Education in the Russian Federation

Education in the Russian Federation Infographic: Fast facts on Russia's educational system and international student mobility [2]

The Russian Federation, more commonly and simply known as “Russia,” is a complex, heterogeneous state. Home to some 143.4 million citizens, its population includes a sizable number of ethnic minorities besides the Russian majority. Most citizens consider their mother tongue to be Russian. However, up to 100 other languages, including 35 that are “official,” remain in use. Russia, the largest nation in the world in terms of landmass, shares borders with 14 neighbors: Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, North Korea, and China.

The Federation, like the Soviet Union before it, is a nominally federal system that consists of 85 “federal subjects,” including “republics,” “oblasts” (provinces), “krais” (districts), and “cities of federal importance.” However, Russia is not a truly federal system. Because of the re-centralization of power under the rule of Vladimir Putin, Russia is often referred to as a “quasi-federal” state, or a system that is “unitary in function [3].” The autonomy of provinces, republics, districts, and cities of federal importance is limited.

Some 54 percent [4] of 25- to 64-year-old Russians held tertiary degrees as of 2015, making the country one of the most educated in the world. However, its higher education system – especially its universities are in need of modernization [5], particularly in terms of research, which is deemed to be lagging [6]. As of mid-2017, the country faces a range of pressures that are affecting its education system, especially at the tertiary level. Among these are:

Still, the Russian government has pushed an ambitious higher education agenda focused on improving quality and international standing. The country is seeking to radically enhance the global ranking of its universities by 2020 and to attract substantial numbers of internationally mobile tertiary-level students from around the globe. At the same time, the government has actively sought to send scholars abroad – and incent them to return home as part of a broader effort to modernize the flagging economy.

This article seeks to provide an overview of the education system in Russia, especially at the tertiary level. It provides a broad context for understanding the current state of higher education in Russia; analyzes inbound and outbound mobility trends; provides a brief overview of the education system from the elementary through higher education levels; and addresses issues of quality and accreditation. It also provides a number of sample documents to help credential evaluators and others familiarize themselves with the appearance of authentic academic documents from the federation.

Economic Trends: A Recession Drives A Push for a Modernized Economy

Throughout 2015 and 2016, Russia experienced a recession [15] that can be traced to two primary root causes: Economic sanctions imposed by Western countries in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military intervention in Ukraine, and the decline of crude oil prices. Oil exports accounted for more than 50 percent [16] of the value of all Russian exports in 2013. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned [17] as early as 2009 that Russia needed to reduce its economic dependence on commodities and modernize, and technologically upgrade Russian industries in order to sustain economic growth. The economic fallout of the recent price decline has laid bare the country’s dependence on energy exports, giving new urgency to efforts to modernize the Russian economy.

Demographic Trends: Declining Birth Rates Affect the Higher Education System

Demographic trends have had a profound effect on the Russian Federation, not least its university system. The number of secondary school graduates dropped by about 50 percent between 2000/01 and 2014/15, from 1.46 million to 701,400 graduates [18]. The number of students enrolled in tertiary education institutions, likewise, decreased from 7.5 million students in 2008/09 to 5.2 million in 2014/15 [19] and is expected to further decline to approximately 4.2 million students by 2021 [20]. The United Nations estimates that the Russian population will shrink by 10 percent in the next 35 years, from 143.4 million people in 2015 to 128.6 million in 2050 (medium variant projection [21], 2015). According to the World Bank, Russia’s labor force shrinks by an estimated one million workers annually [22]due to aging, and that aging will drain pension funds while increasing public debt [23]. Further compounding labor shortages is a net outmigration [24] of scientists and highly skilled workers, even though current outmigration rates remain a far cry from the massive brain drain [25] that Russia experienced shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the near term, these pressures may ease, at least in the education system. After sharp declines in the 1990s, Russia’s birth rates have, since the 2000s, rebounded [26], and current increases in fertility rates have given some observers [27] cause for optimism. However, most analysts maintain that current fertility rates remain too low [28] to stem overall population decline, and that demographic pressures remain one of Russia’s biggest economic challenges [29].

Reforms, Mergers, and University Closures

Declining student enrollments have coincided with a decrease in the number of Russian higher education institutions. In 2012, the government initiated a process of reforms [30] and consolidation that had, by 2017, already reduced the number of institutions by more than 14 percent, from 1,046 accredited tertiary institutions in 2012/13 to 896 in 2016. In 2015, it announced [31] that it intended to close or merge as many as 40 percent of all higher education institutions by the end of 2016, with a particular focus on the private sector. It also intended to reduce the number of branch campuses operated by universities by 80 percent. It is presently unclear, however, to what extent these cuts will go forward. In late 2016, Russia’s newly appointed minister of education suspended [32] the mergers because of resistance from affected universities.

