A Fresh Start: Russian as a Foreign Language – Past and Present
The Russian state testing system for non-Russian speakers was established largely through the efforts of scholars and experts of St Petersburg University. It was here at St Petersburg University that the research potential of the Test of Russian as a Foreign Language (TORFL) was promoted. The TORFL test materials and guidelines were developed by University researchers including Professor Kira Rogova, Professor Tatiana Popova, and Associate Professor Inna Erofeeva. However, 10 to 20 years ago, this line of work at the University was progressing at a slow pace.
The Language Testing Centre at St Petersburg University was established in 1997 as part of the Faculty of Philology (pursuant to Order of 22 August 1997 No 596/1 ‘On establishing the Language Testing Centre for assessing non-native speakers’ Russian language proficiency’). Evgenii Iurkov, Associate Professor in the Department of Russian as a foreign language for philologists, was appointed the head of the centre. Administratively and financially, he was subordinate to the Dean of the Faculty of Philology. Hence, from 1997 to 2015, the Centre’s earnings would flow to the budget of the Faculty of Philology.
It is worth noting that the work was organised in such a way that there was no statistical data on the number of test-takers, on the testing centres opened abroad, and on partnership agreements with them. Besides, the handover procedures were not carried out properly.
A new stage: in the structure of the administration
Until 2010, outside the Faculty of Philology, few people would be aware of the work and achievements of the Language Testing Centre. Yet, year after year, the rumours surrounding the Centre continued to spread. Who can help in obtaining a TORFL certificate? How much will it cost? Whom to pay to resolve the issue? The rumours persisted and were confirmed by statements from law enforcement officials. They reported, for instance, that foreign citizens (their full names were indicated) received TORFL certificates issued in their name by St Petersburg University, based on tests carried out by centres located in other cities (Rostov-on- Don, Syktyvkar, etc.). In fact, other persons took the tests for them, and the heads of those centres forged the documents... Alas, orders to the Dean of the Faculty of Philology and later a Vice Rector to restore the order in the work of the Language Testing Centre did not remedy the situation.
And then came the year 2014. St Petersburg University was authorised to conduct TORFL and an integration examination for migrants. The latter consists of three parts: Russian as a foreign language; the history of Russia; and the fundamentals of the legislation of the Russian Federation. By Order of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation of 28 October 2014 No 1394, St Petersburg University was included in the list of educational organisations that are granted the right to conduct testing in Russian as a foreign language and issue a state-approved certificate. This certificate is the only official document certifying the level of proficiency in Russian as a foreign language in accordance with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). The certificate is required for admission to Russian institutions of higher education. It is also necessary for naturalisation in the Russian Federation.
By Order of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation of 2 December 2014 No 1533, St Petersburg University was authorised to conduct an integration examination in three aspects: Russian as a foreign language; the history of Russia; and the fundamentals of the legislation of the Russian Federation. St Petersburg University issues a certificate of proficiency in Russian, knowledge of the history of Russia, and the fundamentals of the legislation of the Russian Federation. It is a necessary document for all foreign citizens wishing to apply for a work permit, a patent, a temporary residence permit or a residence permit. The integration exam is conducted in accordance with the Order of the Director of the St Petersburg University Centre for Expert Advice of 12 December 2014 ‘On approval of the regulations for conducting the integration exam’, approved in accordance with the meeting minutes of the Committee of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation of 23 May 2015 No 4. Since January 2015, St Petersburg University has been conducting an integration exam for migrants, and more than 470,000 people have taken it at the Language Testing Centre.
In 2015, only five universities and research institutes in Russia were granted the right to administer this examination: St Petersburg University; Moscow State University; Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia; Pushkin State Russian Language Institute; and Pacific National University. In compliance with the Order of the Ministry of Education and Science, each organisation had to independently conduct the integration examination (TASS: Five universities receive the right to conduct the examination for migrant workers). Pursuant to the Order of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation each organisation shall administer an integration examination using their own resources. According to Paragraph 4 of Article 15.1 of the Federal Law No 74-FZ of 20 April 2014 ‘On Amending the Federal Law “On the Legal Status of Foreign Citizens in the Russian Federation”’, only organisations included in the special list of educational organisations conducting examinations in Russian as a foreign language, the history of Russia and the fundamentals of the legislation of the Russian Federation, are authorised by the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation to conduct the integration exam. Accordingly, the organisations included in the list could not transfer their duties of performance to an outside third party. Therefore, such delegation would be a direct violation of the requirements of the law; in other words, it would be an offense or maybe even a crime.
