Imagine how a student in Japanese studies was impressed by visiting Osaka in April-May 2005: a graduate-to-be first realised that she could speak Japanese! Unfortunately, she had had no chance to practice Japanese with native-speakers so far. That was the case ten years ago.  

In 2001, Anastasia Borisova was enrolled in a Bachelor programme in Oriental and African Studies at St Petersburg University. She originally came from Novokuznetsk, Kemerovo region. In Russia, there was a “Japanese rush”: many people were keen on karate, aikido, other martial arts, Japanese comics and anime. Twenty-one students in Japanese studies were enrolled in the programme that year.

St Petersburg University International Affairs

In 2005, it was a bit of a fluke that she visited Japan for a short-term study programme. St Petersburg University had had no rules and regulations that would have governed the procedure how students and staff could go abroad for short-term study programmes. “I didn’t have to win a competition to go to Japan,” said Anastasia Borisova, lecturer at the Department of Japanese Studies at St Petersburg University. “In spring, my academic advisor asked me whether I wanted to go to Japan. I agreed, although it was my final semester at the University”. It was an exchange programme, but “exchange” was not fair: a group of six students from St Petersburg went to Osaka for a month, while only one person from Japan came to St Petersburg for a couple of weeks.

There was another student who also visited Japan for a study programme for a year – and no more chances for students to go abroad on a study programme. Some students would take part in the competitions of the Ministry of Education of Japan. Some of them were lucky enough to win. Anastasia Borisova also took part in those competitions, but failed to pass the tests and interviews at the Consulate of Japan. Other students searched for a chance to go to Japan from the Ministry of International Affairs of Russia. All in all, students in Japanese studies had to find the opportunities for a study trip themselves. Unlike the students in Japanese studies, the students in Chinese studies, as Anastasia says, had more chances to visit China.

Japanese rarely visited the University. When they did visit Russia, they were eager to speak Russian. In Osaka, the students from St Petersburg lived in the host families where no one could speak Russian or English; the students, therefore, had to speak Japanese. They were a success: they could speak Japanese and Japanese understood them.

At the University of Osaka, the lectures on the classical Japanese literature were a hard nut to crack. “It was a course for the Japanese students. The lecturer spoke quickly, no mention that we were students from Russia. Nevertheless, the lecturers on the history of Osaka and international relations were much easier”, said Anastasia. When the students came back to Russia (just before the final exams and thesis defences), the Faculty had no regard for their trip. They were told that they couldn’t accept the learning outcomes from the foreign universities (although the courses were the same), as the University taught them in a slightly better way.

Our students and professors in chemistry, astronomy, history, economics, and management, to name but a few, have always been keen on Japan: conferences, seminars, and joint research projects. Still, Japan was not an easy country to get to, even for the students and professors in Japanese studies. Presumably, it can be explained by the fact that among 21 students, only 17 successfully graduated the University, while only 7 graduates started a career in the Japanese language. A surprising result!

1/3 of students started their career in the Japanese language

Anastasia Borisova, a year after she gained a Master’s degree, started to work as a department assistant in the Department of Japanese Studies and then became a post-graduate student. She prepared a thesis on the evolution of the Iemoto, a system of familial generations in traditional Japanese arts such as tea ceremony (inc. sencha tea ceremony), ikebana, noh, calligraphy, traditional Japanese dance, traditional Japanese music, the Japanese art of incense appreciation (kōdō), and Japanese martial arts and its influence on the modern Japanese society.

No rules

“Up to 2011, St Petersburg University had no rules or regulations on how to select students and staff for educational or research trips to partner-universities,” said Sergey Andryushin, Deputy Rector for International Affairs. “The deans and directors of different centres themselves signed agreements with the foreign universities and, as the agreements stipulated, they did not allow the students or staff of other faculties or educational programmes to travel under those agreements. The information was not available for other faculties and centres. Only some essay services could accept international students or staff, and they did not even know about all the opportunities the University could offer. For example, delegations from Japanese universities mostly visited only the Faculty of Oriental Studies, and the relevant information was not available to other faculties. As a result, research collaboration was limited”.

The information about international cooperation was not available even to the students and staff of the faculty which had signed the agreement, as the deans told about those opportunities to a “limited” number of necessary people. Most trips were just for entertainment, with neither research aims nor deadlines. What is more, the University had no office that would be responsible for its international affairs.

~95% of those who took part in the exchange programmes were from the faculties of humanities

The academic mobility between St Petersburg University and, say, Japanese universities was rather limited. Up to 95 % of staff who took part in the academic exchange programmes were those from the faculties of humanities, mainly Oriental Studies. Joint research publications were scarce, usually limited to philology and oriental studies.

What has changed

Today, the University students and staff have ample opportunities to go abroad: both exchange programmes and educational and research short-term trips. “Anyone can visit any university. Even in Japan. You do not have to necessarily know Japanese – you can choose the programmes that are taught in English,” said Anastasia Borisova. “A teacher from Japan now works at the Department of Japan Studies. She often asks Japanese who study at the University to come to her lecturers to talk with her students in Japanese. They prepare presentations and vividly discuss them”.

