A Fresh Start: St Petersburg University graduates are guaranteed to rise from zero to B2 level

In September, all first-year students take a placement test in English. You may wonder, ’Why?’ After all, for those who are studying medicine or physics, is the English language their subject?
St Petersburg University offers a variety of foreign language learning opportunities. Senior Vice-Rector for Academic Activities and Teaching Methods Marina Lavrikova talked about the foreign language provision at the University and how it is implemented.

‘In 2011, the University gained the right to set its own educational standards,’ Marina Lavrikova explained. ‘Shortly afterwards the University standard regarding foreign language competence was revised. Since then, all University graduates of all academic programmes must gain a level of English proficiency comparable to the B2 level of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). St Petersburg University is the only university in Russia whose educational standard sets out requirements for graduates to develop a fully-fledged foreign language competence. It is not a common practice even among the leading universities in the field of modern languages! For instance, MGIMO University sets out very high admission requirements with respect to foreign language competence, while for graduation they have not set such a high bar as we have. This is an incredibly ambitious goal! Especially considering the enrolment figures for the main academic programmes of over 3,600 new students annually.’

Competence levels and learning paths

Why English?

Well, English is the universal language of international communication. St Petersburg University offers a wide range of study options and programmes, which are available for international students as well, with English used as a language of instruction. Presently, in many areas of expertise, to meet professional requirements, St Petersburg University graduates are asked to demonstrate a high level of English language competence. And employers never fail to remind us of this. Moreover, it is a generally accepted fact that English has acquired almost exclusive status as the international language of scientific communication, and many of our students have great potential for research work.

St Petersburg University is one of the leading schools for studying philology and linguistics nationwide and worldwide. We have specialists in more than 200 of the world’s languages. At present, we also have professionals with expertise in language testing in 18 foreign languages. Indeed, languages have been taught and studied at the University, employing various methods and approaches, since its earliest days. To implement the requirements of the new University educational standard, measures were taken to enable all students, without exception, to succeed in learning English.

Do the University entrants have different levels of English proficiency?

Yes, they do. The University enrols students from all regions of Russia and from overseas – in 2018, more than 70% of the University entrants came from other regions. And the level of English proficiency among them varies significantly. Despite the very high average Unified State Exam score (in 2018 it was 91.7), not all of the University entrants gained sufficient English language skills at school. Some of them studied other foreign languages (German, French, Italian...) and very little English at school. Nonetheless, we consider it essential that every University graduate should be able to communicate in English in professional settings. Therefore, despite the fact that the entrants have a different level of English proficiency, to qualify for graduation everyone must reach the mandatory minimum – B2 level.

Advisor to the Senior Vice-Rector for Academic Activities and Teaching Methods, Deputy Director of the Language Testing Centre at St Petersburg University Elena Arkhipova:

The level of foreign language proficiency reflects the ability to understand and communicate in a foreign language, both verbally and in writing, in everyday, academic and professional situations. Let us say, a person can either produce a few short phrases on familiar everyday topics – A1 level; or is able to discuss a professional topic in detail – B2 level. When he or she does not just retell a memorised text, but can freely explain what they do in science and what their professional interests and prospects are, then they are approaching C1 level. The English for Academic Purposes (EAP) modules and the English for Specific Purposes (ESP) modules are integrated in the syllabus. From the moment a student becomes more or less fluent – is able to understand and produce utterances – the focus of the course gradually shifts towards professional topics, academic skills, academic language, and so on. Professional modules are the key with regard to developing professional foreign language communicative competence.

So, we designed a syllabus with these specific needs in mind. Firstly, depending on their initial level of language proficiency (0 – A2 – B1 – B2), the University students are placed and taught following competence-based multiple learning paths. And secondly, every year we conduct a mandatory post-admission language assessment. This is an effective mechanism to determine what learning path is best for each student. The learning paths are created taking into account the level of language competence determined at the first placement test.

What about those who did not study English but another foreign language at school?

They are enrolled in learning path 1, which has near zero level of English language proficiency at the beginning.

Post-admission assessment

How is the post-admission assessment organised? Does it usually take the whole month of September?

Every September about 300 teachers are engaged in post-admission language assessment. This is a really big job. A special timetable is produced, classrooms equipped with computers are reserved, and we are fully occupied with this during the first week of the academic year. Some parts of this language assessment are computer-based: students take the test using the University Blackboard system. In fact, computer-assisted assessment is not common yet in Russian universities – only internationally recognised testing agencies offer computer-delivered language placement tests.

