UK-Russian graduate school’s loss of accreditation sparks anguish

Pioneering Moscow education institution is latest target of Russia’s education regulator

July 13, 2018
Poryachiy bridge at Zaryadye Park in Moscow
Precarious: a bridge over the Moskva River

“Absurd” and “overzealous” regulation has been blamed for the decision to deny accreditation to one of Russia’s most respected independent universities.

The Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, a not-for-profit postgraduate university with about 300 students, has been told by Rosobrnadzor, Russia’s federal education regulator, that it had lost its accreditation because of a number of alleged violations of education standards, the independent Russian news site Meduza has reported.

The Riga-based site described the move as a “blow to Russian intellectual freedom”.

It added that the university’s rector, Sergey Zuyev, had clarified that the institution will continue operating but without the accreditation that allowed it to issue state-approved diplomas or to provide deferment from military service.

The university is widely known as “Shaninka”, after its founder Teodor Shanin, the University of Manchester sociologist who created the institution in 1995. It received assistance at the time from George Soros’ Open Society Institute, the MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Russian government, while many of its master’s degrees are still validated by Manchester.

Writing in the Moscow Times, Grigory Yudin, the academic director of the master’s programme in political philosophy at MSSES, describes the regulator’s decision as “absurd”.

One of the charges against the institution is that the “academic director of the master’s programme in law is accused of being insufficiently qualified for the position because he earned his master’s degree in history”, despite having later obtained two academic degrees in Roman law, he explains.

Professor Yudin compares the watchdog’s ruling to the decision to revoke the education licence of another institution with Western links, the European University at St Petersburg, two years ago.

In that case, the European University “was initially accused of not having enough ‘practitioners’ among its faculty (whatever that means)” and was later charged with “failing to provide special furniture needed to teach philosophy and history”, writes Professor Yudin.

He says the state regulator’s heavy-handed approach meant that Russian universities have to produce mountains of useless paperwork, with the average length of a course syllabus now standing at 30 to 40 pages.

“For a year before an inspection, both faculty and staff must prepare hundreds of boxes filled with the documents,” explains Professor Yudin, who added that “almost all are produced exclusively for inspectors”.

The agency’s criticisms of the European University and Shaninka were widely seen as “self-discrediting by the academic community” because both are “role models” for the rest of the sector, having pioneered, for instance, the use of anti-plagiarism software, the use of English in education and a focus on writing skills over the past 20 years.

“The damage done by Rosobrnadzor to the Russian education system is already unacceptable,” he says, adding that it was wrong that there is “currently no way to prevent the agency or the powers standing behind it from doing more harm, like revoking Shaninka’s licence and closing it down, as it did with the European University”.

He calls on Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, to back a call from the Association of Leading Russian Universities that demanded that the power to accredit universities be transferred to the academic community.

“The autonomy of Russian universities and their independence from Rosobrnadzor is the only way to ensure Russian science and education integrates into the international academy,” he says.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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