Delegations of Japanese universities visit St Petersburg University on a regular basis. Many Japanese companies collaborate with the University: Mitsui & Co. Ltd., JTI, Panasonic. For example, Mitsui has internship programmes for St Petersburg University’s graduates, scholarships for the students in Japanese studies, and provide books for the lecturers. Another example: JTI also provides scholarships for research projects. The University regularly holds meetings with the top-management of these companies.

Since 2011, as Sergey Andryushin said, the University has been re-organising the way it administers its international affairs. What are the results? 

  • the University, not the faculties or centres, is responsible for arranging visits of international delegations in various spheres to the University, with the results of the negotiations published on its web-site 
  • signing the agreement means that the University has taken into consideration the needs of all the faculties
  • you can find all the information about partner-universities on the web-site of the University
  • the University informs its students and staff in writing about all opportunities for academic exchange
  • the University set rules and regulations for exchange programmes for students and staff 
  • since 2011, the University has open competitions for students and staff to take part in exchange programmes and conferences
  • the University follows a transparent approach to financial matters in relation to international projects
  • the University has established long-term partner relationships with the world’s leading universities and companies, thus increasing financial support of the exchange programmes and other projects.

As the University has made exchange programmes more transparent, it has also expanded a range of exchange areas (from 6 up to 16 for the last 5 years) and increased the number of professors who take part in academic exchange in Japan. The number of students who take part in the exchange programmes has increased from 0 to 35 a year. The University has also established partner relationships with Japanese universities (4 partner-universities in 2009 and 21 partner-universities in 2016). Among the partner-companies are Mitsui & Co. Ltd., JTI, Panasonic, and Shimadzu. As a result of effective negotiations with Japanese colleagues, we have increased financing from Japanese companies by 10 times (from three million to thirty million per year). The number of joint publications has also increased by 4–5 times (269 publications since 2011 to 2016 with the researchers from 53 research institutions and universities in Japan). The University has also opened degree programmes with a specific focus on Japan: International Relations, Political Science, Tourism, Economics, and Management.

Japan is not the only country with which St Petersburg University is gaining momentum, among these countries are China, Germany, and Hungary.

What students and staff think

We asked the students and staff what they think about changes the University has introduced so far. The Associate Professor of the Department of Developmental and Differential Psychology, Olga Strizhitskaia, visited the National Autonomous University of Mexico where she spent a whole month in October 2016. In May, she visited the University of Tohoku, Japan, to participate in a research internship for two weeks. All information about the programmes, as she says, can be found on the University’s web-site.

If you have a clear view of what you want to gain from your trip to another university and present a well-developed project, you have a chance to win a scholarship at the University.

Olga Strizhitskaia, Associate Professor, the Department of Developmental and Differential Psychology

“I was interested in a joint project with Professor Maria Montero to study the generation gap in Russia and Mexico,” said Olga Strizhitskaia. “We have finished it and prepared a joint publication to submit to an international journal. In 2017, Professor Maria Montero is planning to pay a visit to our University”. When Olga Strizhitskaia was a student at St Petersburg University in 1998-2006, neither she nor her group-mates had a chance to go abroad.

Sergey Kostyrko, Associate Professor, the Department of Computational Methods in Continuum Mechanics, worked, with support of JTI, in the Laboratory of Professor Kitamura in the University of Kyoto in summer 2015. In October-November 2016, he studied how defects can influence physical and mechanical properties of thin-filmed systems under the St Petersburg University-DAAD programme “Dmitrii Mendeleev” in the Institute of Mechanics, the University of Magdeburg. In 2017, Sergey Kostyrko is planning to take part in the competition “Dmitrii Mendeleev” once again to gain a financial support and continue his research project with Professor Altenbach. When he was a student in 2001–2007, he did not have a chance to go abroad on an exchange programme. However, when he was a post-graduate student, he took part in international conferences with support of the travel-grants of the RFBR.

Second-year Master’s student Liudmila Lavrik in Engineering Geology chose an exchange programme on the University’s web-site and spent a whole semester at the University of Warsaw. She prepared an application letter, a certificate of proficiency in English (B2) and a record of her average score. Nobody from her group took part in the competition, but when she came to Warsaw, it turned out that 7 St Petersburg University students in journalism and international relations also won the competition to study at the University of Warsaw. When she was a Bachelor’s student, she visited Canada and took part in the research conference.

In 2016, fourth-year Bachelor’s student Regina Shaikhutdinova in Cultural Studies, together with her group mate, spent a spring semester in the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology. She mastered her Chinese and gained insight into China-Taiwan relations. Almost all the students who pursue Cultural Studies, as Regina said, go abroad on internship programmes. When she was a first-year student, she had already known that she would have such an opportunity. She also visited China on a summer language course.