The Ministry of Science and Education plans to roll out this initiative across Russia in 2019.

In a few years' time, students at all Russian universities will have an opportunity to present a startup that they have launched instead of submitting a traditional master's thesis, the Russian Ministry of Education and Science has announced. While some students can already exercise this option, steps will be taken in 2019 to make it universally available. However, experts warn that this idea may turn out to be too novel for the Russian education system, which may struggle to implement it.

Sources at the ministry have stated that university students will be taught how to present startups as their final projects, with faculty receiving guidance on how to supervise these activities. Work on setting up such training courses, as envisaged by the national Digital Economy Program, will commence this year. Apparently, no legislative changes are required, because existing procedures for awarding academic degrees make it possible for a startup to be treated as equivalent to an ordinary final project.

Currently, more than 1,000 higher education institutions in Russia accept only traditional theses but as many as 71 have already embraced the startup option, ministry data shows.

Thus, Russian Venture Company, which provides facilities for the Technology Project Management (TPM) Department of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), reports that completing a tech startup project is an integral part of a master's thesis for TPM students, who train as venture fund analysts, innovation experts and technology entrepreneurs.

Other higher learning institutions that have taken up the initiative are ITMO University, Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU) and Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University (IKBFU).

FEFU first accepted a student's startup as a final project in 2017. This venture is now a tenant at the Skolkovo technological park in Moscow and has raised R10 mln in investment.

The Plekhanov Russian University of Economics also allows students in some fields to present their startups instead of defending a thesis. Successful startup projects implemented by its students include a children's robotics university, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler, a fantasy camp for kids and an “anti-cafe” (pay-per-minute cafe).

Generally speaking, however, the idea of equivalating a startup presentation to a master's thesis remains little short of revolutionary for Russia's higher education institutions, says Petr Karasev, Vice Rector for Education and Methodology Work (Vice President for Academics) at Plekhanov University.

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He explains that it takes a thorough knowledge of corporate finance, taxation, accounting and marketing to get a startup going, in addition to extensive expertise in the area directly relating to the startup idea. In his opinion, it would be appropriate for students from different departments to work together to establish startups, which means that before long we may see interdisciplinary startup projects defended by groups of students.

Petr Karasev also underlines that, as setting up a business takes more time than is currently allowed for preparing a thesis, curricula and schedules will have to be revised to incorporate the new option.

Students at Moscow's Higher School of Economics (HSE) University cannot yet opt to substitute a traditional thesis with the presentation of a startup they have launched, while those at Saint Petersburg Polytechnic University (SpbPU) will be allowed to do so from the current academic year onwards.

Sergey Komkov, president of the All-Russia Education Foundation, calls the ministry's idea interesting and noteworthy. He points out, however, that for it to work, assessment criteria for graduate projects need to be determined, helping to evaluate, for instance, organizational skills and professional expertise. Since the “startup-as-thesis” option does not exist at European universities, Russia has a chance to become a trailblazer. Also, students who have started their own business in a field that matches their educational qualifications are more likely to “stay in the profession”.

This appears to be an important concomitant advantage. A study conducted last summer by The Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration revealed that only 37% of young graduates were pursuing a career in the field that matched their university, vocational school and technical college education. Another 29% said that their job had “some relation” to their education, while for 27% the education-occupation mismatch was complete.

In an effort both to encourage young people to seek a job in the profession they were trained in and to tackle Russia's drastic shortage of technological entrepreneurs, Tomsk State University (TSU) and a domestic venture capital company, TechnoSpark, have launched a program for training tech startup managers, called Startup Experience. TSU President Eduard Galazhinsky believes that, if Russia is to make a technological leap forward, hundreds of startups should spring up in each of its regions to produce eventually dozens of viable businesses.

It is the TechnoSpark founders who have come up with the idea of training would-be tech entrepreneurs. CEO Denis Kovalevich says that his company acts both as a startup studio with a portfolio of 120 projects and a VC.

Startup Experience scours Russian universities for entrepreneurially minded students capable of building up and managing businesses. TechnoSpark offers them ready-made preliminary project plans for startups in areas ranging from flexible solar panels to IoT sensors to genomics, all appropriately funded. As Denis Kovalevich stresses, it is not best-performing students who are selected but those have the stuff to become technological entrepreneurs. TechnoSpark is not out to make young people change their professional preferences. Rather, it aims to seek out students who would like to try their hand at entrepreneurship but are prevented from doing so for various reasons.

TSU rector Eduard Galazhinsky makes it clear that it is not only engineering and applied science students who can enroll in the program. Humanities undergraduates are also welcome. What is required of a participant, he emphasizes, is first and foremost a desire to start a business and a readiness to take on the associated risks. Therefore, the program is open to applicants from such departments as Biology, Linguistics and Journalism, to name but a few. There will be an individually tailored learning path for every student who has been drafted into the program. Their business internship over, they will use their experience as entrepreneurs to complete their final project. Applying university-acquired skills to business development is an important part of education, believes Eduard Galazhinsky.

The participants' performance during their nine-month stint as entrepreneurs and their graduate research theses that should draw on this experience will be evaluated by a board made up of TSU faculty, TechnoSpark staff and industry experts.

Project 5-100: Starting from 2013, Russia has been implementing Project 5-100, – a state support program for Russian universities. Its goal is to raise the standing of Russian higher education and have at least five member universities in the top-100 of three respected world rankings. Project 5-100 is enabling 21 Russian universities to move forward in terms of effectively strengthening their education and research, promoting innovations and R&D, facilitating international cooperation, streamlining administration, balancing the authority of the management and academics, nurturing a proactive academic environment, increasing internationalization, providing sufficient incentives for attracting the top professors from around the world and also for the existing faculty’s professional growth.

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