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Samara’s governor takes aim at higher education

A rally in support of the University Photo by Michael Lawrence.jpg

Down in Samara on the Volga river, the city’s higher education institutions are facing cuts and closure. And many people are far from happy.

Michael Lawrence
21 July 2015

Down on the Volga river, Samara State University (SGU) is under threat. Local and federal authorities are planning to make SGU a part of Samara State Aerospace University (SGAU), one of Russia’s top technical universities. On 22 June, Dmitry Livanov, Minister of Education, signed an order to combine these two institutions. 

Despite protests and petitions, Governor Nikolai Merkushkin (United Russia) believes that amalgamating these institutions will only benefit the state of higher education in Russia’s sixth largest city. But lecturers and students at SGU are worried by the fate of this latest round of rationalisation: according to rumours, this process will leave many people without jobs. 

Protests 

7 July. As Beatles hits float across Samara’s central square, one could easily mistake this demonstration for a rock concert. But no, this stage is here for a rather different reason—students and lecturers are holding a meeting on Samara’s central square in protest against the closure of SGU. With roughly 500-700 people in attendance, this is one of Samara’s largest demonstrations in recent years.

When the organisers manage to attract the maximum number of people (with the help of The Beatles), the meeting starts. 

A rally in support of the University Photo by Michael Lawrence.jpg

7 July protest. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Mikhail Matveev kicks off proceedings. An independent deputy of Samara’s regional council, the Gubernskaya Duma, Matveev speaks of how the local authorities had tried to impede the meeting:

‘The bureaucrats twice refused to take our notifications. Then they banned us from holding the meeting at the square next to the state university. A few hours before the start of the meeting, the police fined drivers who were bringing in sound equipment and speakers for the demo. This was done on purpose, to make sure the meeting didn’t take place.’

Meanwhile, the crowd holds posters and placards daubed with messages critical of the education reform: ‘We are against combining the universities!’ ‘Who needs historians, sociologists, philologists with an aerospace diploma?’

Making their way up to the stage, students, lecturers, alumni and other residents make their point clear: SGU students are in demand, despite Governor Merkushkin’s aspersions to the contrary. Some of the crowd even demand the governor’s resignation.

‘Who needs historians, sociologists, philologists with an aerospace diploma?’ 

Meanwhile, participants often cite history as to why they cann’t allow SGU to close.

Founded in revolutionary times, the university was established in 1918 by the (short-lived) Constituent Assembly and Samara’s zemstvo (local self-government administration). Due to financial difficulties, the university was later closed in 1927 — though pedagogical, medical, and agricultural institutes continued to operate.

SGU opened again in 1969, and has since turned out thousands of specialists. Indeed, it is considered one of the best higher education institutes in the CIS.

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Nikolai Merkushkin used to govern neighbouring Mordovia. WikiMedia Commons / Vadim Kondratev. Some rights reserved.

A year into his governorship, Nikolai Merkushkin doesn’t agree, and ignored the demonstration. Officials from the local Ministry of Education didn’t, however, and decide to attend. Sitting on benches in Samara’s central square, the bureaucrats listen to the criticism coming from the stage, noting down the names of the lecturers, students and citizens.

Indeed, though the usual police presence is to be found, members of the anti-extremism department are also here. The officers filmpeople’s speeches and photograph the placards. Earlier that morning, a special edition of the local newspaper, printed with state money, is sent to people’s homes: it is full of stories about how Samara residents support the creation of this new ‘National University’. The print run was 250,000.

Likewise, on local television later that evening, participants are declared ‘enemies of Russia’, who are, apparently, interested in setting up a Maidan and Orange Revolution in Samara.

Governor Merkushkin

Governor Merkushkin first proposed the rationalisation of Samara’s universities back in February 2015; ironically enough, at a celebration of the Day of Science. 

‘SGAU is one of Russia’s top 14 universities,’ Merkushkin said, speaking at the reception, before an audience of lecturers. ‘But it is still a highly specialised institution; and now we need SGAU to expand its horizons. For this, we have to create new departments at SGAU, or combine both institutions. The second scenario is preferable.’ 

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Downtown Samara. Flickr / SebastianBerlin. Some rights reserved.

‘The funds assigned to SGAU are automatically given to SGU and SGTU [Samara State Technical University], and the amount of financing increases in proportion to the number of students. We’ve already got approval in principle from the Ministry of Education. An amalgamated National University will receive more money from the federal budget.’

‘An amalgamated National University will receive more money from the federal budget.’

A few days after this speech in February, Merkushkin convinced the Academic Council of SGU to take part in this new project. The governor assured the professors that, on entering the ‘National University’, SGU would retain its autonomy, academic schools, departments and dissertation councils.

However, according to surveys conducted in March, while the Academic Council of SGU was persuaded, only 9% of students of Samara State Technical University supported this move, and 75% were against it. On 13 February, at a conference of employees and students of SSTU, only four people approved the amalgamation, 123 voted against, and five people abstained. Angered by this sign of protest, Merkushkin called the vote ‘anarchy’.

After the students and lecturers of SSTU defended the right of their institution not to become part of the ‘National University’, only two institutions remained. And the management of SGU and SGAU, it seems, decided to keep quiet. 