The reform effort is driven by concerns about educational quality. The main goal of the reforms is to merge poorly performing universities with higher quality institutions, an objective that was spurred by a 2012 quality audit that revealed severe quality shortcomings at 100 universities and 391 branch campuses [33].executive order (№2620, 30.12.2012) [34].

Other objectives included modernization and the effort to shift education and to focus on technical innovation: Simultaneous to the cuts among existing universities, plans were announced to create up to 150 [35] new public universities specializing in technological innovation and high-tech in order to improve Russia’s international competitiveness. In 2012, Russia also established a “Council on Global Competitiveness Enhancement of Russian Universities” and launched the so-called 5/100 Russian Academic Excellence Project [36], an initiative that provides extensive funding for a group of 21 top universities with the goal of strengthening research and placing five Russian institutions among the top 100 universities in global university rankings by 2020 [32]. The initiative also seeks to shift the mix of students and scholars on Russian campuses, pulling 10 percent of academics and 15 percent of students from abroad [5].

International Student Mobility

Inbound Mobility

Education in the Russian Federation Image 1: Table showing the top 10 countries of origin of foreign students in 2015 [37]

Foreign student quotas are seen as a measure of the effectiveness of higher education institutions, and the Russian government has, as part of its effort to boost the rankings of its universities, made it a priority to boost international enrollments. In 2015, Russia raised the international student quota at Russian universities by 33 percent [38]. It also significantly increased the scholarship funds [39] available to foreign students. That same year, a number of top Russian universities included in a newly-founded Global Universities Association [40] to jointly recruit at least 15,000 international students to Russian annually [41].

The measures are expected to enhance already strong growth in international enrollments. Reliable estimates of inbound students vary according to how such students are defined and counted, however, Russia consistently ranks as one of the ten most popular destination countries for international students in the world. As for the precise numbers, data provided by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics [42] (UIS) indicates that inbound students in Russia increased almost three-fold between 2004 and 2014, from 75,786 to 213,347 students. The Institute of International Education’s Project Atlas [43], which counts non-degree seeking students in its tally, puts the estimate even higher at 282,921 students as of 2015.[2]Student mobility data from different sources such as UNESCO, the Institute of International Education, and the governments of various countries may be inconsistent, in some cases showing substantially different numbers of international students, whether inbound or outbound, from or in particular countries. This is due to a number of factors, including data capture methodology, data integrity, definitions of ‘international student,’ and/or types of mobility captured (credit, degree, etc.). WENR’s policy is not to favor any given source over any other, but to try and be transparent about what we are reporting, and to footnote numbers that may raise questions about discrepancies. This article includes data reported by multiple agencies.

The majority of foreign students in Russia are enrolled in undergraduate programs [43] at public universities. Beyond that, the trends in inbound mobility and the reasons behind them vary, depending on students’ place of origin.

  1. Former Soviet Republics: Geographic proximity, linguistic and economic ties make Russia the top destination of mobile students in the majority of post-Soviet Republics, where most students speak Russian as a second language. The Russian government encourages regional student exchange in an attempt to expand influence and “soft power” [44] in other former Soviet Republics. Thus, the vast majority of foreign students in Russia, more than 60 percent, come from these countries. The three top sending countries in 2015 were Kazakhstan, which accounted for 25 percent of all students, Belarus (7.8 percent), and Ukraine, accounting for 7.2 percent.
  2. China: The number of Chinese students enrolled at Russian universities has increased considerably in recent years, and in 2015, China became the fourth-largest sender of international students to Russia, accounting for 7.1 percent of enrollments. Governments on both sides have in recent years taken steps to boost student exchange [45], and many Russian universities are expanding their recruitment efforts [46] in China. Efforts include dual degree programs and the establishment of Russian language learning centers in China. Russia offers Chinese students a low-cost alternative compared to Western countries like the U.S., and enrollments can be expected to rise in the years ahead. (Geographic proximity is another factor.) At the same time, the inflow of Chinese students is impeded by language barriers, since most education programs in Russia are taught in Russian.
  3. Other Asian countries: India and Vietnam are other Asian countries that send significant numbers of international students to Russia. Enrollments from outside of Asia, by comparison, are small. European countries (excluding Turkey, Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus) in 2014 only accounted for about one percent of international degree students in Russia, more than half of them from the Baltic States.

In 2014, students from Africa and the Americas respectively made up only about two percent and less than one percent of the total international student population.

Outbound Mobility

As of 2017, Russia’s government encourages Russian students to further their education abroad. In 2014, the government introduced a Global Education Program [47] that seeks to facilitate human capital development in Russia and remedy shortages of skilled professionals by funding Russian graduate students at 288 selected universities abroad. Some 72 are located in the United States. The program is intended to support up to 100,000 [48] Russian citizens over a time period of ten years and targets master’s and doctoral students in disciplines, such as engineering, basic sciences, medicine, and education. It covers students’ tuition costs and living expenses up to 2.763 million rubles [49] (USD $48,372) annually. At the same time, the government is seeking to curtail outmigration. Grant recipients are required to return to Russia within three years to take up employment in a number of select positions, mostly in the public sector.

