What’s going on at the European University at St Petersburg?

(Photo credit: Alberto Perego)

The European University at St Petersburg (EUSP) is fighting for its survival; it continues to be at risk of having its license revoked. Yet another appeal will be held in court today, 13 April. Teachers and students hope progress will be made towards securing the university’s future. The EUSP is a place where professional scientific research is combined with youthful enthusiasm. It’s a place for open debate and the exchange of ideas for Russians and foreigners alike. Here is why the EUSP enriches St Petersburg and why it should be allowed to exist and prosper

The elegant pink marble palace on Gagarinskaya 3 has been through a lot. It has witnessed the love affair of a Tsar and his ballerina mistress, heard the clashes of the revolution 100 years ago, and was inhabited for a while by Soviet bureaucrats from the Industrial Safety Research Institute. Far from being a pensioner, today the small marble palace quietly observes the coming and going of students. In fact, it happens to be the home of the European University at St Petersburg. One would imagine that after such a long and eventful life, the palace should be enjoying a blissful retirement. In truth, however, it isn’t. The university that inhabits the majestic rooms is in trouble—and not for the first time in recent history.

(Photo credit: Alberto Perego)

The European University at St Petersburg is an embodiment of the city’s historic soul. Its policy of welcoming international students with open arms is a testament to the idea that St Petersburg is a bridge between Russia, Europe, and—ultimately—the rest of the world. This noble role doesn’t spare the university from having to deal with the bureaucratic incumbencies that afflict all institutions. However, what is taking place at the EUSP seems to be bigger than mere bureaucratic hurdles. Indeed, a paper war has been going on since at least July, when the university was first visited by government inspectors. On 10 February 2017, the Moscow Arbitration Court sustained a request by the Federal Service for the Supervision of Education and Science (Rosobrnadzor) to suspend the university’s licence. Because of the suspension, the existence of the university is under threat, though the loss of the license will only enter into effect after the court has considered the appeal. All this may sound awful, but the way in which it happened is worse still.

What happened

Far from having real concerns about the university’s ability to teach and educate young minds, Rosobrnadzor initiated a paper war, interspersed with surprise inspections of the university, aimed at finding faults where none were present. At one point, up to 120 violations were found, mostly concerning the lack of certain documents in the university departments. The university replied promptly, producing the necessary documents. One of the dropped complaints related to the fact that the university had been renting a gym instead of owning one—clearly impairing the education on offer at the university. (sarcasm alert)

After the shuffling of many kilogrammes of papers, Rosobrnadzor still retains a few complaints against EUSP. They relate to the contract frames of certain fixed-term professors and with the qualifications of other professors. Ironically, in January, the Russian Ministry of Education released its ranking of Russian universities, putting EUSP among the best universities in Russia. Indeed, it is a sad paradox that two Russian institutions that deal with education have such different opinions about EUSP.

Accusations of fomenting colour revolutions

So far we have covered the formal side of the question. However, the tense situation is further embellished by several fake stories on the web seeking to distort public perceptions about EUSP. The university has been accused of paying cash scholarships to students in foreign currency in envelopes without proper records, and of having no medical emergency service. Other major complaints on the web seem to be that the university is anti-Russian and too open to Europe, the USA, and, generally, to the West. Moreover, others are unhappy that subjects such as gender studies, deemed unscientific, are being researched at the EUSP. Perhaps it was following these blatantly fake allegations that a pair of protesters appeared outside of the university on a cold and snowy morning in February. They carried signs claiming that the university was harbouring foreign agents plotting ‘colour revolutions’. There were just two protesters that day. They were cold and soon left.

(Photo credit: Alberto Prego)

“The fact that the university’s educational quality is in doubt is very offensive for any hardworking student, I often feel very angry at this whole situation,” says Anastasia (name changed), an art history student at the university.

The entire situation sits in the minds of students and professors alike. Every day, when they enter the sturdy doors of the pink palace, they ponder their future. Not only do they have to worry about papers, exams, research, and seminars, but they also sometimes imagine the unthinkable: what if the university is to shut down?

What do EUSP students say?

All these fears clearly transpire when talking with EUSP students (all names changed on request). In the words of Dmitry, a student from the sociology department, “the idea that the university could soon be closed makes it very hard to focus on my studies… I sometimes find myself staring at my laptop screen wondering if I’ll ever have a diploma.”

Others worry about the work they are passionate about. Lena, a PhD student from the history department, said: “I’m not so much upset about not receiving a diploma for my studies; what upsets me more is the possibility that my research project might not be completed.”

The stressful situation is affecting some students more than others. Maria, from the economics department, feels that: “Studying for any master’s degree is stressful, under the current circumstances it is sometimes unbearable.”

Just weeks before finals and graduation, these are the thoughts that cross the minds of the graduate students at EUSP. Appeal after appeal, the university shows incredible resilience and carries on with its mission of providing a quality education to its students. However, when looking at the orderly and well-preserved marble palace from the outside, no one can imagine the fight that is currently taking place inside. One hundred years ago, the building witnessed people fighting in the streets outside. Today, people fight with papers in their offices, but for EUSP, the struggle for survival is no less ferocious.

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