Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a federal issue: St Petersburg University Rector Nikolay Kropachev: Our international students are ambassadors of Russian culture abroad
Starting 1 September 2023, St Petersburg University opens the first university-based general education online school for Russian-speaking children from all over the world. The initiative of St Petersburg University was supported by two Russian ministries: the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. The tuition will be provided free of charge.
How and what will they teach in this school? Why has the number of international applicants to master’s programmes almost doubled? What will be the most important thing in the new system of university-based education? Nikolay Kropachev, Rector of St Petersburg University and Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, answers the questions from Rossiyskaya Gazeta.
Professor Kropachev, who can be enrolled as students at your online school and how? How did this idea come about?
Schoolchildren from grades 5 to 10 will be able to sign up for online classes. Our school has been created for those living abroad who want to complete the general education programme at St Petersburg University in their native Russian language and, possibly, then apply to Russian universities. We realise that today there are practically no chances to be educated in the Russian language, for example, in Europe. We therefore decided to launch an online school. All subjects there will be taught by our University teachers in accordance with the Russian school curriculum. After completing the programme, the students will receive a Russian state-recognised certificate at St Petersburg University. Thus, they will become eligible to apply to our universities without any procedures for recognising their educational credentials.
By the way, independent online classes in accordance with the Russian school curriculum were launched at St Petersburg University back in 2018. I was contacted by parents of Russian schoolchildren living in Latvia. Their children had no opportunity to study in Russian. They were taught only in Latvian or in English. Our teachers started organising online classes for them every Saturday. They worked with children in almost every subject of the school curriculum. Then, at the dawn of the project, classes were held only for 50 students from three cities in Latvia. Today, online classes at St Petersburg University unite children from 11 countries of the world. 2,700 students from France, Latvia (still most of our students are Latvian), Estonia, Egypt, Spain, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and other countries are studying in accordance with the curriculum of grades 1–11 of Russian schools, a total of 11 subjects. Tuition is provided at the expense of extra-budgetary income of St Petersburg University.
After completing the online studies, the children will be issued a Russian standard state-recognised certificate and will become eligible to apply to our universities without any procedures for recognising their educational credentials.
Nikolay Kropachev, Rector of St Petersburg University, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences
An important thing is that we have now moved from online training in individual subjects to classes in all disciplines taught at school. Such schools are very much in need today, and we are ready to share our experience with our colleagues from major universities. I am sure that such schools could also be established by Lomonosov Moscow University, Novosibirsk State University, and our federal universities.
I know that St Petersburg University has already received almost 6,000 applications from international applicants. This is thrice as many as in 2021. What is such growth related to? How does the current political situation affect it?
The growth of applications from foreigners at St Petersburg University has become a trend already. For six years in a row, our University has been the leader in the popularity ranking among international applicants. We are well ahead of other Russian universities here. Last year, 21 applicants applied for one state-funded place through the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo). We have eight representative offices abroad. They are located in: the Republic of Korea; China; Spain; Greece; Italy; Iran; Türkiye (the official opening will take place soon); and Uzbekistan. We also have a branch office in Tashkent and a joint campus of St Petersburg University and Harbin Institute of Technology. This year, the campus of our branch in Cairo will open.
By the way, in addition to online learning in the Russian language, St Petersburg University has opened 112 authorised Russian Language Centres in 50 countries around the globe. About 7,000 foreigners have already been tested there in order to receive a state-recognised standard certificate of Russian language proficiency. Note that we are speaking about non-CIS countries such as Brazil, Greece, Italy, Japan, and China.
St Petersburg University is also hosting the International Online Olympiad in Russian as a Foreign Language. In the autumn of 2022, the third one took place. What are the results?
Due to external political pressure, we abandoned the idea of a wide information campaign related to this Olympiad. But despite that, we had over 5,000 international participants from more than 100 countries. Since 2018, a total of over 27,000 foreigners have taken part in the St Petersburg University Olympiads in Russian as a Foreign Language, both in person and online.
In addition, over 1,500 people are learning Russian for beginners at the St Petersburg University Russian Language Centres operating in Greece, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Paraguay. The tuition is free of charge. No other university in Russia has such a network.