As of recently, such scholarship programs appear to be bearing fruit. Between 2008 and 2015, UIS data [42] indicates that the number of outbound Russian degree students increased by 22 percent, from 44,913 to 54,923. This increase in mobility has likely been influenced by the rising cost of education in Russia, as high tuition fees have spurred students’ interest in the comparatively inexpensive universities of Central and Eastern Europe, for instance. The number of Russian applications in the Baltic countries, Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as China and Finland, has reportedly increased [50] by 50 percent in recent years. Given Russia’s population size, however, the overall number of degree students going abroad is still quite small and makes up just about 1 percent of Russia’s 5.2 million tertiary students [51] (2015).

The most popular destination choice among Russian degree students abroad in recent years has been Germany, where 18 percent of outbound students were enrolled in 2015 (UIS). The U.S., the Czech Republic, Great Britain, and France were the next popular choices, accounting for 9 percent, 8 percent, and 7 percent of enrollments, respectively.

China, Russia’s neighbor and an increasingly important international education provider, is another notable destination. UIS data, which tracks degree-seeking students only, does not rank China as a top-50 study destination. But China is presently ranked as the number one destination of Russian students if non-degree candidates are included in the count. According to the Project Atlas data [52], 21.6 percent of outbound Russian students studied in China in 2015, reflecting the strong growth in exchange programs, language training programs, and internships that has accompanied the strengthening of Sino-Russian cooperation [53] in recent years.

Russian student mobility to the U.S. is, by comparison, anything but booming. After peaking at a high of 7,025 students in 1999/2000, the number of students has fluctuated over the past decades. The country has not been among the top 25 sending countries since 2012 (IIE, Open Doors). In 2015/16, 5,444 [54] Russian students were enrolled at U.S. institutions, a decrease of 2.1 percent over 2014/15. In Canada, on the other hand, Russian enrollments have been mostly increasing in recent years – the number of students grew by more than 200 percent between 2006 and 2015, from 1,252 to 3,892 students, according to the data provided by the Canadian government [55].

Transnational Education: A Different Kind of Internationalization

Compared to countries like China or the United Arab Emirates, Russia is not a major host of foreign universities or branch campuses. The global branch campus directory [56] maintained by the “Cross-Border Education Research Team” (C-BERT) lists only one wholly foreign-owned provider in Russia: the U.S.-based Moscow University Touro [57]. There are a number of other foreign institutions licensed to operate in Russia, such as the “Stockholm School of Economics Russia [58],” as well as transnational partnerships like the “German-Russian Institute of Advanced Technologies [59],” but the overall number of such ventures is still relatively small.

On the other hand, Russia is a major player in transnational education (TNE) in post-Soviet countries, where Russian state universities currently operate 36 branch campuses [60], most of them located in Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Unlike in countries like Australia or the UK, where TNE is primarily driven by private providers, TNE in Russia is directed by the government and presently pursued vigorously. Despite charges [61] by the previous Minister of Education in 2014 that education at cross-border campuses was of poor quality and should be suspended, President Vladimir Putin in 2015 instead vowed to strengthen [62] TNE in countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), where Russia is already the predominant TNE provider.

One of the reasons the Russian government is pursuing TNE is that international education is a major element [63] in Russia’s soft power strategy in the “near abroad” aimed at fostering “economic, political and socio-cultural integration in the post-Soviet space [64].” This objective is formalized in the role of a government agency called Rossotrudnichestvo (Federal Agency for the CIS), which was set up to promote [65] Russian higher education abroad, support Russian institutions located in foreign countries, and popularize Russian culture and improve the image of Russia in the CIS.

In Brief: Russia’s System of Education


Federal Law №273 on education (2012) provides the core legal framework for the Russian education system. The Federal Ministry of Education is the executive body responsible for the formulation and implementation of education policies at all levels. Under its purview is the Federal Education and Science Supervision Agency, which is tasked with the supervision and quality control of educational institutions. Regional Ministries of Education are responsible for policy implementation at the local level.

General Education

General education in Russia comprises pre-school education, elementary education, lower-secondary, and upper-secondary education. The course of study takes 11 years in a 4+5+2 sequence. Four years of elementary education are followed by five years of lower-secondary education, which are followed by two years of upper secondary schooling. In addition to general academic programs, students can enroll in vocational-technical programs of varying lengths at the upper-secondary level (discussed further below).

Education has been compulsory until grade 11 since 2007 (until then, it was only compulsory until grade 9), and access to general education is a guaranteed right of every Russian citizen, according to article 43 of the constitution [66]. Schooling is provided free of charge at public schools; private schools are also available, although in limited numbers. Private schools in Russia only reportedly accounted for about 1 percent of all 42,600 schools [67] that existed in Russia in 2015.

