.

Another challenge facing Russian universities is that they face cycles of seemingly perpetual reforms. The best current example is the merging of universities. In Mr. Putin's graduate thesis "The Strategic Planning of Regional Resources Under the Formation of Market Relations" he proposed that only big companies can be successful competitively in international markets. This has been generalized to universities.

The first step in the process of merging universities into larger institutions are the new federal districts of Russia since 2000-- there are now eight super provinces (North Caucasian was added in 2010). This changed things around so that what people have thought of as historically designated regions are rearranged. For example, people have historically thought of Siberia as one district, and before 1917 all of the Asiatic Russian territory was called Siberia. This was changed when the Far East was administratively separately off.

The provinces don't refer to historical or geographic units. They are:

   Central Federal District
   Southern Federal District
   Northwestern Federal District
   Far Eastern Federal District
   Siberian Federal District
   Urals Federal District
   Volga Federal District
   North Caucasian Federal District
Map source

Tyumen province is within the Urals federal district and includes the Autonomous Regions of Khanty-Mansiysk and Yamalo-Nenets. The Autonomous Regions have their own governors, so the 3 governors have to work together and the structure is not clear.

In each federal district universities were merged to create federal universities-- there are 9 federal universities, 29 national research universities, about 1000 universities and academies, but only a few institutes left (most have been renamed and restructured). Resources are being redirected to the federal and research universities, but so far we don't see major increases in productivity. In Russia most students are from the same province (or sometimes from a nearby province), unlike in the US, where students can go all over country. Private universities are recently established and not very prestigious, and focus mainly on economics and business.

During the Soviet period there were no grant competitions. Funding was awarded on a non-competitive basis. Now there is a struggle for grants, but few opportunities exist. The Russian Foundation for Basic Research copied NSF in its competitive grant process, but there are only very small grants ($10,000 level). And there is poor grant distribution; mega-grants and state contracts given to a few, while most go unfunded. In the current system international scientists are better supported than Russian scientists, and most of the Principal Investigators for mega-grants are from other countries.There are no transparent mechanisms for grant awards.

Skolkovo is being built near Moscow with the intention of creating a Russian version of Silicon Valley (a business school to foster innovation has already opened). A great deal of money has been spent on this mega-project, but many are skeptical. While it is well funded, other little scientific cities around Russia are underfunded, so there may be a trade-off in where funds are allocated.

While anti-corruption laws are supposed to stop corruption, the complex bureaucratic procedures slow things down so much its almost impossible to get supplies released. 100% of Russian graduate students in molecular biology want to leave Russia because it is so difficult to get and manage grants. There are many institutional barriers to obtaining supplies and equipment, and customs, postal service, state controlled agencies all hinder the process.

There are some positive signals--the federal budget funds to universities have increased dramatically. Money has been diverted from the Academy of Sciences to universities. Previously, universities were cut off from research Institutes during the Soviet period, but even with all of the reforms this was not changing, so while the Academy of Science was successful under the Soviet, there are now many discussions about what to do with it. The original model was German, and the first Academy consisted of all Germans (only one Russian). Now there is more integration in global research and academic networks. Both the immigration of Russian scientists to other countries as well as the fall of the Iron Curtain has allowed a proliferation of international projects.

Campus internationalization is taking off-- during the Soviet period students came from throughout the Former Soviet Union, the developing world, Eastern Europe and Soviet client states. But now we see much broader internationalization. This helps offset the demographic challenges. Academic programs in Russia are good, tuition is not high compared to many other universities worldwide, and it is a good situation for many international students.

KU-Tyumen collaboration---we could develop study abroad programs, exchanges, joint courses and collaborative research.

Tyumen State University currently has several collaborative programs that could be used as models.

For a brochure on the research partnership click here

TSU has a partnership with Indiana University that includes both coursework and joint projects.

Projects include Geographical Information Systems training and research.

Biofilters which were used in the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico were created in Tyumen.

The Center for Geo-Information Systems receives satellite data for the region.

There is a TSU technology center, and negotiations are going on with MIT for internships.

Research into nanotechnology is an active area in Russia today.


There is also a research project with the University of Michigan that is fully funded by the Russian government.

TSU has a university TV educational channel using Russian satellites which broadcasts educational programming throughout Eurasia.

In answer to a question, Dr. Tolstikov explained that private donations to universities are not common in Russia; as an example he pointed out that he doesn't know of any building that has been named after a donor, as is common in the US. It was not even possible to create an endowment fund legally until 2007.

Tuition rates depend on the field of study. If you want to be a chemistry student the government is likely to pay your entire way. The idea is to fill fields that are of need to the country. In contrast, law, economics, management, you have to pay-- the more prestigious the university the more you pay. The average income of a Russian family in Tyumen is quite high, but much lower outside of the city. the average in Tyumen is $1500 per month salary, but utilities and some other fees are not as high as in other parts of the world so this salary goes further. The tuition might be as high as $4000 per year (but is less in some fields).