The European University at St Petersburg: no license to learn?

The European University at St Petersburg has had its education license revoked. What’s next for one of Russia’s top higher education institutions? Русский

Tatyana Dvornikova Polina Aronson
24 March 2017
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A demonstration in St. Petersburg in support of the European University. Photo courtesy of Anna Klepikova. Some rights reserved.On 21 March, St Petersburg’s court of arbitration deprived the European University of its educational license. This follows a suspension in December of all activities at the university.

oDR’s roundtable discussion on the future of one of Russia’s best institutes of higher education, featuring gender studies professor Anna Temkina, professor Ilya Utekhin and graduate student Rustem Fakhretdinov, both from the department of anthropology.

What’s the current mood of the EUSP’s staff and student body?

Anna Temkina: There’s no lock on the door, the university is open, and all classes continue as usual. The revocation of the license will only take effect in a month’s time — and until then, we’ll probably have time to appeal. Therefore, we’re still working as we always have.

The current mood is calm, there’s no sense of panic. The anniversary of the first attempt to close us down is approaching, and we’ll soon celebrate our University Day. There’ll be a buffet table, a festival… and everybody will come along and enjoy themselves.

How exactly does the revocation of the EUSP’s teaching license threaten the university? What will the consequences be for its students, graduate students and lecturers?

Rustem Fakhretdinov: It’ll be worst of all for the masters’ students, as they’ll have to decide pretty quickly whether to transfer somewhere or not. There’s now a legislative requirement, according to which students from the EUSP can their studies at other universities — but only if they agree to do so. They can refuse, and await the restoration of the EUSP’s license, as is their right. This year already saw threats made to revoke it, but even then, no students applied for a transfer.

It’s also unclear how exactly this law is to work, as there may not be lecturers for the same subjects in other universities. Where, for example, should our master’s students go if they want to take another course in anthropology? What’s taught at the EUSP simply can’t be found in the study programmes of other universities.

How will the revocation of the license affect your fields of study? First and foremost, this is a question for Anna Temkina, who represents that very same “malicious feminism” which St Petersburg deputy (and nationalist firebrand) Evgeny Milonov denounced in his declaration about the EUSP’s activities.

Anna Temkina: It’s a very difficult situation. On the one hand, the revocation of the license doesn’t necessarily mean the closure of the university. In the very best scenario, we’d apply for a new license, which might take a couple of months. Still, the suspension of lectures can’t be anything but a loss for students — although it’s less dramatic for the teaching staff themselves. We have a multitude of research projects to work on. To be sarcastic about it, you could even thank God that you don’t have to teach anymore, and be happy that you can finally deal with your own academic goals. But that, of course, is gallows humour.

Academic studies of gender can only be done in a handful of places in Russia today — one could even say that it’s only possible at the EUSP

Formally, there’s no threat to lecturers. But without the intellectual community of the EUSP, the academic surroundings, the unique organisation it provides, and of course without wages — their situation is still very unclear — life will be different. I’ll put all my strength into saving our university, rather than think too much about how things will be without it. I’ve worked at the EUSP for twenty years; it’s where Elena Zdravomyslova and I founded the Gender Studies journal — one could even say the school of gender studies.

I don’t want to think about what I’d do if I worked anywhere else. Academic studies of gender can only be done in a handful of places in Russia today — one could even say that it’s only possible at the EUSP. But this whole episode with Milonov, who said that we allegedly make gender studies compulsory for our students, doesn’t have a bearing on this situation, or so it seems to me.

Ilya Utekhin: The license relates to educational activities. Its revocation means that we don’t have the right to teach, but it doesn’t regulate research in any way. Students can’t study any more, but the license won’t impede their taking part in research projects and help develop them further. But of course, that’ll be a lot harder to organise, since the status of their scholarships will be unclear.

Rustem Fakhretdinov: As a final-year graduate student, the revocation of the license doesn’t threaten me whatsoever. I’ve just been working on my dissertation, and that’s what I’ll continue to do.

Furthermore, as our faculty doesn’t have an examination board for dissertations, I won’t defend it at the EUSPB, but probably at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Pushkin House.

My research topic, on songs of the Russian civil war, is also fairly uncontroversial. Everybody who sang the songs died a century ago. 
But still, the EUSPB has its own school of folklore, and it’ll be a real shame to lose it. We’ve already become used to living and working in an unstable situation, but not everybody can bear it forever. If it continues for much longer, then more and more graduates will opt for universities abroad.

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demonstration in St. Petersburg in support of the European University. Photo courtesy of Anna Klepikova. Some rights reserved.

We published an article not long ago on a similar situation in Belarus, where both students and lecturers were compelled to leave. Are we seeing something similar in St Petersburg?