The overall number of pupils enrolled in the Russian school system has decreased considerably [68] over the past decades as birth rates have declined. They dropped by more than 32 percent between 2000 and 2013, from 20.5 million to 13.9 million students. Only in the last few years have enrollments started to grow again, reaching 14.6 million students in 2015/2016. The trend has been driven by an increase in birth rates beginning in the 2000s.

Education in the Russian Federation Image 2: Table showing the declining number of students in Russian schools between 2000/01 and 2014/15 [69]

Participation and completion rates in general education are high. The net enrollment ratio at the elementary level was 95.2 percent in 2014, according to the World Bank [70]. In 2011, 94 percent [71] of 25-64 year-olds had completed at least upper-secondary education (compared to an average of 75 percent in the OECD and a 60 percent average among G-20 countries). Youth literacy is universal and has held steady at 99.7 percent since 2002, as per UIS data.

Types of Schools: Lyceums, Gymnasiums, Schools for the Gifted and Talented

Most Russian schools incorporate all stages of general education, from elementary to upper-secondary school. However, there are a number of schools that only provide elementary or lower-secondary education, mostly in more rural regions. Other schools only provide upper-secondary education. Evening schools, known as “schools for working youth” in Soviet times, for example, deliver upper-secondary education to students who completed compulsory education (grade 9, until 2007), but want to continue their education or prepare for tertiary education. These schools are attended by both children above the age of 15 and adults who want to further their education.

Other types of schools include lyceums, gymnasiums, schools for the gifted and talented, and general schools. All of these schools teach the general academic core curriculum, but some offer curricular specializations and are more selective. For instance:

Education at lyceums, gymnasiums, and other specialized schools is of high quality; these schools are considered to be among the best secondary schools in Russia. An annual ranking of Russian schools conducted by the Ministry of Education included 160 lyceums and 175 gymnasiums among the country’s 500 best schools [73] in 2016. Admission to the schools is typically competitive and may involve entrance examinations. Only about 16 percent [74] of Russian pupils presently attend specialized schools and the availability of these schools tends to be limited in more remote provinces.

Elementary Education

Russian children enter elementary education at six to seven years of age. This stage of education lasts four years and includes instruction in the subjects of Russian language (reading, writing, literature), mathematics, history, natural sciences, arts and crafts, physical education, and a foreign language starting in grade two. Most classes are taught by one primary class teacher for the whole duration of the elementary cycle, although subjects like foreign language, physical education, music, or arts may be taught by specialized teachers. The school year runs from the beginning of September to the beginning of June. Completion of elementary education is a requirement for progression to the lower-secondary cycle, but there is no final centralized state examination as in the other stages of general education.

Lower-Secondary Education (Basic General Education)

Elementary school is followed by five years of lower-secondary education, called “basic general education” in Russia. Classes meet for 34 weeks a year and include 27 to 38 hours of weekly instruction. The federal government sets a general core curriculum of compulsory subjects, but within this framework schools have limited freedom in designing their own curricula at the local level.

Subjects studied in lower-secondary education include Russian language, foreign language, mathematics, social sciences (including history and geography), natural sciences, computer science, crafts (taught separately for girls and boys), physical education, art, and music. Students from Russian republics that have a language other than Russian as their official language have the right to study their native language in addition to Russian and can substitute Russian with their native language in the final graduation examination (a right that is guaranteed as per Russia’s education law).

The basic general education stage concludes with a final state examination, called Gosudarstvennaya Itogovaya Attestatsia or GIA. The examination covers mandatory subjects – Russian and mathematics – as well as elective subjects. Students who pass the examination are awarded the Attestat ob osnovnom obschem obrazovanii,’ commonly translated as “Certificate of Basic Secondary Education” or “Certificate of Incomplete Secondary Education.”

The certificate enables students to obtain entrance to secondary education, either along a general university-preparatory track or a vocational-technical track.

Education in the Russian Federation Image 3: Table showing the Russian Secondary and Higher Education Grading Scale [75]

General Upper-Secondary Education

General upper-secondary education lasts for two years and includes a range of subjects similar to those offered at the lower-secondary stage. It prepares students for the Unified State Examination (Ediny Gosudarstvenny Examen or EGE), which is a series of standardized examinations conducted in May/June of each year. The EGE functions both as a final graduation examination, as well as an entrance examination for higher education. High EGE scores are important for access to the limited number of tuition-free seats at Russian universities.

The EGE is overseen by the Federal Education and Science Supervision Agency (Rosobrnadzor [76]) but administered by local authorities. All students sit for mandatory mathematics and Russian language exams. Since 2015, the exam in mathematics has been split into a “base examination” required for high school graduation, and a more advanced “profile examination” required for university admission. Students who do not wish to go to university can opt to only test in the base exam and Russian language. All students who pass are awarded a Certificate of General Secondary Education (Attestat o srednem obshchem obrazovanii) – a final graduation certificate. The certificate also lists the grades for all subjects studied during grades 10 and 11.

