It is morning rush hour in the Siberian city of Tomsk. On the busy Prospekt Lenina, a straight avenue that cuts a mile-long swathe through the city centre, an endless succession of small, battered shuttle buses disgorge students at the gates of one of Russia’s oldest universities.
Opened in 1888, Tomsk State University was the first university to be established east of the Ural Mountains, often considered a divide between Europe and Asia. It lies in a city that serves a catchment area the size of the European Union. Geographically, China and Mongolia are closer to Tomsk than Moscow, which is three time zones away.
Overall, TSU educates about 16,000 undergraduates, 1,200 master’s students and 600 students on PhDs. Students make overwhelmingly vocational course choices. Degrees in IT, biotechnology, psychology, law and economics boost graduates’ employment rate above 98 per cent, according to TSU. The city’s diverse economy embraces digital media and high-tech start-ups, although graduates in subjects such as business must head for Moscow for career opportunities.
For international students, which account for about 10 per cent of TSU’s student body, Siberia has traditionally been a study destination for those from neighbouring China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan as well as other former Soviet states. However, its extreme climate and geographical isolation make it a hard sell.
Cold War legacy
Tomsk itself is further disadvantaged. Nearby is the former “closed city” of Seversk, from which foreigners and outsiders were barred during the Cold War after it became the home of a nuclear power plant. Part of the facility was shut in 2008, but the reprocessing of spent fuel and nuclear waste continues.
However, TSU has been recruiting a small but growing number of master’s students from the EU, mainly Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic, as well as a handful of exchange students from the UK studying Russian and linguistics.
The university says that it is now on the hunt for more global academic talent. According to Eduard Galazhinskiy, its rector, the game changer has been Russia’s adoption of the Bologna Process. Undergraduate degrees are now capped at four years, and progression to a master’s degree has been made easier.
“Bologna has made a huge difference for us. We now offer a wider choice of degrees and greater flexibility. More students stay with us to complete their master’s degrees,” he said.
But participation in Bologna is only half the story. TSU has been promoting itself via a new English language version of its website and the recent decision to publish some research in English.
“Publishing on the internet is giving us greater visibility,” said Professor Galazhinskiy.
Negatives have also been turned into positives when it comes to attracting science undergraduates. Siberia is one vast open-air laboratory for the study of climate change and unique habitats, including a peat bog that could swallow a country the size of Belgium.
“We have the Vasyugan Swamp and the Aktru plateau, where mountain ice offers a unique [place for] students of climatology to study the effect of global warming on Siberia,” said Ilya Myasnikov, an assistant professor of journalism at TSU.
Only time will tell if such factors will entice more people to travel thousands of miles to study in Siberia.
That Russian universities have fared consistently badly in world rankings – possibly because of the difficulty in establishing quality standards and degree equivalents with Western institutions – will not help universities such as TSU. If Russia’s prestigious Lomonosov Moscow State University is ranked only 196th in the world by Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings 2014-15, TSU will face an uphill struggle to break into the top 300.
Like many Russian institutions, TSU also walks a tightrope between the central government’s attempts to introduce repressive legislation and the need to defend freedom of speech. In a recent court case reported by The Moscow Times, regional prosecutors who sought to add the Bhagavadgita to a list of banned extremist literature built their case around expert testimony from TSU professors – although TSU philosophy professors also then defended the Hindu scripture in court. The court later rejected the call to ban the book.
But Chris Williams, visiting fellow in international education at UCL Institute of Education, believes that Russian universities such as TSU should be judged on their merits.
“If achievement in subjects such as engineering, maths, innovative architecture, space technology and the performing arts were significant criteria, Russian institutions would probably rank above most Western universities,” he claimed.
Professor Galazhinskiy is also convinced that the reputation of his institution will win out.
“Students appreciate the quality of our teaching, our science research base and the relatively low cost of study,” he said.