Campus comrades in arms

January 10, 1997

INDEPENDENT universities are thriving in St Petersburg, the intellectual capital of Russia and Europe's fourth largest city.

Peter the Great's grand classical city of canals and waterways has a student population of over 250,000 and boasts 26 private universities compared to the state's 44.

According to Izvestia newspaper, St Petersburg has 9 per cent of Russia's independent universities compared to Moscow's 40 per cent and the northern Caucasus's 15 per cent.

The two sectors tend to cooperate rather than compete, regarding education as a common endeavour benefiting the city as a whole.

Michael Bird, director of the British Council's St Petersburg office, which was opened by Prince Charles in May 1994, said: "Each new university occupies a niche, complementing the state sector rather than offering competition."

Independent universities often share senior and teaching staff with the state sector. Most of their founders are refugees from the state sector who have grasped the chance to develop institutions with greater flexibility and an ethos distinct from bureaucratic government-run universities.

Boris Firsov and Nikolai Vakhtin, rector and vice rector of the European University at St Petersburg, which emerged from a 1992 initiative by Anatoly Sobchak, then the city's mayor and a state university professor, both have backgrounds in Russian Academy of Science institutes.

Professor Firsov, former director of the city branch of the RAS Institute of Sociology, attributes the rapid development of a strong independent sector to the fertile intellectual capital of St Petersburg and a recognition that academic flexibility was needed to mirror the pace of change in Russian society.

"Russia needs a new scientific elite for the reproduction and creation of new knowledge," he said.

The European University is based in a 19th century palace leased from the city council and where the morganatic wife of Czar Alexander II once lived. It started postgraduate "open evening classes" in 1995 and last year began teaching a three-year postgraduate programme modelled after British masters.

Established in response to the perceived weakness of social science teaching in the state sector, the university is concentrating on teaching the fundamentals to nurture the next generation of teachers and lecturers before it moves into undergraduate teaching.

It was set up with a $50,000 Soros grant and is supported by the city council, and the Ford and MacArthur foundations.

Dr Vakhtin, an ethnographer who retains his research position at the RAS Institute of Linguistics, said: "If our programme is successful, in five years' time we will have trained 150 people who will know not only how to think, but also how to apply their knowledge. We're positive they will be leaders in their fields.

"Moscow has always been and still is, more practical, pragmatic and richer. It has always been a huge magnet attracting everyone. In a way that has helped us preserve our academic tradition, enabling St Petersburg to be a centre for pure sciences and research work."

The university, which has four faculties, a staff of 52 and just 59 full-time students, believes in a slow, cautious approach. Development is being made in stages - the library recently opened its first phase with 8,000 titles from the British Book-Aid programme.

Professor Firsov said: "We shall give up our power to younger people at the beginning of the next century. This is one of our key concepts, to raise the next generation of university teachers."

The Institute of Foreign Languages was founded in 1991 under licence to offer four-year undergraduate courses in languages and interpreting. It has no premises of its own but has 300 full-time and 800 part-time students, who pay the equivalent of $600 per semester, compared to $900 in the state sector.

Most students study English but IFL also offers Celtic languages, the only university in Russia to do so. Students are encouraged to use their language skills in real situations rather than to learn by rote, the traditional method in Russia.

The institute met resistance from the state sector at first but now boasts impressive employment rates of over 90 per cent for its graduates, who can command salaries of around $500 a month with relative ease, a figure considered sufficient to support a reasonable family lifestyle today. The British Council regards IFL as a key partner in staff development in the city.

The International Banking Institute occupies a pre-Bolshevik Revolution bank on Nevsky Prospect, the city's main shopping street. It was set up in 1991 with grants from the United States and Europe to meet the needs of the emerging market economy.

Today it is self financing and takes undergraduates and postgraduates on vocational courses as well as offering professional courses to businesses.

Later this year it will open its own commercial bank and stock exchange within a string of rooms gradually undergoing refurbishment. Its head, Victor Veniaminov, a former military management specialist who taught in Soviet Army academies, represents independent universities on the city's council of rectors.

The university, which has 0 MBA students and 30 undergraduates, recently began a new five-year diploma introduced in September 1996.

The IBI started out as a serious venture, Professor Veniaminov says, and foreign aid which does not meet its requirements gets short shrift. "We had TACIS (the EU's technical assistance programme) funding, but the project, involving international management consultants KPMG, was a failure; they just wanted to tell us how they did it, say, in Hong Kong. They didn't take account of our market or experience."

Such is the diversity of the independent sector in St Petersburg, that where Mammon is found, God has a place too. The School of Religion and Philosophy was founded in 1990 by some mathematicians and scientists who were once members of illegal Soviet-period philosophy study circles, where samizdat copies of banned texts were read and exchanged.

Classes, mostly taught in the evenings to 60 undergraduate and post-graduate students, concentrate on studying texts in their original languages.

Director Natalya Percherskaya has a vision that could be applied to St Petersburg's independents: "We want to change the Soviet consciousness of the Russian people; to improve the teaching of humanities and bring up the idea of thinking, so that people reflect on what's happening to them in their lives."

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