Pursuant to Order of the Ministry of Education and Science of Russia of 28 August 2014 No 1156, which approved by the form and procedure of the integrated examination in Russian as a foreign language, the history of Russia and the fundamentals of the legislation of the Russian Federation, authorised organisations had the right to outsource the provision of technical and organisational support to other organisations in various regions of Russia and overseas: ‘if the integration examination is held outside the organisation conducting the exam, it may delegate to a third party on the basis of appropriate agreements some of its functions, namely: registration for taking an integration exam; information support; advice to candidates regarding the exam regulations and procedure; preparation for the integration exam; organisational and technical support for the exam procedure; as well as handing over the certificates of proficiency in the Russian language, knowledge of the history of Russia and the fundamentals of the legislation of the Russian Federation.’
Apparently, not all organisations in the list strictly followed this requirement. On the initiative of the deputies of the State Duma, the General Prosecutor's Office of the Russian Federation checked all five organisations and found that the certificates were signed by unauthorised persons, the organisations failed to issue certificates within ten days, and the special needs of people with disabilities were not taken into account (Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting dated 29 June 2015). St Petersburg University also underwent an inspection. The report of an unscheduled on-site inspection of a legal entity, carried out by the Federal Service for Supervision in Education and Science, No 292/VP/Z/T dated 24 June 2015 states that ‘the requirements of the legislation of the Russian Federation on education with regard to conducting an integration examination and testing in Russian as a foreign language... have been met by the organisation’ (in other words, there was no criticism).
The inspection report also stated:
- ‘Upon prior request, candidates with disabilities are entitled to get specific testing accommodations, including a personal assistant and a place for taking an integration exam or a language test, equipped taking into consideration their individual needs. A request can be submitted over the phone. The telephone numbers are mentioned on the official website.’
- ‘St Petersburg University signed cooperation agreements with partner organisations to organise: registration for taking an integration exam; information support; advice to candidates regarding the exam regulations and procedure; preparation for the integration exam; organisational and technical support for the exam procedures; as well as handing over the certificates of proficiency in the Russian language, knowledge of the history of Russia and the fundamentals of the legislation of the Russian Federation.’ (In total, there are 47 cooperation agreements related to integration examinations and 24 partnership agreements related to language proficiency examinations.)
- ‘Exam-takers can receive their certificates in person – upon presentation of an identity document, or by proxy – upon presentation of an identity document and a duly issued power of attorney, within ten working days after the date of the integration examination or testing.’ (That is to say, violations that occurred at other organisations were not committed by St Petersburg University).
‘Unlike the others, St Petersburg University employed few third-party contractors in the Russian Federation and overseas to organise the exam. Importantly, they were employed only for the technical and organisational support of the exam procedure,’ explained Dmirty Ptyushkin, Director of the Language Testing Centre at St Petersburg University. ‘Nonetheless, all the aspects of conducting integration examinations and TORFL under partner agreements were under the control of St Petersburg University’ (see Minutes of the Rector’s meeting dated 29 June 2015; Minutes of the meeting with public held on 29 December 2015).
Currently, St Petersburg University administers examinations in 46 testing centres in Russia – from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. For foreign citizens who wish to come to Russia to work, the University also holds integration exams in the migrants’ countries of origin. This is under partnership agreements with organisations in Moldova, Uzbekistan and Estonia.
To achieve this, University experts make a selection from the applicants who have submitted an application to the Rector of St Petersburg University. The selection process starts by checking the material and technical base of the applicant, and their qualifications. In fact, a specific procedure is laid down for reviewing such applications with a list of requirements and rules. There are then negotiations with the leadership of the prospective partner organisation. A partnership agreement is drafted, and the agreement terms and estimated cost of the services are discussed and finalised.
The inspection results
In addition to the Prosecutor's Office inspection, St Petersburg University carried out internal checks. The internal audit was carried out by University specialists, who were well-versed in the specifics of the regulatory framework for certification in language proficiency. The internal investigation turned out to be more thorough than the inspection of the Prosecutor’s Office. The investigation (which began in 2016 and was finished in the spring of 2017), initiated by the leadership of the University, revealed that a number of officials responsible for Russian language testing (particularly, Sergey Bogdanov, Vice-Rector for African and Asian Studies, the Arts and Philology, and Larisa Tsvetkova, Director of the St Petersburg University Centre for Expert Advice), failed to fulfil their duties. As a result of the investigation, they were relieved of their duties. In particular, there was no compliance with the requirements to collect, process and keep archival exam materials (hard-copy and video documents), stipulated by federal legislation and local acts of St Petersburg University. Also, the audit of financial and economic activities revealed some transgressions: the necessary approvals on the documents that require approvals were not obtained, and deadlines for financial reporting were sometimes disregarded.