Students who fail the exam can sit for it a second time, but if they fail again, they do not qualify for the award of the “Attestat,” and only receive a certificate of study from their secondary school. Pass rates, however, are nearly universal. According to a recent report [77] published by Rosobrnadzor, only 1.5 percent of students in 2015, and 0.7 percent of students in 2016 failed to reach the minimum threshold in the mandatory core disciplines, which in 2016 was 27 on a 100 point scale in mathematics, and 24/100 in Russian language [78].

In addition to the two compulsory subjects, students can elect to be tested in an unlimited number of “profile subjects” for admission into degree programs of their choice. The subject options include physics, chemistry, biology, geography, history, social studies, literature, foreign languages, and computer science.

University Admissions

Until recently, Russia’s universities made independent admissions decisions and did not necessarily factor in EGE performance. In 2009, however, the Russian government decided to make the use of the EGE in admissions mandatory. The impetus was twofold: to fight corruption in academic admissions, and to widen participation in higher education.

Prior to 2009, academic corruption challenges [14] were particularly prevalent in university admissions. According to some reports, the total volume of bribes paid in connection to university admissions in Moscow in 2008 amounted to USD $520 million, with individual students paying bribes as high as $5,000 [79]. The introduction of the EGE sought to take admissions decisions away from the universities, and replace them with objective external criteria.

The EGE also facilitates broader access to higher education. Before the introduction of the EGE, applicants often had to travel to universities across the country to sit for institutional entrance exams – a costly and time-intensive process that has now greatly improved. As per the Russian ENIC/NARIC, the EGE exam is now used in the admission of nearly 100 percent [80] of applicants. Only two elite universities (Moscow State University and St. Petersburg State University) have been exempted and continue to administer their own admissions tests in addition to the EGE.

As of 2015, students could, according to Sergey Kravtsov [81], the head of the Federal Education and Science Supervision Agency, sit for the EGE examination in 5,700 testing centers throughout Russia, as well as in 52 countries abroad. A reported 584,000 students [82] took the base stage EGE examination in 2016, and 492,000 sat for profile exams.

Upon passing the EGE exams, these students receive a certificate of results. These can be used to can apply to three different study programs at five universities at a time. Admission is competitive and based on test scores in the subjects required for particular degree specializations. Higher scores improve the chances of admission into top universities.

Certain programs that require special creative or physical abilities, for example, in artistic disciplines, sports, or military sciences, may require additional entrance examinations. Foreign students are admitted based on separate institutional admissions requirements, and typically have to take the Test of Russian as a Foreign Language (TORFL).

Academic Corruption in the EGE and Beyond

Russia is afflicted by a widespread culture of academic fraud. The introduction of the centralized EGE exam has reduced the use of direct bribes for university entrance but has reportedly led to significant test-related fraud, including, prior to the test, distribution of exam questions, and after the test, revision of incorrect answers [83].

Fraud is prevalent in graduate admissions as well. In one notorious example, a senior lecturer at Moscow State University was in 2010 caught accepting a bribe of €35,000 (USD $39,140) to guarantee admission to the faculty [84] of public administration. The sale of fake degrees and the ghost-writing of papers and dissertations constitute another problem. Some experts reportedly claim [85] that as many as 30 to 50 percent of doctoral degrees circulating in certain disciplines like law and medicine may either be fake or based on plagiarism, while other researchers assert that 20 to 30 percent of all Russian dissertations completed since the fall of the Soviet Union were purchased on the black market [86]. The use of such suspect degrees is blatant, and not uncommon among politicians and higher-level civil servants. A 2015 study of the Dissernet Project [87], an organization dedicated to exposing academic fraud, found that one in nine politicians in the lower house of the Russian parliament had a plagiarized or fake academic degree [88]. In 2006, researchers from the U.S. Brookings Institution analyzed [89] the dissertation of President Vladimir Putin and alleged that it was plagiarized [90].

Vocational and Technical Education

Russia’s education system includes both secondary-level and post-secondary vocational programs, as well as programs that straddle secondary and higher education. As of the 2012 adoption of Russia’s latest federal education law, all of these programs are now primarily taught at the same types of institutions called technikums (tehnikum), and colleges (kolledzh). The professional-technical uchilische (PTU) and professional-technical lyceums (PTL) that existed prior to 2012 were largely upgraded to, or merged with, technikums and colleges.