Modern computer technology has enabled us to conduct the assessment very quickly, efficiently and intensively – in just a week! And we get reliable results right away. In the second week, students already have classes in groups formed in their respective learning paths. In the early days there may be some minimal corrections. For example, a student had a headache during the assessment; therefore, the results were much lower than usual. However, these are isolated cases, they are settled internally and do not affect the general configuration.

Have you noticed any trends? Is the quantitative composition of different learning paths changing?

The following tables present the distribution of the University entrants by the learning paths over the last four academic years.

2015/16 academic year

Learning path

Number of students

1 (from zero level up to the level comparable with В2 (CEFR)


2 (from А2 up to В2)


3 (from В1 up to В2)


4 (from В2 up to В2+)




2016/17 academic year

Learning path

Number of students











2017/18 academic year

Learning path

Number of students











2018/19 academic year

Learning path

Number of students











As we can see, the number of students placed in the high learning paths 3 and 4, on the basis of post-admission assessment, is steadily growing year by year. Learning path 3 starts from B1 level, and learning path 4 starts from B2 level. The number of entrants placed in learning path 1, which starts at the beginner’s level, is gradually decreasing. What are the reasons for this development? It is too early to draw conclusions as we have been observing the situation for only four years. Still, this might indicate an increase in the level of education in Russian schools or the enhancing competitiveness of the academic programmes implemented at the University. Anyway, the general trend is noticeable.

For high achievers

What about those entrants who have achieved B2 level of English language proficiency? Or what if a student reaches B2 level very quickly? What opportunities are available for these students to make further progress in a foreign language?

Such students can further develop their English language skills following the University curriculum. They can study academic English (EAP) or English for Specific Purposes (ESP). For instance, some academic programmes offer elective courses of professional English. Students of the Faculty of Philology, Faculty of Asian and African Studies, School of International Relations, and the Graduate School of Management have the additional ESP modules. Doctoral programmes include modules that provide for the study of academic English. Currently, work is under way to design a syllabus for master’s degree students with their specific needs in mind. They will have access to relevant language learning opportunities including the provision for EAP and ESP. This is focused on preparation for making presentations at conferences, writing research reports, scientific papers, and so forth.

At the same time, our goal is to teach our students essential skills which will enable each of them to develop further following their individual paths.

At the University, all bachelor’s and specialist’s programmes include a mandatory English course – ‘Learning Paths English’. The course syllabus contains some modules of academic (EAP) and professional English (ESP). When a student completes the course at B2 level of proficiency, he or she is already aware of the scope of their research and professional interests. Students focus on their main subject and read professional literature in English; they present mini research projects in English; and participate in international conferences, which requires them to communicate in English in professional contexts. For instance, students of the Faculty of Philosophy organise a festival of languages. At this language event, English is the main language used. I would like to note that all academic programmes include the ESP modules.

Elena Arkhipova, Advisor to the Senior Vice-Rector for Academic Activities and Teaching Methods, Deputy Director of the Language Testing Centre at St Petersburg University

The main aim of the ESP modules is to enable the acquisition of communicative competences required in the professional context. Thus, students develop: their writing skills – to be able to write a thesis or a research paper; speaking skills – to be able to make a presentation at a conference or participate in discussions; and reading skills – to be able to read in English not only newspapers and fiction, but also scientific papers for detailed research on specific topics.

Second, third and so on

Alongside English, there are other foreign languages that students wish to study. How can the University help them in this?

The University has also courses in other languages. Importantly, second or third language skills are often necessary for the graduates’ professional development. For instance, this is vital for those who study international relations, who may choose different European and Oriental languages depending on their professional interests. Students of the Faculty of Asian and African Studies study an Oriental language as their main subject; and they also study a second European language, alongside English. It is also important for vocalists and all of them without exception study Italian. Indeed, foreign language competence is an integral part of professional competence. Thus, these relevant languages are included in the curricula of the respective academic programmes, while the ‘Learning Paths English’ is mandatory for all undergraduates.

What if a student wished to learn another foreign language in addition to those included in the curriculum? What are the options in this case?

There are plenty of options. However, they are not provided for in the academic curricula, the scope of which is limited. The curriculum determines the academic content that the University is obliged to provide to students under the contractual agreement. The academic curriculum determines the knowledge and skills students are expected to learn. It includes the learning standards or learning objectives they are expected to meet in accordance with the educational standard of the University, as well as in accordance with the recognised professional standards. These are fundamental requirements.

What does this mean in practical terms? How is the achieved level of English supported and assessed?