Rustem Fakhretdinov: The situation is different here. Unlike the European Humanities University, which moved from Minsk to Vilnius, our European University can’t not be in St Petersburg. It’s linked to the Kunstkamera, to Pushkin House, and with other scientific centres based in the city. EUSPB can’t simply pack its bags and relocate across the border — it’ll become a different university.

The university’s presence here must be defended, while it’s still possible.

In this situation, what can each of us personally do to defend the university?

Anna Temkina: Firstly, It’s not about what we personally can do as individuals, but what we can achieve together, as a community.

For example, this conversation with openDemocracy wouldn’t have been possible had you not invited us to share our thoughts. Many journalists and members of the academic community are interested and support us.

Secondly, I believe that I should try my utmost to continue my routine and work as normal, not giving an inch or letting myself deviate from it. My work should not suffer as a result of this chaos. All lessons should happen on time, all deadlines must be met, everything must go on in its own way.

Our opponents can set out to destroy the infrastructure of the EUSPB, but a community can’t be destroyed so easily

We’ll try and attract more interest to the university. For example, I really don’t like to answer questions about 8 March (International Women’s Day), but this year I answered them all. These days, I’m all over the place. As an expert, whenever I can do something in public, I’ll do it.

Ilya Utekhin: I can’t officially answer on behalf of the university — only the rector Oleg Kharkhordin can do that. But I can share my personal opinion, which is that we don’t need to make any arguments — it’s obvious that the EUSPB is a real asset to the country, and that there’s nothing else like it. We also have a responsibility before our students, whom we must teach, and our lecturers.

The fact that our license is being annulled or our building will be taken away from us (which, by the way, automatically cancels the license) doesn’t mean that our university will be destroyed. A university isn’t just a paper with a stamp, but a living organism: a community of scholars, students and lecturers — and their loyalty to the EUSPB is very strong.

Our opponents can set out to destroy the infrastructure of the EUSPB, but a community can’t be destroyed so easily. You can put us all on a steamship and banish us [ed. as the Soviets did in 1922], but the university won’t disappear.
We’ll fight for a new license. We would’ve had to apply for a new one anyway — although not as a matter of urgency. The problem is that if they annul our license right now, that we’ll have to stop teaching before the end of the school year, which will harm the students.


A university isn’t just a paper with a stamp, but a living organism: a community of scholars, students and lecturers 

Do you ever get the impression that many of the recent disputes in St Petersburg — whether with St. Isaac’s Cathedral or with the Pulkovo Observatory — proceed in line with some kind of plan?

Rustem Fakhretdinov: Mikhail Piotrovsky has already said that this is a general attempt to wear down and provincialise St Petersburg. The people responsible vary, but the scenario is much the same — the city is to return to the swamp from which it rose.


Anna Temkina: I have a few doubts here. It seems to me that the origins of these stories may be very different. And probably, each of these stories tells us something about entirely distinct processes, their initiators, and their reasons. The similarities could be partly coincidental. But now they have united into one pattern — or at least, that’s how we interpret them, regardless of how they originally were. 

And now they’re all referred to under one very simple slogan, as Rustem said: that these conflicts are a protest against the provincialisation of St Petersburg and threats against sections of the intelligentsia — whether the cultural or technical and scientific. Their interests have clearly become secondary to those of more resourceful and powerful groups within the local authorities — and this conflict has entered a new phase in the life of the city.

Is the fact that Vladimir Putin stood up for the EUSPB a sign that things can still turn out favourably?


Anna Temkina: Of course, Putin’s statement gave some cause for hope. But as my colleagues have already argued, there’s a contradiction here. If, as the power vertical would mandate, the words of the leader can solve any problem — then why does this situation with the EUSPB still continue? One of the explanations is that not every command from the leader is realised in practice.

There’s also a mass of other conflicting interests that get in the way and impede the solution of certain problems, unless there’s specific pressure put on them from above. Probably, in our case, they face no such pressure from their superiors — the EUSPB’s case is tied up in the strategies and schemes of any number of people who do not wish us well, and compounded by bureaucratic inertia. 

Ilya Utekhin: Actually, Putin’s statement wasn’t so decisive. He simply resolved to “avoid a break in the educational process” — a formula which can be interpreted in different ways. Anyway, the institutional environment is such that when such a mechanism is launched, even the highest-ranking bureaucrat with the best intentions can’t stop it. The state mechanism is designed to soldier on, not slacken. If the officials don’t find any shortcomings [in the EUSPB], then that means they’re not doing their job. That’s why they’ll always find something — the instructions are specifically created so that somebody can always get stung. 