Basic vocational programs at the secondary level are entered on the basis of the Certificate of Basic Secondary Education (grade 9) and are between one and four years in length. Programs have a focus on applied training but may also cover the general secondary education curriculum. Students who have completed general upper-secondary education can enroll in shortened versions of these programs, which are typically one to 1.5 years in length. The final credential is the Diplom o Nachalnom Professionalnom Obrazovanii (Diploma of Vocational Education). It gives access to higher-level vocational education programs and specialized employment, mostly in blue-collar occupations, such as carpentry, tailoring, cookery, or automotive technology. Graduates from programs that include a general secondary education component have the option of sitting for the EGE university entrance exams.

The popularity of basic vocational education declined rapidly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The fact that employment was more or less mandatory during Soviet times meant that 98 percent of graduates [91] from basic vocational programs were employed in the Soviet Union. Today, employment prospects are more precarious. The number of graduates from lower-level vocational programs has declined by 43 percent between 2000 and 2013 alone, from 762,800 to 436,000, as per the statistical data [92] provided by the Russian government.

Advanced vocational programs, referred to as “middle level professional education” in Russia, are considered (non-tertiary) higher education. They typically last two to three years after upper-secondary school (grade 11). Students who have not yet completed upper-secondary education, however, may enter these programs after grade 9 if they meet certain additional admissions requirements. They may, for instance, have to pass admissions tests, and are required to complete the general secondary education curriculum as part of the program. Advanced vocational programs combine applied training with theoretical instruction, and usually require the preparation of a written thesis. The final credential is called Diplom o srednem professionalnom obrazovanii, which can be translated as “Diploma of Middle Level Professional Education.”

The Diploma of Middle Level Professional Education continues to serve an important function in the Russian education system, even though enrollments have begun to decline, if at smaller margins [91] than those in basic vocational education. The credential certifies formal training in a wide range of occupations, ranging from technician to elementary school teacher to accountant. Nurses in Russia, for example, can work after completing mid-level professional education rather than earning a bachelor’s degree, as is required for licensure in the United States.

Mid-level professional education also aligns with tertiary education in that graduates may, on a case-by-case basis, be granted exemptions towards university programs in similar disciplines, and may be allowed to enter directly into the second or third year of bachelor’s programs at some universities.

Tertiary Education


In 2015/16, there were a total of 896 recognized [93] tertiary education institutions in operation in the Russian Federation. Public institutions are categorized into [94]:

There are 50 specially-funded and research-focused National Research Universities and Universities of National Innovation, as well as nine Federal Universities, which were established to bundle regional education and research efforts and focus on regional socioeconomic needs in more remote parts of Russia.

Finally, there are two National Universities, the prestigious Lomonosov Moscow State University and Saint Petersburg State University. These well-funded elite institutions have special legal status and are under the direct control of the federal government, which appoints their rectors and approves university charters. Moscow State University [95] is arguably Russia’s most prestigious institution and currently enrolls more than 47,000 students. Modeled after German universities, it was founded in 1755.

Private Universities

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought about the de-ideologization of education, and successively replaced the rigid centralization and state planning of the Soviet Union with new paradigms of institutional autonomy, effectiveness, innovation, and internationalization. In contrast to other sectors, the education system, however, was spared the “shock-therapy [96]” of economic liberalization, which brought about what has been described as [97] “the most cataclysmic peacetime economic collapse of an industrial country in history.” There was no large-scale privatization of state universities and the overall structure of the education system remained largely intact. Over time, however, Russia has seen the emergence of a healthy private higher education sector [98] following the legalization of private education in 1992.

Private institutions now account for some 366 accredited institutions – just over one-third of all higher education institutions in Russia. The number of students enrolled in these universities has increased considerably over the past decades – between 2000 and 2014 alone the number of students at private universities grew by 88 percent, from 470,600 to 884,700 students [92].

Today, private universities tend to supplement [99] public education with more specialized niche offerings, rather than compete directly with the bigger state-funded universities. Private enrollments account for only about 16 percent of all tertiary enrollments. And, as demonstrated by prestigious funding projects for state universities, and the closure of private niche universities [100], the Russian government does presently not prioritize the development of the private sector. Private education, thus, is for the time being expected to primarily gain traction in the “sphere of non-formal and extra-system education [101].”

Rankings and International Reputation

The Russian Ministry of Education maintains a webpage [102] dedicated to tracking the progress of Russian universities in global rankings. As of 2016 rankings, the goals of the 5/100 project to place five Russian universities in the top 100 of global rankings still seem distant. Lomonosov Moscow State University was the only Russian university among the top 100 in the most common rankings. It was ranked at 87th place in the Shanghai ranking [103] (followed by St. Petersburg State University and Novosibirsk State University at 301-400 and 401-500, respectively). In the Times Higher Education Ranking [104], Lomonosov reached 188th place in 2016/17 with no other Russian universities among the top 300. In the QS ranking [105], Russia’s flagship university reached 108th place followed by St. Petersburg State University ranked at place 258. Of note is also that Russia in 2016 announced that it will launch its own international ranking [106], including universities from Russia, Japan, China, Brazil, India, Iran, Turkey, and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Funding and Education Spending

While higher education in Russia is predominantly state-funded, the percentage of private funding – about 35 percent of all expenditures [107] on tertiary educations institutions in 2013 – is relatively high compared to most OECD countries. Governments at the federal and local level provide large parts of public university budgets and provide premises, dormitories, and other properties. Recent legal changes have also allowed private universities to apply for state funding, if to a lesser extent. However, the share of university funding coming from tuition fees has increased over the past decades; between 1995 and 2005, for instance, the percentage of students paying tuition fees increased from 13.1 to 57.5 percent.https://www.oecd.org/edu/skills-beyond-school/40111027.pdf [108], p.112.

