Russian State University of Trade and Economics students protest in December at a monument to the Revolution of 1905. (Maksim Savidov.)
At the end of December, about 400 students occupied the Russian State University of Trade and Economics (RGTEU) in Moscow for over a week to protest controversial education reforms that would absorb their institution into another university. They barricaded themselves inside, and it took the intervention of a judge for the new dean to be admitted to his office.
Although the action was ultimately unsuccessful (absorption of the university is going ahead in a push to reduce the number of public universities), it was the most visible example of student activism in many years, raising hopes for the emergence of a Russian student movement on the heels of the mass political protests of 2011–12. In an article in The Nation, Stephen F. Cohen called the occupation an “extraordinary new kind of protest” that was wrongly ignored by the American media.
Some students claimed a moral victory in the struggle against a heavy-handed reform policy. “For a start, one result was that we were heard by a lot of people,” including supportive politicians and opposition leaders, said Maria Plastinina, an RGTEU undergraduate who spent two nights in the university during the occupation.
Other activists and commentators have argued, however, that the story of the protest, which ended after the university’s dean led a vote to disperse, illustrates students’ lack of initiative. Was this the launch of a grassroots student movement against top-down reforms, or an act of self-preservation spearheaded by the faculty?
Time of Troubles
The question of a student movement has gained resonance now that the Education and Science Ministry is drastically reforming—some would say “destroying”—higher education in the country. The reforms have already sparked several protests both in Moscow and in the provincial capital of Tambov.
Following President Vladimir Putin’s comment at a meeting last summer that ineffective government universities should be identified and reorganized, Education and Science Minister Dmitry Livanov announced that the number of universities would be reduced by 20 percent and their affiliated campuses by 30 percent within the next three years. The ministry collected data from educational institutions for a “monitoring effectiveness” program and ranked them according to five criteria: total revenues, students’ average standardized admissions test score, amount of research commissioned, square meters of space per student and percentage of international students. On November 1, it published a list of forty universities (out of 541) and eighty-one affiliated campuses (out of 994) it deemed ineffective, including RGTEU.
Meanwhile, the State Duma passed a sweeping education law on December 18 to further regulate and standardize elementary, secondary and post-secondary education. The legislation provoked picketing by school teachers and university staff and students, including an action group of students, graduate students and faculty from Moscow State University, who complained that it reduces the number of student stipends and removes the cap on dormitory costs.