Thus, according to the Control and Audit Department (CAD) inspection report dated 5 September 2017, Sergey Bogdanov concluded an agreement in violation of the Regulations for testing of foreign citizens and stateless persons in Russian as a foreign language, approved by Order of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation of 24 March 2010 No 207. The agreement transferred the right to conduct testing in Russian as a foreign language to the Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia, which was not authorised by the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation to conduct testing of foreign citizens and stateless persons in Russian as a foreign language. This practice was continued in 2015: on 1 June 2015, a similar agreement was signed by Larisa Tsvetkova.
Also, Sergey Bogdanov and Larisa Tsvetkova did not secure the registration of the partnership agreement with the Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia dated 6 February 2013 and the follow-up agreements. Consequently, the aforementioned documents were not evaluated by the University’s internal control system.
Furthermore, Sergey Bogdanov did not request and did not receive from the Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia archival exam materials for the years 2013 and 2014 and therefore did not ensure their proper storage. When the Language Testing Centre was formally included in the structure of the St Petersburg University Centre for Expert Advice, Larisa Tsvetkova did not ensure control over the availability of the relevant documentation, did not request and did not receive exam materials required under the agreement. Thus, the aforementioned officials did not ensure control over the implementation and compliance with Order of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation of 24 March 2010 No 207, control over the validity of the issued certificates, which called into question the validity of certification.
It was found that in a few instances certificate serial numbers were not written in the register of certificates issued to foreign citizens.
It was also found that in breach of the agreement, the funds transfers were delayed. Larisa Tsvetkova, however, did not take any action in this regard to receive the penalty in accordance with Article 395 of the Civil Code of the Russian Federation.
According to the Control and Audit Department inspection report dated 16 October 2017, neither Larisa Tsvetkova, nor Arsenii Parfenov – the then Director of the St Petersburg University Language Testing Centre – failed to exercise the proper degree of control and monitoring of financial activities. There were breaches of the agreements by the University of Management ‘TISBI’ and Irkutsk Educational Centre, namely, delays of fulfilment of monetary obligations to St Petersburg University. Besides, in violation of the local acts of St Petersburg University, the cost of the integration examination was reduced under the agreement with the Irkutsk Educational Centre.
Some of the required archival exam materials (hard-copy and video materials) were not provided by the organisations within the agreed contract period, to which neither Larisa Tsvetkova nor Arsenii Parfenov responded. Moreover, the abovementioned persons did not control the fulfilment of obligations of the parties. Thus, the Irkutsk Educational Centre supervised the registration of foreign citizens for the integration examination, including filling out an application and an agreement for the provision of paid services and other documents.
By Order of 24 November 2016 No 12726/2, a disciplinary sanction was imposed on Larisa Tsvetkova, Director of the St Petersburg University Centre for Expert Advice, for the violations that happened under her supervision. On 12 December 2016 Larisa Tsvetkova announced her decision to retire on her own initiative (item 3 of Part 1 of Article 77of the Labour Code of the Russian Federation). On 28 December 2016, her employment was terminated (see Minutes of the Rector’s meeting dated 27 March 2017). The then Director of the Language Testing Centre Arsenii Parfenov was suspended from work pursuant to Order of 5 May 2017 No 10587/2. On 6 June 2017 he signed an agreement No 02 / 9-22-02 on termination of his employment contract No 02 / 2-25-287 of 18 September 2013. Consequently, on 6 September 2017 Arsenii Parfenov’s employment was terminated. In addition, following the results of the inspection, local regulations were issued on strengthening control measures over the integration examination (Order of 22 November 2017 No 35072/2 and order of 29 November 2017 No 35872/2).
In order to streamline the language testing procedure and improve control over practices of organisations that provide organisational and technical support for the exam procedure, the new management of the Language Testing Centre at St Petersburg University continuously monitors the collection of the required archival test materials, followed by their random verification and evaluation. In case of the failure to provide the required materials and / or to provide a complete set of documents, formal requisitioning is initiated. Additionally, there is an annually approved schedule of field inspections at the actual locations of partner organisations.
Understanding what is at stake for the University in the event that there will be violations of the testing regulations at the University Language Testing Centre, Ekaterina Babelyuk, the Senior Vice Rector for Academic Affairs, Extracurricular Work and Methodological Support, raised the question of reassigning the Language Testing Centre to her department. The Rector supported this proposal, and the entire staff of the Centre was transferred into the subordination of the Senior Vice Rector for Academic Affairs, Extracurricular Work and Methodological Support. As it was mentioned before, there were persistent rumours around the Language Testing Centre. The first results of the work of the Centre under the new leadership indirectly confirmed that the rumours had been true. Over the first year, the number of test-takers increased by almost 2.5 times.