Such events contribute to the growth of the University’s popularity, of course. Yet the most important thing, and I am sure my colleagues will agree with me, is the reputation of the University and the quality of education we provide. Our University graduates easily find jobs both in Russia and abroad.
Compared to last year, the interest of foreigners in the master’s programmes of St Petersburg University has almost halved. What interesting options do you offer to international students?
We have quite a large portfolio of 214 programmes that can satisfy professional scientific interests of almost any graduate with a bachelor’s degree, in whatever area they would specialise. Moreover, we update this portfolio almost every year. We also open new programmes, many of them being interdisciplinary ones.
Today, it is the most promising strategy. Let us take the programme "Business Administration in the Digital Economy" as an example. The resources of the Faculty of Economics, the Faculty of Law, and the Faculty of Political Science are actively involved here. It is this approach and focus on the real needs of the labour market that make our master’s programmes very popular among foreign citizens. In addition, we have more than one and a half thousand agreements with employers, large Russian and international companies. This is a big plus for our applicants.
Where do your students come from and which programmes are most demanded?
Students from over 100 countries of the world come to St Petersburg University to study. According to our statistics, most of our applicants are from the People’s Republic of China. It is followed by the Republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Belarus, and Turkmenistan. Many come from Ukraine. But this is not all. We have students from all over the globe, from Latin America to the Asia-Pacific region. Many come from Africa and from the Middle East.
As for the areas, there is a fairly wide range: medicine; linguistics; management; international relations; dental medicine; information technology; chemistry; and biomedicine.
Do your international students stay here in Russia after they are issued a St Petersburg University diploma, or do they take their knowledge home? Which case is a more common one?
Many of our international students return to their home countries. And, frankly speaking, we are pleased they do. It means that Russian higher education received at St Petersburg University demonstrates a world-class level and a real demand. But, of course, both scenarios are possible and equally important.
If our graduate stays in Russia, our labour market receives a highly qualified specialist. If our international students are issued a diploma and leave for their homeland, then, by their own examples, they prove the highest level of education at a classic university in Russia, thus increasing the reputation of Russian education.
Therefore, we always work with our graduates very actively. This is the powerful energy of people who were educated at St Petersburg University and bring the values of our country ’to the world’. They are ambassadors of Russian education abroad, the best messengers of our culture.
How do your representative offices abroad work now?
The work continues despite the complexity and tension in international relations. In fact, our representative offices in Europe are now one of the few ways for foreigners to get information about Russia and promote Russian culture.
Let us look at the data provided by our representative office in Spain. Since January 2022, 54 events have been held there. There were over 3,000 in-person participants, while the number of online viewers was more than 650,000. Most lectures are devoted to Russian literature and history, to our authors such as Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, and Anton Chekhov. We give an opportunity to learn the truth about Russia.
I should ask you a key question.
The principles of a new system of higher education were disclosed. What do you think is the most important thing in it?
To be honest, we should not reduce the problem of training to its duration or to the titles of academic programmes. The problem of training is primarily a matter of the content and quality of education, and not of the name of the programmes. Will all academic programmes become five-year ones now? No! It is not about that! Foreigners come to us not because of the duration of our programmes. They choose us because our programmes are in-depth and informative. St Petersburg University has been teaching according to its own educational standards for 14 years, and, most importantly, we provide quality education.
Did you know that in the Soviet era, all specialised law schools in the country had four-year programmes, while all classic universities with law faculties had five? Russian outstanding lawyers such as Sergei Alekseev, Veniamin Yakovlev, Dmitrii Ustinov, Yury Chaika, and Pavel Krasheninnikov studied for four years, not five. Of course, if we are given the opportunity to train, for example, lawyers for five years, we at St Petersburg University will teach even better. But if a higher education institution has not enough teachers, or it has insufficient facilities and methodological framework... If you give it the opportunity to teach students for seven years, nothing will work.
In addition, today we are faced with another big problem, the obsolescence of knowledge. Second-rate teachers teach only what they know. And that is all. Because they know only what was relevant yesterday. You must be a lifelong learner. Do you think first-rate graduates of the Faculty of Law at St Petersburg University know all the legislation by heart? No, of course they do not, but they are able to discover the required information, analyse it, understand it, and put it into practice. This is because they were taught that way, and they pursue lifelong learning. They learn to see the essence of various social and legal phenomena.