If they’re told to stop bothering the EUSP, they’ll answer “How? We have a procedure and if we break it, they’ll fire and prosecute us!” The Tsar might want justice, he might be interested to ensure that his kingdom’s wealth isn’t squandered away, but he doesn’t always have the means to do so! Of course, we know that if there really is a real political will, then the absence of a formal basis for taking certain decisions never gets in the way. But that’s a another situation, and our story is quite different. 

There is a parallel here with other universities that were closed under pressure from Rosobrnadzor or the ministries. The websites of leading newspapers published articles on the “ineffectiveness” of this or that university. Have there been any such negative campaigns against the EUSPB? 

Anna Temkina: No. And next to nobody publicly makes statements against the European University. Milonov may say that gender is a disgrace, but on the whole he doesn’t play a role here — but there was a group of citizens who did make a fuss. 

During the very first judgements on the matter, some marginal websites published very negative reviews of the EUSPB and its activities, but they didn’t lead to anything. And on one of those days, two guys appeared before the university, holding some kind of banners. But they quickly disappeared.
Actually, nobody takes the responsibility of publicly stating why this is all happening to the EUSPB.

One could conclude that there simply are no concrete reasons that could be legally and publicly formulated. The most coherent one would be that our papers aren’t in order — and to an extent, that’s true, as filling out all the required documents is practically impossible. The level of bureaucracy in the ministry of education and Rosobrnadzor is the stuff of legends. All that paperwork is of no relevance to our daily practice, but it numbers thousands of pages. But we’re incriminated by incorrectly filling out some of them. But nobody else makes open declarations against the EUSPB. There’s nothing to really accuse us of, even though somebody probably wants us closed very badly.


How can the university resist such an unseen enemy?


Anna Temkina: With great difficulty. But historically, we’ve shown great solidarity with one another, and that’s a great resource — perhaps because there simply is no other way out, so we have to stand side by side, and fight back little by little. As we don’t know who we’re coming up against, establishing such a large scale, forward-thinking strategy is nigh on impossible.

We will try and meet all the bureaucratic requirements imaginable, but one day somebody could still inspect us and declare that the plumbing isn’t working properly.


According to Rosobrnadzor’s scheme for education, the EUSPB is “inefficient”. Nevertheless, it occupies a leading rating among universities according to the ministry of education. It seems that Rosobrnadzor’s data and criteria no longer meet reality. Maybe it’s worth not only talking about fighting for a particular university, but for a change in evaluation criteria?

Rustem Fakhretdinov: Rosobrnadzor isn’t subject to the ministry of education, so its ratings are irrelevant. It has its own criteria for evaluation. 

Anna Temkina: Lots of different discourses and different understandings of the current state of affairs converge here. For example, there’s a certain legalistic and bureaucratic language which we cannot understand and cannot emulate unless we live within in — it’s not our professional language. It’s hermetic, and is based on rules which have a certain logic within themselves, but have no relationship to practical activities.

There’s one more aspect too — I’ll call it the “war of elites”. In this context, Alexei Kudrin [ed. former minister of finance] often appears as a person who embodies our university. That’s partially correct, since he is a member of our board of trustees, and we’re also talking about some elite-level relationships about which we know nothing. And of course, in this context there is the [symbolic or practical] scenario of “redistributing property” — and that reaches an absurd point. 

After all, in the last court judgement, Rosobrnadzor said that it had withdrawn its claims against the EUSPB. But the license was revoked anyway. This is a blatant violation of common sense, in full compliance with legal norms.


Ilya Utekhin: As far as the court is concerned, it doesn’t always listen to reason and frequently adheres to the interests of the state inspection services. If somebody ever wins a court case against Rosobrnadzor, then that’s quite an exception to the rule. Therefore in our case, we don’t speak about substantive arguments, but bureaucratic ones. Rosobrnadzor is absolutely uninterested in substance — it cannot assess the quality of education, and is only interested in matching one paper to another. 

My personal opinion is that Rosobrnadzor needs to be abolished on the grounds of incompetence and this entire corrupt structure replaced with mechanisms of reputation — so that a university’s reputation decides its fate.

How would things ideally develop for you personally, and for the university in the near future?


Anna Temkina: The best thing would be if the court appeal succeeds after a couple of months — then everything will be in order.

But nonetheless, we’d still remain in this situation whereby we know neither the causes nor the consequences of what has just happened, and we understand that any cultural or educational institution in St Petersburg may await the same fate for absolutely incomprehensible reasons.

That is to say, even the most ideal result for us would still not set a positive precedent for society, culture, education — nor for the city as a whole. 

Translated by Maxim Edwards.

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