Russia’s Rankings Aspiration and Moscow State

Putin has declared the goal of getting five Russian universities into the top 100 in world university rankings by 2020 one of the nation’s top priorities for research and education, an initiative known as Project 5/100.

October 16, 2018

It is no longer true that the prestige of the country is determined by the presence of the missiles, the number of Olympic gold medals or the extravagance of the president’s limousine. Prestige is now determined by the presence of a world-class university. And the race for the number of world-class universities is at full speed across the continents. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that there should be ten Japanese universities in the world top 100 by 2023. In a similar move, Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared the goal of getting five Russian universities into the top 100 in world university rankings by 2020 one of the nation’s top priorities for research and education, an initiative known as Project 5/100. Japan has only managed to get two universities—University of Tokyo and Kyoto University—into the top 100, while Russia still has gotten none.

Lomonosov Moscow State University, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (ranked 251–300 in the THE rankings), Higher School of Economics (301–350), and National Research Nuclear University MEPhI (351–400) are Russia’s top achievers. A few more universities are placed below the 500 benchmark. They all take part in Russia’s 5/100 Academic Excellence Project that allocates over US$100 million to a few selected universities in order to help them progress. Times Higher Education judges universities against performance indicators grouped into five areas: teaching (the learning environment); research (volume, income and reputation); citations (research influence); international outlook (staff, students and research); and industry income (knowledge transfer). Investment alone does not buy success.

Lomonosov Moscow State University, the flagship of Russian higher education, has been considered Russia’s best bet for the top 100. Founded almost three centuries ago and, until recently, the tallest university in the world, the university got a spot in the generously-funded 5-100 Program. However, instead of becoming one of the world’s top 100 universities, Lomonosov Moscow State University actually risks falling out of the top 200. The World University Rankings 2019, recently released by Times Higher Education, placed Lomonosov Moscow State University at 199th.  And it shares this spot with another university!

But the situation is serious. If a university is not included in the world’s top 200 best universities, it usually cannot be regarded a world-class university. Thus, Lomonosov Moscow State University is only one place away from losing this status. This must be a particularly hard blow for the university that enjoyed the reputation of being one of the best universities in the world during the Soviet era.

Lomonosov Moscow State University is worth US$600 million, including its vast real estate holdings and financial assets of US$60 million. The Russian government’s contribution to the annual operating budget is about US$12 million. Why then does this university find itself in such a dire situation? There might be three good reasons for that and insufficient state funding is not necessarily one of them. Weak leadership, clear lack of university autonomy, and corruption are the dead weights that hold the university back.

Despite the poor showing of Lomonosov Moscow State University in world university rankings, the Rector, Victor Sadovnichy, prospers personally. In addition to a 3,000 square foot house, Rector Sadovnichy owns three large summer houses and five plots of land. He resides in a large apartment assigned to him by the state and enjoys a state car with a personal driver. Being so busy fulfilling the Russian Academic Excellence Project, it is hard to know when Rector Sadovnichy has the time to enjoy his three summer homes. And despite the continuous decline in world university rankings, Rector Sadovnichy, age 79, was re-appointed by Presidential Order #798 on December 20, 2014 for five additional years until Sadovnichy turns 80 and extending his tenure to 27 years in office.

The autonomy of the university is regulated by the federal law “On Lomonosov Moscow State University and Saint Petersburg State University,” enacted in 2009. Parts 5 and 6 of Article 2 allow president Putin to appoint the Rector of Lomonosov Moscow State University, a dynamic that puts the very essence of university autonomy in doubt. This re-appointment, and the way it was done, underscores the authoritarian nature of the Russian political regime. The sustainability of the ruling regime is placed above everything else, including the fortune of the country’s leading university.

The most recent scandal at Lomonosov Moscow State University links one of its young leaders to corruption. Vladimir Stepanov-Egiyants—Vice-Dean of the Law Faculty, of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Law, and aid to the University Provost—was arrested in July 2018 on allegations of fraud. Police allege that a group of criminals, including Stepanov-Egiyants, used fake passports and fraudulent documents to deprive director of an automotive dealership of his share in the business and simultaneously stealing cars and cash from the company. The Vice-Dean of the Law Faculty is reported to have stolen around $650,000. Such scandals undermine the prestige of Lomonosov Moscow State University. At 37, Stepanov-Egiyants is the author of eight books and fifty articles, mostly focused on cybercrime, money laundering, economic crime and punishment. His email address is located on the server rector.msu.ru, something that mighty suggest a close affiliation with the Rector. None of his colleagues in the department or elsewhere the faculty of law have a similar email status. Nevertheless, they were eager to write a letter in his support, asserting his innocence and demanding his immediate release. In September, Stepanov-Egiyants was released on bail of US$630,000, while awaiting trial. Not a small sum of money in the country where school teachers survive on $400 a month. The bond is equal to the amount of theft alleged by investigators.


Ararat L Osipian is a fellow of the Institute of International Education, United Nations Plaza, New York, and honorary associate at the Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and holds a PhD in Education and Human Development from Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, where he came as a fellow of the US Department of State.


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