As a result, education has become more expensive for many students, even in the public sector. Students with high EGE scores are usually allowed to study for free; however many students pay annual tuition fees averaging 120-140 thousand rubles [109] (USD $2,084 to $2,432) for a bachelor’s degree and 220-250 thousand rubles (USD $3,822-4,343) for a Specialist degree (described in more detail below). Although students can take out low-interest loans, these costs are high considering Russian income levels. Inflation rates of more than 11 percent in 2014 caused many Russian universities to raise tuition fees by significant margins [110], while the average monthly income simultaneously dropped by 35 percent to USD $558 [111] in 2015.

As noted earlier, federal spending on education decreased by 8.5 percent between 2014 and 2016. This downturn reverses spending increases in previous years. Between 2005 and 2013, overall Russian higher education spending as a percentage of GDP increased from 2.7 percent in 2005 to 3.8 percent in 2013 [112]. In the tertiary sector, spending levels stayed mostly constant between 2005 and 2013, but because the number of students simultaneously declined, the amount spent per student actually rose by 32 percent to $USD 8,483 [112]. This number, however, is still low when compared to the average spending in countries at comparable levels of development, causing observers like the World Bank [113] to recommend that Russia increase education spending and prioritize human capital development in order to ensure sustained and inclusive economic growth.

Quality Assurance: State Accreditation and the Role of the Bologna Process

All higher education institutions in Russia, public or private, must have a state license to deliver education programs. To award nationally recognized degrees, institutions must also obtain state accreditation. The accreditation process is overseen by the Federal Service for Supervision in Education and Science (Rosobrnadzor) and is based on institutional self-assessments, peer review, and site visits certifying compliance with standards set by Russia’s National Accreditation Agency [114] (subordinated to Rosobrnadzor).

Accreditation is granted for six-year periods and entitles institutions to award state-recognized diplomas in a set number of disciplines, and to apply for funding by the government. Both the National Accreditation Agency [115] and Rosobrnadzor [116] maintain online databases of accredited institutions and the degree programs they are authorized to offer.

A signatory to the Bologna declarations since 2003, Russia has adopted many of the quality assurance provisions stipulated in the declarations. Internal quality assurance systems have been established at most of Russia’s universities [117], and there are now at least five independent accreditation agencies [118] operating in Russia. These agencies accredit programs and institutions in disciplines such as engineering and law, but accreditation by these agencies is not mandatory and does not replace existing quality assurance mechanisms, which remain strictly based on institutional accreditation by the government. Accreditation by European agencies, including those registered with the European Quality Assurance Register [118] (EQAR) is presently not recognized [119] by the Russian government.

Threats to Academic Freedom: The Case of the European University in St. Petersburg

Under the rule of Vladimir Putin, Russia has become an increasingly authoritarian country in which the government suppresses journalistic and academic freedoms. Threats to academic freedoms are also on the rise in other European countries like Hungary, where the government is trying to shut down the Central European University founded by U.S. billionaire philanthropist George Soros (see our related article [120] in this month’s issue). In Russia, another Soros-supported Western-style university, the European University in St. Petersburg (EUSP) is facing a similar fate. 

EUSP is an internationally renowned private graduate school specializing in social sciences that is regarded as one of Russia’s best universities. Founded in 1994, EUSP received state accreditation in 2004, only to be closed in 2008 in what has been described as a case “domestic ‘lawfare’ [121], in which state-run courts enforce political conformity through legal pretexts”. EUSP is known as a liberal-minded institution with foreign board members that teaches Western-style political science. The 2008 closure coincided with the award of a €673,000 EU grant to EUSP to improve election monitoring [122] in Russia, after which Rosobrnadzor inspected and cited the university with technical infractions, followed by temporary closure for not meeting fire-safety standards [123].

The university was reopened shortly afterward but continued to face difficulties. Passage of Russia’s “law on undesirable organizations [124]” forced EUSP to forego foreign funding [123] in 2015. In 2016, Rosobrnadzor launched another wave of inspections, citing the school with 120 violations [125], including the lack of a fitness room and an information stand against alcoholism, after a conservative Russian politician and a key-author of Russia’s “gay propaganda law [126]” had logged a series of complaints [127], reportedly after hearing that EUSP was teaching inappropriate content in its gender studies curriculum [121]. Other possible reasons suggested by the media involve interests in lucrative construction contracts [128] for the building in which EUSP is housed. In March 2017, EUSP’s license was revoked [129]. Appeals are currently working their way through the courts while the fate of the university remains uncertain. 

