Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Student Riot Marks Education Crisis

ST. PETERSBURG -- The violent confrontation between students and riot police earlier this month in Yekaterinburg was more than a typical campus dispute with authorities.

It also marked the crossroads between past and future at which Russia's system of higher education is now standing.

The constantly diminishing stipends of students at universities and institutes, and the waning of state support for education are forcing the government and education authorities to make tough choices between continuing with an unworkable and underfunded system or charging money for university degrees.

The result has been widespread protests by students who can barely afford to survive and a drop in the prestige of a university or institute degree.

In Yekaterinburg two weeks ago, a student march on the town's central square to protest living conditions ended in violence when baton-wielding police tried to disperse the protesters, injuring several of them. Several of the police officers involved have since been reprimanded.

The funding crisis in higher education was recently made worse by a presidential decree that will cut already minuscule stipends, increase dormitory expenses by 20 times, abolish student discounts on metro and bus passes and institute a 1,500 ruble ($250) a year charge for students to use libraries, sports facilities, laboratories and cafeterias.

These costs, which were traditionally covered by student stipends, will test the financial flexibility of students, whose stipends will now average a mere 83 rubles a month.

Also on the federal drawing board, according to Education Minister Alexander Tikhonov, are plans to merge hundreds of institutes of higher education. He said the number of students eligible for a free education will be reduced by thousands.

The new measures drew angry responses from students. "We would all have to go home," said Vika Datsenko, 21, who is studying in St. Petersburg. She and her friends, who mainly subsist on a diet of potatoes and macaroni, rely on financial help from their parents because their stipends barely cover the cost of food.

Datsenko's assessment, however, was optimistic in comparison to Ruslan Gudkhov, 17, from the Urals.

"We would have no way of living" if the new measures were followed, said the student, who said he already barely scrapes by on his monthly stipend.

Despite protests from students and teaching staff, many see paid higher education as the only way of pulling universities and institutes out of their financial mire.

The education minister, in remarks reported by Kommersant Daily newspaper, said higher education is struggling with a 600 million-ruble deficit and the money allocated for education in this year's budget is 7 percent less than in '97.

Lev Karlin, rector of St. Petersburg's Hydro-Meteorological University, said in a recent interview that "paid education is the only way out of the financial crisis in higher education. ... Those [institutes] that cannot keep going will die by themselves. If they are weak, they are not needed."

In just the past two years, Karlin said, 40 of St. Petersburg's 84 institutes of higher education have gone private.