The Westernization of Higher Education in Russia: Novosibirsk State University and its Students 1992 and Today

The first in a two-part series.

Novosibirsk State University Laboratory Building

Fall 2015: Slip siding along the icy path to Novosibirsk State University, the 50’s style Soviet building looked the same as it did in 1992 although outside, cars and bicycles crowded spaces that used to be occupied by baby carriages. Inside, the guard and turnstiles were new but it was back to the future up the concrete stairway to the 6th floor firetrap where I would once again teach a class in English, “America During the Cold War: How Politics Influenced Culture and Culture Influenced Politics”.

The time warp disappeared as soon as I entered the overheated classroom equipped with computer, flat screen TV and Internet. Not only were none of these things available 24 years ago, every lesson began with “the big chalk hunt” wherein students scavenged surrounding classrooms for the slightest sliver. There were no printers or VCRs. I heard a rumor that there was a Xerox machine but never saw it. I remember arriving one day when the temperature was -30 and discovering that there was no heat at the university. After 10 minutes facing a hooded (and I don’t mean hoodied) shivering mass, it became clear this was not a learning environment. I dismissed the class and walked home with a friend doing her Harvard graduate school research. She broke the silence repeating a mantra in sync to the crunch of our footfalls on the frozen snow “Aren’t you just thinking the whole time this sucks, this sucks, this sucks….”.

1992 English Seminar in the Physics Lecture Hall

Around then the first true crack in the institutional framework for Soviet education appeared. Students were offered an option: either stick with the traditional five — six year undergrad program with a degree as a “specialist”, or opt for the western Bologna System of a 4 year undergraduate degree followed by a 2 year Masters level program. It will come as a surprise to those who think Putin was always intent on restoring the great Russian Empire that he ceded the arguably most important institution in society, education, to the West. Russia officially joined the Bologna System process in 2003 so today there is no “specialist” option. Whatever the negatives, even as stagnation set in, that Soviet system was producing great scientists at NSU, like Sergei Klimenko from the class of 1981. Now at the University of Florida, Dr. Klimenko was in the news recently for leading a team that developed the algorithm for detecting gravitational waves, an event that confirms an aspect of Einstein’s theory and that, according to the New York Times, “could change the shape of scientific inquiry for the next century”. Among my students in 1992 there was a guy who generated something I didn’t even know existed outside of sports, a competition between Harvard and Berkeley for a linguist. His accomplishments while at NSU included writing the Goth/Russian dictionary.

In 1992 University tuition room and board were not only free, but students got a stipend that was larger than some of their Professors. The Physics Department that created Klimenko was hard to get in to. When the University was founded in 1959 there were five applicants for every freshman place. By the time I arrived the surest sign that the physicists rock star status had plummeted was they did not have enough applicants to fill the places. They debated whether to lower standards. Ultimately, they decided to add places available to students who paid tuition and did not meet the same high standard as the “budgetniki” (full scholarship). Whether you choose to frame this as the democratization of education or the capitalization of education, in 2015 there were 628 applicants vying for 160 “budget” places in addition to 15 spots available to those willing and able to pay 33,550 rubles a semester.

One structural aspect that has not changed is that students must choose a major when they apply to a University. So, in essence they are not applying to the University, but to a specific Department in the University. The jump to study in the Economics Department, as the new best bet for a decent life, appeared a couple of years before I did with four applicants for each of the places available. In 2015, Economics was second to Physics in number of applicants but it is twice as competitive because there are only 35 budget places and 49 tuition based spots going for 62,300 rubles a semester. More western influence can be assumed in relation to the departments that attract the 3rd and 4th most applicants because they didn’t even exist when I arrived. Management had 581 applicants vying for 30 budget and 45 of the most expensive spots at the University going for 70,000 a semester. Next is the Law Department where there were 465 applicants for 15 budget and 80 places for people willing and able to pay 47,000 rubles per semester.

Another early shift to western ideas, towards the end of my first tenure as a teacher, the University welcomed the first disabled student thanks to a partnership with a US NGO. NSU officially adopted a system of inclusive education in 2000 so today the University is accessible to all qualified students.

The next pillar to fall in the direction of the west came in 2009. It was the Russian roulette system of exams where your fate, be it a grade or entrance to a university, depended on the one out of five slips of paper you chose for the question and how much a person listening to your answer liked it. Yes, it had to go but they replaced it by drinking the cool aid of the US educational testing mania and created the Unified State Exam. In a cruel twist of fate, just as Russia got busy introducing the test tutoring industry, teaching for the test, terrorizing students, and overwhelming parents, some major US universities decided to make standardized tests optional or eliminate them altogether.