Tertiary Degree Structure

Prior to the introduction of the Bologna three-cycle degree structure in 2003, tertiary education in Russia consisted mainly of long single-cycle degree programs of five to six-year duration leading to the award of a “Diploma of Specialist,” followed by a doctoral research degree called Kandidat Nauk (Candidate of Science). In 2007, the single-cycle Specialist program was replaced with a two-cycle degree system consisting of an undergraduate Bakalavr (Bachelor) degree, and a graduate Magistr (Master) degree in many fields of study. In these fields, Specialist degrees are being phased out, and the last waves of students studying under the old structure are currently reaching graduation. However, implementation of the two-cycle Bakalavr/Magistr system has not been mandated across the board, and long Specialist degrees continue to be awarded in a number of fields, including the professions and technical disciplines. The three degrees still in common circulation are thus:

Specialist degrees continue to be primarily awarded in professional and technical disciplines, which, in the case of Russia, include common professional disciplines like law, engineering, or medical fields, as well as disciplines such as astronomy, cinematography, or computer security, for example. Training in medicine includes further postgraduate education after completion of a typically six-year-long, Specialist program in medicine. Graduate medical education is typically completed in one-year internships (Internatura) followed by two to four-year study programs leading to the award of the Ordinatura certificate which entitles graduates to practice in a medical specialty in Russia (cardiology, internal medicine, etc.).http://www.consultant.ru/document/ [130]

European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) credits are used [131] in Bakalavr and Magistr programs, but, as of now, rarely in Specialist programs. The ECTS grading scale, as well as a new 0-100 grading scale, have been introduced in recent years, but are generally not used on state format academic transcripts, which continue to be issued using the standard 2 to 5 grading scale. Degree programs at both public and private universities conclude with state examinations and the defense of a thesis in front of a State Attestation Commission.

Diploma Supplements existed in Russia prior to the Bologna reforms, and are still issued for all Russian tertiary degrees.

Education in the Russian Federation Image 4: Table showing university graduates by type of degree between 2005 and 2014 [132]

Kandidat Nauk and Doktor Nauk

Students obtain entrance to doctoral research programs – or aspirantura – on the basis of Magistr or Specialist degrees. Doctoral programs are usually three years in length, including lectures and seminars, and independent original research. Upon completion of the study program, doctoral candidates are awarded a diploma of completion of aspirantura. A final Kandidat Nauk degree is conferred only after the public defense of the doctoral dissertation.

Another type of doctoral program, the Doktor Nauk (Doctor of Science), requires additional study beyond the Kandidat Nauk. It is a higher doctorate that entails the completion of another dissertation and takes most candidates anywhere between five and fifteen years to complete. The Doktor Nauk is required to obtain full-tenured professorship in Russia, as well as the prestigious rank of “Professor of the Russian Academy of Sciences.” Full tenure is otherwise only granted to professors with at least 15 years of outstanding teaching service at a university.

Teacher Education

Teacher training in Russia takes place both in post-secondary vocational education and the tertiary education sector, depending on the level. Pre-school and elementary school teachers are commonly trained at pedagogical colleges and are allowed to work as teachers on the basis of the Diploma of Middle Level Professional Education (although pre-school and elementary teacher training programs are also offered at universities). Secondary school teachers, on the other hand, are taught at universities and tertiary-level teacher training institutes. Upper-secondary school teachers are required to have a Specialist (or Magistr) degree. Programs include academic study in the areas of teaching specialization, pedagogical and methodological subjects, and an in-service teaching internship.

Document Requirements

Russia is a signatory to the Hague Apostille Convention [133] and officially certifies documents for use in other signatory states through government agencies. WES relies on this process in the authentication of academic documents from Russia.

Secondary Education

Post-Secondary and Higher Education

Sample Documents

Click here [135] for a PDF file of the academic documents referred to below.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).


executive order (№2620, 30.12.2012) [34].
2 Student mobility data from different sources such as UNESCO, the Institute of International Education, and the governments of various countries may be inconsistent, in some cases showing substantially different numbers of international students, whether inbound or outbound, from or in particular countries. This is due to a number of factors, including data capture methodology, data integrity, definitions of ‘international student,’ and/or types of mobility captured (credit, degree, etc.). WENR’s policy is not to favor any given source over any other, but to try and be transparent about what we are reporting, and to footnote numbers that may raise questions about discrepancies. This article includes data reported by multiple agencies.
https://www.oecd.org/edu/skills-beyond-school/40111027.pdf [108], p.112.
http://www.consultant.ru/document/ [130]