Ivan Andronchev, acting rector of SGU, tried to assuage nerves, claiming that ‘There will be no cuts to the departments. The main aim of this new institution is to raise the standard of education in Samara. After the university is liquidated, all students will receive teaching on their specialty in the new university.’

Samara - MikhailShapaev flickr.jpg

With a population of 1.1m, Samara is Russia's six biggest city. Flickr / Mikhail Shapaev. Some rights reserved.

In May, Andronchev sent a letter to the Ministry of Education, asking Dmitry Livanov to liquidate SGU and append it to SGAU as a ‘structural sub-unit’. This request, however, violated the SGU charter, and Andronchev did not report this letter ‘to the centre’ ie to the Academic Council. According to the charter, decisions regarding institutional re-organisation can only be taken during a general meeting of the Academic Council. This did not leave the professors happy, and they demanded an emergency meeting of the Academic Council. 

When the council met at the beginning of June, however, the professors turned out to be less resolute in the face of Governor Merkushkin; and the decision to amalgamate was taken by the council without a vote.

As one professor present reported to me: ‘The professors were scared of losing their jobs and decided not to come out against the closure. No one wanted to argue with Merkushkin. The governor explained to us that the issue has already been approved at the Ministry of Education, and there was no point protesting it.’

‘The professors were scared of losing their jobs’ 

Following Livanov’s order, SGU is now obliged to hand over all property to SGAU, including buildings and equipment. Students will automatically be moved over to studying at SGAU, which currently has 12,000 students.

And so a new National University, with 25,000 students, was created in Samara, and is due to start work on 1 September 2016. 

Rationalisation

In the next few months, SGU’s departments should move over to SGAU. Judging by the rumours, however, the teaching staff is facing job cuts as part of this process. 

One lecturer, who asked me not to give his name for fear of losing his position, told me that, as a full-time employee, he receives 25,000 roubles (£280) a month. 

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Samara. Flickr / Artem Svetlov. Some rights reserved.

‘The humanities won’t be in demand at the National Aerospace University,’ he said. ‘Our department, the largest in the state university, will join SGAU as a department like any other. We have 30 people working there at present. In June, many employees received unofficial proposals to resign "voluntarily".’ 

‘I’m worried that, in two months time, when SGU finally joins SGAU, I’ll lose my job. I’m 50 years old. I’m not at pension age yet [60 for men; 55 for women], but it’ll be difficult to find a job I’m qualified for. The only job will be at a high school, but I’m used to working with students, not children.’

Students don’t want to study at SGAU either, and are angry that the Aerospace University will now be in charge of training sociologists, lawyers and linguists. Instead, they have asked SGU management to transfer them to humanities institutions, such as the Samara State Academy of Social Sciences and Humanities. Until now, there have been good job prospects graduating from SGU, and students are worried that studying at SGAU will affect their chances of employment. 

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Students block traffic outside Samara university. Photograph courtesy of the author.

‘A humanities diploma from the National Aerospace University will sound ridiculous at best,’ says Katya Mayakovskaya. ‘It’ll be hard finding work for humanities students graduating from this new National University. After all, employers don’t know about the standard of teaching there, and SGU’s humanities faculties are well-known.’ 

‘A humanities diploma from the National Aerospace University will sound ridiculous at best’

Back in February, an online petition to President Putin was started. It now has 21,000 signatures; students and lecturers have been working to collect as many as possible inside the university.

But students involved in this campaign have started to receive threats from members of the students union and from lecturers who happen to be members of United Russia.

At the beginning of June, activists from the students union and senior students started a counter-attack, trying to collect signatures from students in support of the rationalisation. ‘We need 100% of students to support this move,’ they said. Under threat of expulsion or other problems, many students were compelled to sign these statements.

Fightback

Most students, though, are undeterred: with the help of Mikhail Matveev, some of the pluckier students have started picketing around town, against the move. On 25 June, five students, who covered their faces with masks, even tried to stop traffic next to the SGU. Governor Merkushkin also found himself stopped in traffic.

Unexpectedly (for Merkushkin at least), members of United Russia have also come out against the move, including Vladimir Burmatov, deputy chairman of the Duma’s education committee, and Vladimir Gutenev, Duma deputy for Samara. 

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Lectures, students and activists in support of SGU. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Despite setbacks, the movement in defence of SGU is determined to continue the struggle for autonomy. As Andrei Sokolov told me, a lawsuit is being prepared for Moscow City Court (the location of the Russian Ministry of Education): they intend to appeal against Livanov’s decision of 22 June.

Mikhail Matveev is sanguine about SGU’s prospects: ‘although justice in Russia is dependent largely on politics nowadays, we hope to win this court case. A Ministry of Education decision to unite Tambov State University with Tambov State Technical University [TSTU] was rescinded in 2012 after mass protests, and the rector of TSTU was fired.’ 

‘We hope that President Putin will turn his attention to Governor Merkushkin, who, with the support of Minister Livanov, closed the state university.’ 

‘The fate of higher education in Samara is not an enviable one. There’s no clear strategy to develop higher education in the region. The authorities have only one idea — to unite our institutions. And it’s conceivable that they’ll try to unite other local institutions too.’

‘But this won’t result in better standards of education. If people won’t come out and protest, the best research schools of Samara will be destroyed.’

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