World View: Russia's quest for approval

December 1, 2000

In a bid to rebuild its self-confidence, Russian academia is looking for recognition from the international community.

It was towards the end of a generously resourced dinner and after many impromptu toasts, that we were invited to raise our glasses one more time and drink to "the union". Then, by way of whispered explanation, the "Soviet Union".

It was the first time in my many visits to Tomsk in the years since perestroika that I had heard such a toast. With the furtive manner of Scots who used to drink to the "king over the water", glasses were drained.

I do not believe that anybody there actually wanted a return to the grey Brezhnev days of rationing, choking bureaucracy and paranoid state security systems, but there was a clear longing for the days when to be a Soviet citizen meant that you had a stake in one of the great powers.

Spectacular space programmes, a stable currency and an awesome military capacity enabled people to walk tall and bathe in reflected glory. Now all that is gone and Russia, bereft of its empire, is looking for a role. Meanwhile, submarines sink with all hands, television towers burst into flames and bombs go off in Moscow.

Tomsk Polytechnic University, one of six universities in the town, has just celebrated its centenary. It, too, is looking for a new role, one that reflects the internationalist instincts of the rector and senior colleagues.

Located in a closed city as part of the military/industrial/research nexus, the university had been unable to develop links with institutions in other countries. Now the climate has changed. The university has begun a programme of intensive English training for a whole swath of staff, starting at the very top. It has invested in top-of-the-range facilities for foreign language teaching and it has struck a series of deals with universities worldwide.

Among its new allies is Britain's Open University, which is in the process of helping TPU towards accreditation of some key programmes. Soon students will be able to receive an OU endorsement for some of the units in their science degree programmes, which these Russian students, thousands of miles from the nearest frontier and beyond the range of most western radio transmitters, will have studied in English.

I was there as part of a project team assisting students to get to grips with an assessment protocol that properly reflects not only their knowledge, but their ability to display the key competences that have been built into the curriculum.

The compilation of a student portfolio, containing a variety of evidence about their ability to, say, chair a meeting, work in a team or manage a project, was a concept into which my Russian colleagues waded with gusto. Although the idea was novel to them, they were never fazed by the OU's requirement for an external assessor to verify that the right standards had been achieved and the proper procedures followed. As further evidence that things are opening up, the assessor, selected from the neighbouring Tomsk State University, is an old hand at international activities, having made several vocational visits to Oxford University.

The loss of national self-confidence has made the wish for international accreditation all the stronger. It is as though the troubles with the rouble - which has been devalued repeatedly and dramatically - are read across into academic qualifications. Russia's universities are looking for some international hard currency on which to peg their degrees. Hence the tie-up with the OU, a leading world brand.

As I returned through Moscow, I picked up a copy of the Moscow Times , which carried a piece by a Russian teacher working in Britain. He was particularly scathing about the standards achieved by British students and about their shocking lack of general, cultural knowledge.

Russian students, he maintained, were streets ahead.

It would have been interesting, had I picked up the Moscow Times on the way out to Siberia, to hear the comments from Tomsk colleagues on the writer's assertion that western education systems are "inadequate" and in "terminal decay", whereas Russian schooling has "unsurpassed achievements" of "democratic accessibility, quality and manifestly high standards". If he is right, you have to wonder who should be hitching a lift from whom.

The visit coincided with a beautiful spell of weather. Birch leaves were golden, the sky was clear of cloud, and the last barbecues of the year were smoking in the water-meadows by the river Tom. Everyone knew that autumn rains, and then brutal winter frosts, were on their way, but for the moment there were better things to think about.

At the weekend, professors, deans and doctors were as busy as everybody else, out in the fields, gathering in the potato crop that will sustain them if the shops run short in January. Making the best of what there is while planning for the worst is a historic Russian characteristic.

The university sector has come through the economic crisis better than most, but it knows perfectly well that, long term, it will have to find and fund its own salvation. Now that is a toast worth drinking to.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College.

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