All academic programmes include courses that are taught in English and, indeed, assessed in English. In most programmes, students have to read publications in English – following lecturers’ advice. They also use the University library information systems in English. And it is noteworthy that the University allocates significant funds for the purchase of information resources. The number of information resources available at the University is comparable to that of Harvard University.

Furthermore, an academically successful student with good English skills can apply for student exchange programmes. Selected applicants are offered an internship in a foreign university. For example, in the SEMS exchange programme, a student completes one semester at one of the partner universities and the credits attained at the other institution are accepted at the University. Students can attend scientific conferences and participate in academic olympiads. Earmarked funding is allocated for these projects. There are also volunteer projects. Students can take part in international forums or work on large national projects, such as the 2014 Olympics.

Do you speak English? Prove it!

Does the University help to obtain internationally recognised language certificates?

Currently, on the basis of cooperation and partnership agreements with leading overseas universities, centres and foundations, the University conducts proficiency exams in 18 languages. These include tests in Korean (TOPIC), Japanese (JLPT), Hebrew (YAEL), and Turkish (TPE). By agreement with the University of Cambridge English Language Assessment, the University administers Cambridge English exams. In fact, the University Language Testing Centre conducts a wide range of Cambridge English tests. They range from exams for school children to exams for professionals to prove their level of language proficiency. There is an additional educational programme for those who wish to prepare for the test. It is a paid-for preparation course, but for St Petersburg University students the fee is lower than for other learners. Besides, the assessment fees at the University are the lowest in the city, because we have a direct agreement with the syndicate. All in all, the University provision for the study of foreign languages includes over 100 degree and non-degree programmes.

I would also like to stress that at the University, the English language has been integrated – as part of the modernisation of higher education – in the academic curricula at all levels from undergraduate to graduate and postgraduate. The supporting learning technology has been developed: learning paths; post-admission assessment; the Blackboard system for computer-assisted assessment; and so on. The current task is to create teaching materials for classroom work and learning materials for students’ self-study in English – supplementary material.

How do employers benefit from this?

This is a difficult question. We do not know the rationale behind employers’ demands: some of them indicate not only the level of language proficiency, but also a particular certificate. What we should do is verify the level of language competence using appropriate assessment tools available to us. Importantly, students’ language skills are to be certified officially, as the academic degrees awarded by the University are recognised not only in Russia, but in many other countries. Let us say a company was looking for an English-speaking candidate. In this case a graduate of the University would not need to provide any additional proof of his or her language skills. After all, the St Petersburg University diploma certifying the award of the degree is a state-recognised certificate.

Employers and employability

What is the employers' feedback on the University graduates’ language skills? How does foreign language proficiency affect their employability?

The University graduates are definitely employable. This is evidenced by the frequent requests made to the University, as well as by employers’ involvement in the education process. This is through curriculum development by contributing to councils of academic programmes implemented at the University; and through participation in the State Examination Committee, teaching methods and research committees.

At meetings of the councils of academic programmes, employers seem to increasingly emphasise their need for foreign language skills – particularly English. For example, members of the Council of academic programmes in ‘Management’ consider English language skills a fundamental non-negotiable prerequisite. They suggest the future managers should be taught business English, communicative etiquette, and so on. Representatives of employing organisations in the Council of the bachelor’s programme ‘Economics’ stress the importance of English language skills since the graduates will have to work with foreign companies. According to the members of the Council of the academic programme ‘International Trade and Customs Lawyer,’ English language proficiency is, indeed, a usual demand of employers. Members of the Council of the master’s programme ‘Russian’ are convinced that fluency in foreign languages is the key for graduates’ employment. Employers in the Councils of academic programmes ‘International Law,’ ‘International Arbitration Law,’ ‘Software and Administration of Information Systems,’ ‘Condensed Matter Physics at MEGA-Science Facilities,’ directly say that graduates who cannot read publications in English have no business in the industry.

What are the prospects for further development of the University English language provision?

To a great extent it depends on the development of the secondary education system in Russia. In the event foreign language competence is regarded mandatory for all school leavers, and the Unified State examination in a foreign language becomes compulsory, which has been already discussed, then there will be few entrants with low English proficiency. All the applicants will have at least a level comparable to B1 (CEFR). Nonetheless, there still remain the entrants who studied another foreign language at school. We will teach students at a higher level, we will teach EAP and ESP. Our students will have access to more learning opportunities with respect to studying English. Then we may expect increased efficiency in performing our task of fulfilling employers’ requests for well-rounded sought-after specialists with high language proficiency. As for today, a graduate of one of the leading Russian universities must speak English, whether he or she is a specialist in physics, economics, humanities, or mathematics.