Ingenuity can conquer all in the new Russia

April 7, 1995

Russian universities are embracing the opportunities offered by the country's market reforms and new freedoms to link with higher education in the rest of the world.

The country's changing structures, uncertain and chaotic funding arrangements, shortage of cash and staffing problems - top specialists are in high demand by the booming private sector business economy - are stimulating efforts to build academic bridges where political will and public purse strings are failing.

Moscow State University - rated the best of Russia's 536 universities - is among the most active. Since the European Commission's Tempus programme was extended to cover Russia and CIS states two years ago, the university has won backing for three of the well-funded projects.

The university's faculty of foreign languages, founded six years ago, but active only for the past three years, has developed links using both established programmes and the initiative of its staff.

Headed by Svetlana Ter-Mina-sova, the faculty is a partner in a trilateral Tempus programme with Coventry and Valencia universities, to improve language teaching, develop resource materials and harmonise educational systems between the partners. Its pilot year just complete, the three-year scheme, worth Pounds 600,000, is now under way and staff and students will soon be taking part in funded exchange trips.

"When we were trying to find Tempus partners, we were shocked by English university colleagues who never stirred a finger themselves to gain European funds - their mentality is not to do anything until they get the funds. We are interested in earning money enthusiastically and spending it on our projects," Professor Ter-Minasova says.

Most of her projects are home-grown and rely upon fee-paying students - from both Russia and overseas - for their income. Two years ago negotiations with Marvin Loflin, the dean of Colorado State University's college of liberal arts and sciences in America, led to the International College - which combines the teaching styles of Britain, Germany and the United States for lower degree programmes leading to both Russian and American accredited degrees. Four-year courses in international economics, foreign languages, international affairs and humanities are taught by Russian staff and visiting professors from Colorado in a rented former vocational school building not far from the university campus. Biology and maths degrees will be introduced next year. Students pay annual fees of about Pounds 3,000 - a quarter of which the faculty must pay into central university funds.

Other money-spinning schemes include two-week cultural and English language trips to Britain. An indication of the wealth of increasing numbers of students is that there is no shortage of student customers for the three annual visits, despite their Pounds 500 price tag, which excludes travel costs. Projects such as tailormade cultural orientation for Russian businessmen travelling overseas to Britain, America and elsewhere, commercial language short courses and plans to set up an economics/language school with German partners next September, demonstrate the business acumen to be found in the faculty.

But for Professor Ter-Mina-sova - who sometimes despairs of the collapsing infrastructure and shortage of state support - down 9 per cent in real terms over the last three years, with the numbers of fee-paying students for a supposedly free system now approaching a fifth of the total 2.6 million - the purpose of the feeearning schemes is to keep her staff and ensure the poorer but bright applicants she might otherwise have to turn away get the education they deserve.

"I would lose every one of my tutors tomorrow if we expected them to survive on their official salaries (about Pounds 30 a month). But through all our activities - teaching English, running cultural courses - they can make an honest living, using their professional skills without leaving the faculty to take jobs outside the system."

She also uses earnings to subsidise poor students. "My worry is what will happen in the future if education increasingly becomes a matter of the students' wealth - what shall be done for the Lomonosovs of this world?" the professor asks, referring to the son of a poor fisherman who in the 18th century walked to Moscow seeking an education and later went on to found the university.

Student, Marina Goon, 18, in her second year at International College, where her parents struggle to pay her annual fees, said she had opted for private college education after returning from a nine-month exchange trip to Utah, America, without having the opportunity to cram for Russian university entrance exams: "The mixed Russian and English nature of the course allowed me to keep up my English and, unlike some private universities, it offered flexibility and good quality."

Last year a study visit by the Eastern European Steering Committee of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and British university administrators, described the speed at which Russian universities were having to change against a background of deregulation as "daunting". They were impressed by the "courage, determination and enthusiasm" of Russian academics. "The overriding need is for a return to stability."

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