Society 21 March 2021

Russia tightens state control over education

The lower house of the Russian parliament this week approved a new law on educational activities, rejecting criticism from scientists, business people and cultural figures. From now on, any activity classified as ‘educational’ must be coordinated with the authorities. The law comes into force July 1.

  • The legislation was submitted to the State Duma in the fall and its authors claim that academic lectures are often a front for ‘anti-Russian propaganda’. Under the new law, all educational activity – from popular science lectures to international collaboration between universities – will be placed under government control. However, it’s unclear how this will all actually work in practice. Much will be up to the government to decide.  
  • A big public campaign failed to prevent the passage of the new law, which many see as an attempt at pre-emptive censorship. Over 600 cultural figures submitted an open letter to Putin, while hundreds of thousands signed petitions against the changes. 
  • The law will not only deprive Russians of high-quality educational content, but it will seriously damage the Ed-Tech sector that has expanded rapidly in recent months amid the pandemic. Two such projects — the Skyeng online English language school and the Uchi.ru platform for schoolchildren — were recently placed among Russia’s top 30 most valuable internet companies.
  • There is widespread anxiety among online education start-ups canvassed by Forbes magazine: they see it as a means of applying state pressure, especially when ‘educational activities’ are so broadly defined and the government’s exact powers are unclear. “Projects like this are means of eliminating any position that does not suit the authorities,” said Maxim Spiridonov, the founder of Netologia, one of Russia’s biggest educational platforms.

Why the world should care

Not only is this law likely to restrict freedoms and affect how Western universities interact with their Russian counterparts, it may be the first of many such initiatives. Amid international tension, undermining seeking domestic ‘threats’ is a convenient fallback for the Russian authorities.