Russian windows may close

June 16, 1995

Russian universities are striving hard to integrate into the world and attract more British, Western and foreign students.

But the window of opportunity for British students and academics keen to take advantage of what Russian education has to offer is fast closing, according to the head of a centre set up last year to attract more foreigners.

Sergei Kulik, an assistant professor and dean of international education at Moscow's prestigious State University of Aviation Technology - until recently closed to all outsiders under the Soviet military-industrial complex - reckons the fast pace of socio-economic change and rouble stabilisation in Russia will soon make studying or researching much more expensive.

The numbers of European, Western and developing world students studying at Russian universities has already doubled to 60,000 during the past 12 months. But annual tuition fees, of around Pounds 2,000 for many arts and science first degrees and Pounds 3,000 for higher degrees, together with monthly living costs of between Pounds 100 and Pounds 200, are likely soon to rise steeply.

"I cannot understand why Western students don't want to use this opportunity now - you only have this opportunity once. When economic conditions improve here the prices, living costs and tuition fees will be much higher. That's why now is the time for foreign students to come to our universities, " said Dr Kulik.

Dr Kulik is head of the Inter-University Centre for International Educational Programmes, set up under the authority of the Russian state committee for higher education, which operates as a de facto ministry of higher education for the 200 of the country's 536 higher education institutions not directly under the authority of other ministries, such as agriculture, power or transportation.

Despite its anachronistic title - as a state committee it was once firmly embedded in the Communist party authority structure, notionally separate from Soviet government - the committee is enthusiastically promoting the benefits of higher education as a means of driving Russia's democractic reforms forward and developing the intellectual and technical talent in the country. The ICIEP centre - two rooms, five staff, several telephones, a sophisticated desk-top publishing computer and database tucked away within a warren of corridors and stairwells in the 18th century building which houses the Aviation University's central Moscow headquarters, has an impressive outreach programme to bring its message about Russian education to students and university chiefs throughout Europe.

Despite budgetary uncertainties - one of the few constants in Russian education today - Dr Kulik is satisfied that last year's 500 million roubles (about Pounds 80,000) budget from the state committee will be increased in line with inflation, now running at around 15 per cent a month, this year. The work of the centre, set up in March 1994, was given added impetus last summer when the state committee launched a major policy initiative dubbed "Integration". This is a programme dedicated to improving Russian higher education's image overseas, advertising the opportunities available and demonstrating that despite the nation's crumbling infrastructure and impoverished university funding, studying here is a good bet.

During 1994 Dr Kulik and his team, along with representatives from institutions including Moscow State University, widely regarded as one of the world's best, have set out Russia's higher educational stall at six major international student fairs, including its first foray onto the world stage at the vast European Student Fair in Brussels last March and the London Schools Fair last summer at Wembley.

This year so far there has been another trip to Brussels; plus Barcelona and Paris in March; and Hong Kong in May and next week a return to London for the Schools Fair. On home ground in Moscow and an exhibition to coincide with last month's International Unesco Conference of Engineering Education, which numbers the United States aerospace company McDonell Douglas Space Systems among its organisers, is intended to become an annual event. The centre publishes two paperback directories of Russian higher education - updated three or four times annually - detailing the system of higher education, the work being undertaken to "equalise" its university diplomas and programmes with the West. The two volumes cover some 120 of the state higher education insititutions - around a fifth of the total.

Last year the European Commission's Tempus programme - now enthusiastically embraced by Russian academics - distributed 8,000 copies throughout EU universities.

Dr Kulik and his team are buoyant about the centre's work and confident they can get a positive message across. "It's a strange situation in Russia now - we have a lot of knowledge and can provide a high level, quality education, but maybe the environment of our universities is not as comfortable as in other countries."

The drive to attract overseas students may bring in welcome hard currency to cash-starved institutions but officials also see Russian integration into the world higher education system as an academic lifeline which will allow them to reveal fully the intellectual wealth of their universities.

Alexander Propkopchuk, a senior state committee official and vice president of the Association for International Education, said: "We would not wish to view the development of free enterprise in the sense of attracting students purely as a way of attracting funds - it's also a way to promote Russian higher education, knowledge and culture.

"We will live to see a time when Russian students will be able to go to other countries to study as easily as Europeans can now do through the Erasmus programme."

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