Private colleges put down roots

October 20, 1995

A third of universities in Russia are now privately run, according to Incorvuz, an organisation campaigning for greater educational plurality in the Confederation of Independent States and the Baltic.

The bull market in private education is fuelled both by the collapse of adequate financial and administrative support for state colleges and the demands of a rapidly changing economy.

Of around 900 licensed universities now operating in the Russian Federation, as many as 300 are privately run, according to Incorvuz, the International Corporation of Graduates of Soviet Educational Institutions.

State universities and higher education institutions, which under the Soviet system came under the financial control of the State Committee for Higher Education and ministries of education, health, culture, agriculture and 16 others have been unable, unwilling or simply hampered, to respond to the complex challenges of post-communist Russia.

Most private universities have been established to meet the demand for business, economic, financial and administrative education largely lacking in state colleges, where there is a classical menu of science, technology and theory-based humanities.

Many are small and of debatable quality - sprouting and withering as fast as the forest mushrooms Russians love to eat. But a significant number have excellent staff and offer a quality education, according to Larisa Konovalova, general director of Incorvuz.

"It is an extremely interesting and dynamic process; growth and diminishment - this is why I always talk of an average of 300 of these institutions," said Dr Konovalova, a graduate of St Petersburg's University of Engineering and Economics, who holds a doctorate in international economics.

"The major problem for private universities today is not getting licensed, but becoming accredited; without this a college cannot offer state diplomas. The law says they must wait at least three years and many of these new universities don't have that much patience."

Quality control may have slipped alarmingly in many areas of post-Soviet academic life, but the rigorous attitude towards intellectual standards remains - rumours of students bribing their way into colleges or through exams, notwithstanding.

It comes as no surprise then, that the only private university yet to achieve this coveted accredition is Gennady Yagodin's Moscow-based International University.

Professor Yagodin, a former minister of education under Gorbachev and one-time top official at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, is rector of a small, but well-funded college based in a classy old building on Leningradsky Prospect, which was once a training school for Communist party high-fliers.

Today its 500 fee-paying students follow bachelor and graduate programmes closely modelled on the United States university system. Russian students pay annual tuition fees of around $5,000, although each year a fifth of first-years are granted scholarships based on an entry exam. All students must be proficient in English and the competitive nature of the institution is reflected in the fact that continued fee-waivers are won through a further annual grades-based competition.

Four-year undergraduate courses offer broad-based study programmes for the first two years followed by greater specialisation. Mr Yagodin's high-level connections both in Russia and the United States guarantee a steady flow of influential guest speakers at the lecterns in the main auditorium, where the warming aroma of biscuit-baking wafts in through open windows from the Bolshevik Biscuit factory next door - appropriately the first state enterprise to be privatised in 1992 following the fall of Mikhail Gorbachev.

International University, like the other new private colleges, is primarily a school for business administrators, economists and lawyers. Its first graduate class received their degrees this summer, and students are already proving their value in the market place, Professor Yagodin says. A number who have already graduated via American or European universities are working for banks, joint ventures or other commercial firms in Russia earning up to $1,000 a month - twice their rector's salary.

"To be a really fine teacher you must always turn out students who are better than you," Professor Yagodin says. He is pleased with progress: computing equipment is to be found throughout the classrooms; the High School of Applied Information Technology, a commercial partnership with a US computing firm, trains software and computing engineers with the help of more than $100,000 worth of technical hardware; and the college has been connected to the internet.

But three years after the college formally opened with the blessing of President Yeltsin, chairman of its board of trustees, the key lesson the professor has learned is of critical importance to British and European institutions: modelling a Russian university on the US system may not have been the best idea. "One thing about the American kind of education is that it is much more pragmatic than the European, which tends to be more concerned with the fundamental; Russia certainly needs a lot of pragmatism, but not to the extent of replacing the Russian and European system entirely."

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