The 4th St Petersburg International Labour Forum discussed the principles behind the liberal arts educational model, its status abroad and the prospects for its development in Russia. St Petersburg University, which has offered an academic programme based on such a model for more than twenty years, initiated the discussion. In most other places in the country the liberal arts are still seen as a paradigm of the future.
One of the guiding principles of a liberal arts education is that a student can choose a field of concentration after their second year of study. Another basic principle is that they are free to devise their own programme by choosing the subjects that they are interested in. A third fundamental tenet is a departure from the traditional system of lectures toward self-directed learning, after which students discuss the material in a group with a teacher. ‘We end up downstream with what are called the competencies of the 21st century, which include the ability to retrain yourself, the ability to engage in lifelong learning and the ability to work in a team,’ noted the moderator of the symposium Denis Akhapkin, Candidate of Philology and associate professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies in Languages and Literature at St Petersburg University.
While in the USA such a model has been evolving for several decades, only three Russian universities offer full-fledged liberal arts programmes today: St Petersburg University, Tyumen State University and the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. The initial steps have been taken in Rostov-on-Don and Perm. St Petersburg University was the earliest pioneer in this area when it launched the first course of study according to a liberal arts model in 1999. Since 2011, the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences, headed by the dean, Aleksei Kudrin, also the chairman of the Accounts Chamber of the Russian Federation and the former Minister of Finance, has served as the platform for this experimental approach. In the twenty years of its existence, this programme has graduated almost 2,000 bachelor’s and master’s degree recipients.
The University’s partner, Bard College, has helped to develop the liberal arts at St Petersburg University. During the forum, Jonathan Becker, who is Vice-President of Bard College and a member of the Board of the Liberal Arts and Sciences Programme at St Petersburg University, spoke about the advantages of such an approach to education and experiences in its adoption in countries other than the United States. Noting how a liberal arts education helps graduates to establish themselves on the labour market, he drew upon data from surveys of both American and Russian employers, the latter coming from a research project that was conducted at St Petersburg University entitled ‘The Outlook for the Liberal Arts and Sciences Educational Model in Light of the Economic and Social Trends in 21st-Century Russia’, which was led by Danila Raskov.
In the course of their lives, people change jobs many times, and they very often need to work outside the area of expertise for which they received a degree at university. The liberal arts model of education can be very attractive to both American and Russian employers. They believe that graduates of such programmes are always capable of learning something new, they possess the skills to think critically and communicate effectively, and they know how to solve complex systemic problems, which is far more important than having a narrow focus in one field.
Jonathan Becker, Vice-President of Bard College and a member of the Board of the Liberal Arts and Sciences Programme at St Petersburg University
Experts believe that the high level of formalism in the national system of education stands in the way of disseminating the liberal arts among other Russian institutions of higher education. Unlike St Petersburg University and several other universities at the federal level, which have the right to develop their own academic programmes, most Russian higher educational institutions are bound to comply with the national standards. So, any attempt to introduce the liberal arts into Russia in accordance with such standards does not seem possible.
‘We see that this new system is moving like a square wheel. We haven’t had a chance yet to get things going in that direction. We make a little bit of headway, a little progress, and then we come up against a sticking point. Our goal is to bring to light the biggest difficulties and change things so that the wheel goes round on its own,’ said Danila Raskov, an associate professor, Candidate of Economics and the Interim Head of the Department of Problems of Interdisciplinary Synthesis in Social Sciences and Humanities at St Petersburg University.
Advocates of the liberal arts model are convinced that in this system, which has a strong master’s programme and is set up according to a 2+2+2 scheme, you end up with a labour force that is the best geared to present-day realities, with people who are capable of learning and, which is by no means unimportant, of learning again and again. In such a system, the first two years are given to the study of a wide variety of subjects, allowing a student to consciously choose an area of concentration; the second two years, to that area of concentration; and the last two years, to a more in-depth development of that area or to a completely different field of study. Supporters of this model dismiss accusations that such students, when they graduate, are insufficiently prepared; the stakes, they say, are being placed on wider horizons, on critical thinking, and on the acquired habit of learning, which, as it turns out, is more highly sought after.
A liberal arts education is capable of applying to a new breed of person who will be faced with spare time in life. What is more, such an education will promote the formation of that new type of person, one who will have a more responsible attitude toward their civic duty.
Danila Raskov, Associate Professor, Candidate of Economics and Interim Head of the Department of Problems of Interdisciplinary Synthesis in Social Sciences and Humanities at St Petersburg University
Those who are engaged in the liberal arts at St Petersburg University are confident that some supplementary elements need to be introduced into the Russian educational system so that every institution of higher learning in the country, if it so desires, will be able to take up the liberal arts model. They are going to gather together their proposals for reform, including the ones that were voiced at the Labour Forum, into a resolution. Among their proposals are the following: to introduce multidisciplinary programmes into a separate, integrated group of concentrations, to reconsider the requirements for accreditation of multidisciplinary academic programmes, even going so far as to abolish them, and also to accord institutions of higher learning the possibility of developing their own curricula and for applicants to such programmes the possibility of choosing from among several sets of Unified State Exams. They plan to send this resolution to the Russian government.