Institutions of higher education in present day Russia face myriad threats in achieving modernization. At a 30 September 2010 Kennan Institute discussion, Alexandr Rusakov, Rector, Yaroslavl State University, and Igor Kiselev, former Fulbright-Kennan Scholar and Deputy Dean and Chair of Sociology, Department of Social and Political Sciences, Yaroslavl State University, explored the complexities of the Russian higher educational system, and the challenges its regional universities face in their efforts to remain relevant.

Rusakov opened the discussion with a brief history of Yaroslavl State University (YSU). Founded in 1803 by Alexander I, Yaroslavl State University – originally known as the Academy of Higher Sciences, and later as the Demidov Law Lyceum – is one of the leading institutions of higher education in the Upper-Volga region. Rusakov explained the importance of understanding educational modernization and reform through the lens of a regional university like YSU. "Hunting for money," as Rusakov described it, is a critical component to maintaining Yaroslavl State University; with respect to the YSU budget, he also noted the university receives "10 percent of what we want, and 30 percent of what we need." While YSU is a federally-funded institution, the finances required to effect any modernization do not match its actual budget. Thus, the university is compelled to look for myriad funding alternatives while developing innovative approaches to remain pertinent.

This challenge comes after a conference held by Russian Federation Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in April 2010 that focused on modernizing the higher education system. The principal resolutions of the conference included a plan to provide government funding to institutions of higher education in addition to the schools' regular budgets. These supplementary grants, however, are awarded with certain terms and conditions. For example, the government will not award the monies to the university in general; it must be allotted to a specific individual or project affiliated with the requesting institution, whose academic goals align with those of the Ministry of Education and Science. This caveat has a bittersweet impact on regional universities such as Yaroslavl State University; on the one hand, the institution's educational agenda is directly shaped (and potentially constricted) by state interests. On the other hand, YSU is forced to modernize its academic mission through developing up-to-date research proposals and recruiting innovative students and faculty.

The government's motives in offering these grants are readily apparent and directly impact how higher education institutions can operate. Specifically, the Russian Federation's geopolitical interests play a key role in the allocation of funds; Rusakov noted that universities are more likely to receive supplementary financial support if certain aspects of the school's mission align with "federal targeted programs." Thus, if a university like Yaroslavl State does not possess a certain specialization, or is not located in a region of particular interest to the government, the likelihood of YSU being awarded a grant is reduced.

Conversely, if a regional university is deemed eligible for one of these federally-funded grants, problems can still arise. The interconnectedness of the Russian state with the operation of a seemingly "autonomous" university can hamper the institution's modernization efforts. If the terms of the financial award contradict the regulations enforced by the academic institution, the mission and brand of the university can be compromised. The need for financial backing is critical to the institution's operation, however, and is likely to take priority over the educational mission. As Rusakov noted, "where can [institutions of higher education] get the money if we are not on the list?"

Notwithstanding the Russian government's financial impact on the majority of regional higher education institutions, achieving modernization is still possible. Alternative sources of financial aid exist outside of federal programs, and are critical to the survival and operation of institutions such as Yaroslavl State University. International organizations such as the Soros Foundation, Rusakov noted, provided critical supplementary funding to the YSU budget (1994-2002). Additionally, Yaroslavl State University has obtained curriculum modernization through partnerships with educational institutions such as Stanford University, as well as with private companies such as Microsoft and Cisco Systems.

Although budgetary concerns comprise a majority of the struggles higher education institutions face when maintaining relevance, additional factors exist. Rusakov elucidated that substantive modernization cannot be achieved without considering the circumstances – both literally and theoretically – surrounding an institution. For example, YSU needs to consider how to modernize itself in the context of the region of Yaroslavl. In asking the surrounding community about its needs, Rusakov noted a regional institution can determine the most effective way to move forward based on community demands. Finally, improving the educational experience students have at the secondary level would greatly enhance efforts to modernize at the higher level of education. Unless the student body is properly prepared for higher education, institutional reform and modernization cannot be fully realized. Rusakov summarized the mission of YSU to modernize: "we need to be international… we need to be entrepreneurial."

Igor Kiselev concluded the discussion with an overview of his latest publication, Russia in the "Group of Eight": Self-Perception Versus Image. The manuscript, Rusakov emphasized, serves as an "example of what work can be done at educational institutions" and focuses on the Russia's accession to the multinational G8 alliance through the lens of its self-perception as a nation-state.

Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute