BEYOND THE 5-100: A RUSSIAN PROVINCIAL UNIVERSITY THEN AND NOW
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It is also in the process of upgrading its outdated and dilapidated estate.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.