Friendship with a Russian smile

November 22, 1996

FOR THE head of an institution which had to raise more than half its $20 million budget last year and owes more than $1 million in heating, electricity and water bills, Vladimir Filippov, rector of the Russian Peoples' Friendship University, is remarkably cheerful.

A mathematician and a linguist, Professor Filippov says competition for the Third World students, who comprise half the 7,000 undergraduates at the Moscow university, loses him little sleep.

Nor is he bothered by the reputation of what was formerly called Patrice Lumumba University as a training ground for liberation fighters in Communist client states in the Soviet era.

"The Peoples' Friendship University has 26,000 graduates working in 150 countries - these are our ambassadors and with their help we attract students. Competition from the new universities of the Third World is not a problem, our competitors tend to be other Russian institutions on our own doorstep who offer cheaper tuition fees merely to attract overseas students," the rector, himself a graduate of the the university, says.

"I always tell visiting journalists and ambassadors: where you are sitting once sat the chief terrorist of the Arab world, Yasser Arafat. And in that seat was South Africa's leading terrorist who spent more than 20 years in prison, Nelson Mandela. Now they are statesmen and holders of the Nobel Peace Prize, both very respectable people."

Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev founded the university during a visit to Indonesia in 1960 to promote internationalism.

But the collapse of the Communist regime five years ago ended many overseas links that included trade, cultural and academic exchange.

The Kremlin gave the university a less political name and sent it on a recruitment drive. Now 110 different nationalities study at the university each year, including 200 students from the 35 different ethnic groups and old semi-autonomous republics of the Soviet Union.

Professor Filippov adopts a tactic unusual in Russian academia when it comes to finances.

Listing the breadth of disciplines on offer and the enviable staff/student ratio of 1:4, the rector agrees that staff salaries, averaging $150 a month, are barely covered by the budget and earnings from commercial activities such as student-run ethnic restaurants, letting rooms and overseas tuition fees.

"I send university buses full of placard-waving students to demonstrate for better funding when there is a protest on this issue," Professor Filippov says. "But it's useless to try to obtain money from the government. I'm not one of those Siberian miners who wants them to print money. We must all wait until the Russian economy improves."

The university has 65 exchange and working agreements with universities including the Sorbonne, Valencia and the Berlin Free and has also held out its hat to the diplomatic community.

Last month Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov held a meeting at the university with 140 ambassadors where he promoted the wealth of cultural and scientific advantages of the Russian capital.

The mayor gave the go-ahead to three new university buildings, including an international centre for retraining on Leninsky Prospekt to help Moscow's 1,000 scientific and technical centres forge contacts with overseas partners.

The university has switched to the Anglo-American system of bachelor and master degrees. It is third behind Moscow State (MSU) and St Petersburg universities in the Russian league tables, but shows it has the potential to be second only to MSU, Professor Filippov says.

"The fact that there is a university like this is essential to the preservation of contacts with overseas countries. In economic terms this cannot be overstressed. After all, it was our former students from Africa who began supplying bananas to Russia seven years ago, when they were virtually unobtainable," he says.

But there are criticisms of pedestrian teaching by aged staff, old equipment and cash-strapped lecturers selling exam passes.

Tension at the university which resulted in the killing of an African student four years ago has disappeared, students agree. "The only real problem now is the number of Russian girls getting pregnant, particularly by those Latin-American guys they tend to be rather fond of," said one female student.

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