The new NSU

In 2012, Russia bowed to the latest western God of academia, University Rankings. In Russia, it manifests itself in the form of the Top 100 Program established by the Ministry of Education and Science. The mission of the program is to “maximize the competitive position of a group of leading Russian universities in the global research and education market”. Expected results by 2020 include at least 10% international faculty, at least 15% international students, and at least five in the top 100 rankings of global universities. NSU was among the 21 universities chosen to participate. Thanks to this, my second semester salary more than doubled and my classes were among the first to take place in a brand new four Billion ruble building with a controversial golden cupola. And yet, amidst all this modernity, it took five trips to the University cashier’s office to pay for my 7th grade daughter’s Chinese class. Put the cashier in a Soviet frock and it is 1992. I am standing in a HUGE line trying to collect a salary that was maybe a dollar and I cannot rouse anyone’s interest in demanding more money and/or civility. She could easily be the same woman I yelled at then only now her outfits are leisure modern and better quality. We exchanged words again this year. She still doesn’t care. She just moved her cashiers stool and attitude to the new Top 100 building that generates a nightly light show with rotating colors that drape the two 14 story columns. Last week they splashed a special blue color in honor of International Autism Awareness week.

February 1992, my commercial group at the University

I first came to the University when they offered me a visa in exchange for teaching a paid class as part of a new commercial entity they established. This was initially a desperate attempt to get some hard currency to keep things going but would end up branching out into such things as a chocolate factory thanks to an enterprising young American entrepreneur who came shortly after I did. So, generating income through educational services is as old as democratic Russia. The wholesale commercialization of education was a revolution and is the reason rankings are the new lifeblood of the University system. There are a number of rating agencies and none of them were impressed with NSU when it entered the fray. On the good news front, the well over a hundred million dollars spent has yielded results. The NSU Reuters Round University Rating went up 22 places to 140. MIT is the gold standard in the QS Ratings at #1 while the overall NSU QS ranking went from 371 in 2012 to 317 this year making it #3 in Russia. The NSU assessment improves dramatically in the QS rating for Physics and Astronomy that went from the 101 to 150 category to 51 to 100. Similarly, the Times Higher Education Rating is a mediocre 401–500 overall but the Physical Sciences is 89. One, if not the biggest thing, holding the ratings down is that the University does not have enough publications. So, some of this leap for the hard sciences was attributed to a restructuring that the Ministry demanded of NSU if they wanted to continue to be a part of Top 100. Thus, along with the new building, I began the second semester as an employee of the Humanities Institute that combined the Foreign Languages and Journalism Departments. Two other NSU Institutes were born; one united Medicine and Psychology and the other Philosophy and Law. This leaves the pure NSU brand to the more traditional, published and notable scientific disciplines.

Not only are these rankings intended to market NSU to gifted Russian students, but to international students. This is not a new idea. Long before there was any talk of Russia’s western sanction driven “pivot to China”, the sound of Chinese language was noticeable on the paths of Akademgorodok. NSU was already a higher education destination for some middle class Chinese students while their richer Communist cohorts headed to America and Europe. Now the University is expanding its degree offerings in English including a Masters in Economics, Math and Geology and PhD’s in Astroparticle Physics and Archeology and sending representatives to Higher Education Fairs in Europe and America to compete for young people looking for a good education at a reasonable price.

I devoted the 20 years between University gigs supporting civil society development in Siberia and beyond. I was returning as a ludicrous and terrifyingly dangerous Cold War Two has most recently brought two US aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean as NATO launched Anaconda 2016, allegedly the largest drill since Cold War One.

Scaring my boss in 1993

My biggest question last fall was if I would have the same freedom in the classroom in “Putin’s Russia” that I had in “Yeltsin’s Russia”. The answer is “yes”. The same “yes” I always heard from my boss in the 90’s, clouded with a discernable look of anxiety, when I pitched him ideas like a gender seminar. This “yes” was echoed in May, minus the anxious look, when I asked the Vice Dean of the Humanities Institute if I could create an on-line NSU English language creative writing journal next year.

In the end, it isn’t the ratings that make the University, or even the faculty, it is the students and the students at NSU were and are what hook me. Smart, extremely well educated, curious and confident, my 1992 students transcended their environment in every way. I prepared myself to be less impressed in 2015 because of the lowered standards introduced by the tuition option and the overall degradation of primary education. That turned out not to be true and their talent and energy is what inspired me to create a journal with them. The students are only less impressive than their predecessors because they have access to so much more of everything but time. They also grew up in a more settled environment, “Putin’s Russia” while the entire higher education system was transformed, for better or worse, to fit the western mode.

Part Two: The students, then and now.

Novosibirsk State University Students 1993