BE­YOND THE 5-100: A RUS­SIAN PROVIN­CIAL UNIVER­SITY THEN AND NOW

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPIN­ION -

in­sti­tu­tions that weren’t se­lected to take part in that pro­gramme? Have they just been left to lan­guish? My Septem­ber visit to Voronezh State Uni­ver­sity for its cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions sug­gests not.

The 21,000-stu­dent in­sti­tu­tion may be in an agri­cul­tural re­gion some 300 miles south of Moscow, but it is well known among Bri­tish Rus­sian­ists, around 1,000 of whom have spent a year or a term there as ex­change stu­dents since 1970. I was there in 1972-73, and this was the first time I had been back to the uni­ver­sity.

The early post-Soviet years were not kind to the uni­ver­sity. It was des­per­ately short of money, and its rep­u­ta­tion as one of the best sec­ond-tier uni­ver­si­ties in Rus­sia suf­fered. But over the past 10 years it has gained a new lease of life, and is start­ing to climb up Rus­sian and in­ter­na­tional rank­ings.

In Soviet times, Marx- ism-Lenin­ism, di­alec­ti­cal ma­te­ri­al­ism and po­lit­i­cal eco­nom­ics were com­pul­sory for all stu­dents (ex­cept those from “cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries”), and the teach­ing style and or­gan­i­sa­tion made the whole ex­pe­ri­ence lit­tle more than an ex­ten­sion of school. But a slew of new cour­ses and mod­ernised cur­ric­ula have been in­tro­duced, and Voronezh now has sought-af­ter de­part­ments of com­puter science, in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions, jour­nal­ism and law.

It is also in the process of up­grad­ing its out­dated and di­lap­i­dated es­tate. Its main build­ing re­mains in dire need of ren­o­va­tion, but the pub­lic space around it has been beau­ti­fied with gar­dens and memo­ri­als to past dis­tin­guished schol­ars. The

In Soviet times, the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion prided it­self – not al­ways jus­ti­fi­ably – on the ex­cel­lence and in­clu­siv­ity of its higher ed­u­ca­tion, es­pe­cially in the sciences. The 5-100 ini­tia­tive was both the first real ac­knowl­edge­ment that Rus­sian uni­ver­si­ties were ac­tu­ally lag­ging be­hind in­ter­na­tional stan­dards, and the first ev­i­dence that it was se­ri­ous about try­ing to re­dress that. But what of those

same linoleum floor­ing, spar­tan kitchens and com­mu­nal wash­rooms and show­ers still grace the hos­tels where we lived two or three to a room (a great priv­i­lege com­pared with the four or five Rus­sian stu­dents who had to share), but the stul­ti­fy­ing, stan­dard-is­sue reg­i­men­ta­tion has gone. In our day, no hint of in­di­vid­u­al­ism was al­lowed. Now, doors are cus­tomised with names, draw­ings and pho­tos.

Voronezh’s dy­namic rec­tor, Dmitry En­dovit­sky, is also keen to point out that a splen­did new hos­tel with en-suite rooms has re­cently been com­pleted – with more to come. En­dovit­sky de­serves a lot of credit for what is hap­pen­ing at Voronezh. An alum­nus him­self, he has been at the lead­ing edge of post-Soviet higher ed­u­ca­tion and is clearly in­tent on putting “his” uni­ver­sity on the map. En­ter­ing uni­ver­sity as com­mu­nism was fall­ing, he opted to study eco­nom­ics and was one of the first Rus­sian grad­u­ates to win a stu- dentship un­der the Euro­pean Union’s Tem­pus pro­gramme, study­ing for his mas­ter’s in the Repub­lic of Ire­land. On his re­turn, he was con­vinced to stay in academia rather than join the chaotic money-grub­bing econ­omy of the 1990s, and be­came a pro­fes­sor by the age of 30. Voronezh aca­demics elected him their rec­tor in 2010.

What used to be an in­tro­verted in­sti­tu­tion in a city of a mil­lion peo­ple that was in essence closed to all for­eign­ers but ex­change stu­dents now looks out­ward. It has dozens of ex­change ar­range­ments with Euro­pean uni­ver­si­ties, a tie-in to the Eras­mus pro­gramme and some for­eign in­dus­trial part­ner­ships, such as with Siemens. There are vis­it­ing pro­fes­sors and fel­lows from Moscow and for­eign uni­ver­si­ties, and an in­creas­ing num­ber of mod­ules are be­ing taught in English. De­bate and ar­gu­ment are en­cour­aged.

Voronezh now shares the buzz of a lively West- ern uni­ver­sity – in which its stu­dents’ dress, man­ner and dig­i­tal ac­cou­trements would make them look per­fectly at home. They travel abroad; they speak English with­out the dis­tinc­tive Rus­sian ac­cent of yes­ter­year; they have the same bright­ness and con­fi­dence as their Euro­pean coun­ter­parts. They read many of the same things; they are up with so­cial me­dia.

Voronezh is not alone among Rus­sian uni­ver­si­ties in seek­ing greater num­bers of ex­change places at Bri­tish and Ir­ish uni­ver­si­ties – not least be­cause of Rus­sians’ pref­er­ence for Bri­tish over Amer­i­can English. But the one hitch in En­dovit­sky’s in­ter­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion ef­forts is that the de­cline in Rus­sian stud­ies in the UK means that there are far fewer stu­dents want­ing to go the other way.

Mary De­jevsky is a colum­nist at the In­de­pen­dent, hav­ing pre­vi­ously been a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent in Moscow, Paris and Wash­ing­ton.

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