Statistically speaking, if in 2014, the number of TORFL test-takers outside Russia was only 957, then in 2015, there were 2,200 candidates; in 2016 – 2,500; in 2017 – 2,800; in 2018 – 4,300; in 2019 – 4,900; and in 2020 – 5,100 people. Additionally, over the period from 2015 to 2020, the number of partner organisations overseas increased significantly. So, by the end of 2020, their number had grown to 90 centres in 37 countries (at the beginning of 2015, St Petersburg University had partnership agreements with only 8 testing centres in 6 countries).
Certificates issued by St Petersburg University have prestige
‘Since 2017, the specialists of the Language Testing Centre have done significant work improving the integration exam procedure at St Petersburg University,’ said Dmitry Ptyushkin. ‘In particular, the local regulatory framework for conducting integration examinations was expanded. Thus, orders were issued regarding the collection and storage of archival exam materials and processing of requests for cooperation, including agreement procedures for financial arrangements. An anti-corruption policy leaflet was designed and approved. Every year, a schedule of field inspections of partner organisations is approved and implemented. Also, a template for an agreement to take an integration examination was amended and approved. Further work is underway to improve the quality of video and audio recordings. Also, a procedure for photographing foreign citizens has been introduced.’
Streamlining administrative procedures contributed to better control over the execution of the contracts by partner organisations and higher quality of services provided to foreign citizens. As a result, the number of test-takers increased and the income from this activity grew. Thus, in 2018, the number of foreign citizens who took the integration exam was 38,813 people. In 2019, the number was 78,971. In 2020, despite the pandemic, over 40,000 foreign citizens took the exam. On a regular basis, training sessions are held to improve the level of examiners’ competence. A special exam to determine the level of examiners’ competence was designed. This examination is held on a reimbursable basis – it is another for-profit activity of the Centre.
Additionally, the exam materials are revised and updated annually. The geography of the exam centres is expanding from year to year pursuant to the agreements signed. St Petersburg University has been highly ranked among the organisations authorised to conduct integration examinations for timely issuance of certificates. Now, no one makes allegations that a certificate can be bought. All of this has enhanced the prestige of the certificate issued by St Petersburg University (‘We are not afraid to be the first’ – Language Testing Centre of St Petersburg University promotes the Russian language throughout the world).
It should be noted that the increase in profits for testing services allowed the University to expand its activities aimed at promotion and popularisation of the Russian language and culture overseas. Thus, three international Olympiads in Russian as a foreign language were held, with the total number of participants of about 22,000 foreign citizens from 147 countries. The 2nd Olympiad was organised in collaboration with the Ministry of Education of the Russian Federation that allocated grant funding to support the initiative. Another project – ‘Online School of St Petersburg University’ – was first launched for schoolchildren in Latvia. Later the geography of the online school project expanded to include six countries: Latvia; Spain; Estonia; Kazakhstan; Kyrgyzstan; and Uzbekistan. Now the project brings together over 1,900 international students.
In mid-February 2020, in cooperation with the University of Ioannina (Greece), St Petersburg University launched a three-month distance learning course in teaching Russian as a foreign language. About 400 Greek citizens attended the course. Using funds from the integration examinations, 65 information seminars have been organised for teachers of Russian as a foreign language in 40 countries around the world. In the midst of the pandemic, the University held a series of webinars for teachers of Russian as foreign language (A boost for the Russian language: St Petersburg University holds an online marathon for teachers from over 100 countries). In total, about 2,000 applications for participation were received from more than 100 countries. In two months, about 45 webinars were held. In total, more than 100 online events were organised in 2020.
For 2020, a schedule of field inspections in the regions of Russia and a plan for streamlining the exam procedure were developed and approved. At present, however, it is not feasible to keep to a schedule due to the current restrictions. The monitoring needs adjustment.
Compared to 2015, the number of St Petersburg University partner centres in the field of language testing increased tenfold. At present, we are working with incoming applications of those who have found us by themselves. Indeed, we ourselves are looking for partners around the world. The goal for 2020 is to increase the number of exam centres to 120, as well as to expand the geography of partners in the field of language testing: for instance, start working in the United States, Afghanistan, Mexico, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and on the African continent. (‘Those who decide to learn Russian are amazing people’: about the work of the Language Testing Centre.)