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Analysis & Opinion
21.05.08 Why Alma Mater Matters
By Yelena Biberman

“Even if a graduate is not employed in the field in which he received his degree, the ‘brand’ of his alma mater often serves as a sort of a ‘business card’,” explains a recent report by RatER, a Moscow-based independent rating agency. In April, RatER released its findings on the education of Russian political elite, and ranked Russia’s higher education institutions based on their “end product” – the marketability and success of their graduates in politics. The results reveal a familiar trend: power in Russia tends to be concentrated in a manner that is based more on old traditions and geography, and less on aptitude and merit. In Russia, universities, which serve as an instrument of social mobility in many developed societies, appear to function more for the allocation rather than the dissemination of power.

The Russian word for education, “obrazovaniye,” is derived from the noun “obraz,” which translates as “appearance” or “image.” While in English, the term stands for the process of teaching and learning specific skills, in Russian, it is the process of crafting one’s own image, giving oneself a form, so to speak. The Russian linguistic conceptualization of education is most pertinent in the field of politics, where image plays an increasingly important role. The “brand” of the institution one chooses for shaping his or her image is, therefore, rather consequential and rarely unintentional.

According to RatER, Russian higher education institutions may be grouped into three basic categories. The first prepares specialists in specific, narrow areas. The second offers a more liberal type of education that equips graduates with the ability to constantly acquire new knowledge and skills, in order to solve new kinds of problems. Finally, there are those higher learning institutions that function primarily as prestigious and lucrative sites for social networking. The most famous of the latter is the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), the university of choice for St. Petersburg’s first mayor’s daughter and “it-girl” Ksenia Sobchak (an M.A. in Political Science), for example. It is also the university that would top the list if judged by the percentage rather than the total number of graduates who make it in politics. However, even when looking at total numbers, MGIMO is still among the top three.

Because graduates from the first category are often perceived as overspecialized and, consequently, narrow-minded, Russia’s aspiring political elite tends to be attracted more to the second and, even more frequently, to the third class of higher education institutions. The more focused options, such as the Russian Academy of Public Service under the President of the Russian Federation, and the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, are the likely routes for existing or aspiring public servants, seeking a second degree.

When it comes to degrees, it is not surprising that so many of Russia’s political elites, including the current president and the prime minister, are lawyers. As Max Weber pointed out in a Munich University lecture almost 90 years ago, lawyers are the most “dispensable” in a given society and, consequently, “the lawyer has played an incomparably greater, and often even a dominant, role as a professional politician.” At the same time, as RatER’s study shows, economists are also in demand. This is not unexpected, since, for better or for worse, Russia is undergoing an economic transition.

The generation gap

RatER’s study of 1150 members of the Russian political elite also revealed an important generational component. The Russian political elite is currently made up of multiple generations. There are still some, albeit few, of those who were members of the Soviet elite. They are generally concentrated in the governor corps, and include such notable figures as Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, President of the Republic of Tatarstan Mintimer Shaimiev, governor of the Sverdlovsk Region Eduard Rossel, and governor of the Oryol Region Yegor Stroyev. The older generation is also well represented in the judicial branch.

There are virtually no representatives of the Soviet political elite in the government and in the presidential administration. Those working directly under President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are generally either peers, or slightly younger. “The political elite of the ‘Yeltsin draft’ are still strong, but steadily weakening; while the politically dominant generation is the one that came to power during the Putin presidency,” described RatER.

Nonetheless, the list for the top universities feeding political elite would hardly look different if generations of political elites starting from the Soviet to the Putin times were compared. The same names – Moscow State University, MGIMO, and St. Petersburg State University – would come up over and over again, as these are the traditional “top schools.” The only variation would be in the positioning of St. Petersburg State University in the top three.

With the growing number and influence of the members of Putin’s generation in the Russian government comes a more prominent role for St. Petersburg’s higher learning institutions. With Putin, St. Petersburg State University became number two, outranking MGIMO in the total number of policymakers on the RatER list.

This trend will undoubtedly continue under Medvedev, who graduated from the law department in 1987 and, three years later, received his PhD in private law from the St. Petersburg State University (then, Leningrad State University).

“I predict that the influence of all graduates of St. Petersburg universities will slightly increase in the next one to two years as the political elite takes shape. This is because the team of the young president Medvedev is, to a large extent, made up of those who studied with him at the law department at the Leningrad State University. And now these individuals will lay claim to major government posts,” said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, director of the Moscow-based Center for the Study of Elites at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“As of yet, this process has not gained full speed. Though, Alexander Konovalov, who was appointed Minister of Justice, and Konstantin Chuichenko [who was appointed chief of the Control Department] are both Medvedev’s college mates,” Kryshtanovskaya explained. “Under Putin, the number of ‘home boys’ in the top political posts constantly grew. If under Boris Yeltsin (1993) there were only 13.2 percent of them, in 2003, their number increased to 21.3 percent. In February of 2008, the number grew further, to 21.9 percent. If we add to this figure the new individuals that Medvedev will add to his team, then, naturally, we should expect that from 22 to 25 percent of the entire Russian political establishment will be made up of individuals from St. Petersburg.”

Learning in the third world

But, how do the Russian universities fair internationally? And what does this signify regarding the “quality” of the Russian political elite?

Alexey Chaplygin, RatER project manager, said that while Russia’s higher education is booming, the overwhelming majority of Russian universities are not yet globally competitive. The only one that usually makes the top-100 list is the Moscow State University; St. Petersburg State University often makes it into the top-200. Interestingly, Tomsk State University and Novosibirsk State University make the top-500, while MGIMO and Russia’s best technical and economic institutes are usually left out. Chaplygin believes that this is due to a combination of factors, such as language barriers, a collapse in terms of available resources over the past 20 years, and a “fractured national system of innovation” (global ratings largely measure the research component of the university).

“The level of the Russian education system development is currently similar to that of South Korea, Mexico, Taiwan and Brazil,” Chaplygin said. “Developed countries have progressed a great deal, and catching up with them may take many years.”

When it comes to the quality of the Russian political elite as determined by the quality of its education, there are still more challenges to overcome. According to Chaplygin, “The existing system of elite reproduction does not have, at its core, the goal of improving the quality of the elite. Therefore, we can expect a further drop in international appraisals [of Russia’s top universities] due to the worsening quality of their most visible and public ‘products’ – the elites.”

One may point to competition between Russian universities, and even some foreign ones, as a stimulus for diversifying and improving the Russian political elite corps. This may not be the best bet, however, because, in elite education, tradition is king.

RetER listed a total of 64 universities that produced four or more members of the current political elite, yet only 14 of them boast double digits and a mere four can say that they produced 20 or more (Moscow State Univerisity claims as many as 70). According to Chaplygin, this list of universities preparing the elite will not get longer in the future. This is because “the process of elite production usually clams up in universities that have the most developed traditions in this sphere,” he said.
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