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Russian Excellence Initiative and the Red Queen effect in Global Higher Education

National Research University Higher School of Economics presents a new bulletin ‘Higher Education in Russia and Beyond’ that aims to bring current Russian, Central Asian and Eastern European educational trends to the attention of the international higher education research community. Its very first issue is devoted to making way of Russian universities to global university rankings.

Russia has joined the global race for academic excellence through introducing a new program of competitiveness, also known as the 5/100 initiative. The key objective of the project is to enable 5 Russian universities to enter top-100 in world university rankings by 2020. This program was not started from scratch and preliminary groundwork has been done for the last five years. 

The collapse of the Soviet economic and political system brought a long and dramatic period of post-Soviet transition accompanied with huge underfunding and a lack of strategic vision in education, research and innovation. The situation changed in 2006 when the first short-term programs were started to support 57 leading national universities in their first renovation efforts for research and innovation. Simultaneously, a new project of creating nine ‘Federal Universities’ from mergers was presented to build strong ‘umbrella organisations’ at all federal districts of Russia. 

In the next stage universities that showed progressive results were allowed to improve their research profiles and international academic cooperation in certain fields. First of all, a new status “National Research University” was granted to 27 universities that won a competition with more than 200 proposals. Most of the winners took part in previous programs of excellence. Moreover, in 2010 the government announced new academic mobility grants for leading scholars to start their projects and laboratories in Russia. As a result, 78 international projects and laboratories received special funding for 3-5 years to start new research and become recognised internationally.

This ten-year groundwork could be recognised as a strategic effort to make a shift from national renovation towards global competitiveness of Russian higher education. In this respect, the new 5/100 initiative is an ambitious and challenging programme that can provide universities with additional resources, competences and strategies on their way to become world-class universities. Now, 13 universities who were involved in a program at different starting positions are searching for their new identities inside and outside organisations, on the global scene. Becoming ‘world-class’ in the global field means not only enhancing effectiveness and efficiency but also providing recognition and legitimacy. 

It is hard to participate in global competition being 'a slow sort of organisation'. Global higher education displayed on international rankings is under the ‘Red Queen effect’: ‘It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. And if you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that’ (Carroll L., “Through the Looking-Glass”). It means that leading Russian universities should take this new frame at their starting points and think strategically on how to organise their new ways of being and becoming.

The first issue of HERB can be found here. To subscribe for HERB, please click here.  By  Ivan Pavlyutkin Senior research fellow at Laboratory for Studies in Economic Sociology National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow