‘Half a Dozen Years Ago We Were a Curiosity Here’
On September 26th a meeting between the administration of the Higher School of Economics and international lecturers and researchers took place at the HSE. The aim of the event was to discuss various organizational, legal and academic aspects of their work at the HSE.
The HSE administration was represented by Vadim Radaev, First Vice Rector, Maria Yudkevich, First Vice Rector, Olga Moshkova, Director for International Cooperation, Natalia Kondrashova, Director for Administrative Work, and Boris Zhelezov, Deputy Vice Rector. The foreign lecturers and researchers included both those who have been working at the HSE for a several years and more recent additions to the academic staff
Issues for discussion included the problems of purchasing databases and library resources needed for research work as well as various options which would allow foreign professors’ to participate in postgraduate studies. Current Russian law, unfortunately, does not allow academics with doctoral degrees from Western universities to supervise postgraduate (aspirantura) students. According to Vadim Radaev, one way of solving this problem is to pass through a nostrification procedure which would mean international lecturers getting Russian Candidate of Science degrees on the basis of their defended PhD theses. But, it seems that this process involves so many bureaucratic obstacles that it would be difficult for a visiting academic to jump through all the hoops.
Maria Yudkevich told her international colleagues about the formalization of academic business trips and application for grants from the HSE Academic Fund. Many participants of the meeting were interested in simplifying the documentation system and some organizational and financial procedures. A large part of the meeting was dedicated to the problems of material and social security for foreign lecturers, including medical insurance issues. As a result of the discussion, it was decided to create a special ‘administration’ for foreign staff of the university which will deal specifically with working and living in Russia and the HSE and will provide information about situations, documents and organizations which international colleagues might face during their work with the HSE.
— Professor, you first came to the HSE as part of the Fulbright programme about seven years ago, but after its completion, you remained teaching at the HSE Faculty of Management. Why?
— Initially, my willingness to teach in Russia had a personal motive, since my wife is Russian. But as I continued to work at the university, I understood how interesting and dynamic everything here is. I thought that I would work at the HSE for two years but five years later, I’m still here and not planning to leave in the near future, at least as long as the university continues to develop at the same pace. At today’s meeting we spoke about how an international lecturer can build a ‘long career’ at the HSE.
— What expectations did you have when you came here seven years ago? Were there any disappointments?
— I evaluated the situation rather realistically. It was somewhat easier for me, since before coming here as part of the Fulbright programme I had visited Russia many times. I cannot say that I was content with everything and felt no disappointment at all: some things moved too fast here, while others took too long, but I understood that the university was growing and changing and some growth-related problems are inevitable. Based on my experience, I can describe, for example, how the attitude towards foreign teachers has changed at the HSE. Six years ago we were a kind of curiosity here: a couple of Americans, a couple from France and Germany – that seemed to be the whole international teaching staff of the HSE. Today the presence of international teachers seems a natural, matter-of-course thing, and it is vastly different from a few years ago. The people I meet here are genuinely interested in the university’s development and the improvement of the Russian educational system. Although it faced some difficulties in early nineties, the HSE demonstrates what and how things can be done in this sphere. I hope that our work and research will be the basis for future socio-economic education in Russia.
— What Russian realities – everyday or academic – were the most difficult for you to adapt to?
— I have often been asked about what impressed me the most here, and I always say: before coming here, I lived in a small city with a population of 25,000, and today I live in Moscow, where the same number of inhabitants is just one neighbourhood. Speaking about the HSE, here I faced a well-known issue: the university lacks a united campus. Many organizational problems which we discussed today could be easily solved if we were in one campus. In the long-term, the HSE will move in this direction, but we do understand how expensive it is to buy land and buildings in Moscow for such a big organization. Today, probably, the university is doing everything in can given its resources.
— Which of the problems discussed today seem the most relevant to you and did you get the answers you expected?
— Such meetings are very useful. I am glad that we have decided to hold them regularly. One of the problems I am most concerned about is the limitation of our participation in working with postgraduate students. I believe that our participation in this could be very useful for the university. I have been teaching on the Faculty of Management master’s programmes for five years and can see how the quality of education has improved during this time. And as regards to aspirantura students, this aspect is probably even more important, since the aspirantura programme teaches those who will soon go on to teach others. Honestly, I do not really understand what is behind the Russian government’s decision to ban foreign professors from supervising Russian aspirantura students. Probably they are afraid of an influx of unqualified teachers, but, in my view, this concern is groundless. This ban can only limit the growth of the Russian education system. I would like to emphasize that the HSE is trying to overcome this obstacle, but I still do not know how exactly we can do this.
Another problem we discussed is the issue of pensions. It is also a difficult one, but it is very important if the University wants to attract overseas lecturers for longer periods of time. This problem has two aspects: cultural and social. The cultural one is that most of our Russian colleagues do not expect to receive considerable pension contributions, and ask us: why are you asking for them? But it is necessary to understand that the people who are hired by the university on the international market expect to get pension insurance, since they would get it if they worked eslewhere. It’s important to note that this problem is not specific to the HSE, it is related to the overall social security system in Russia.
However, there is one problem which, in our view, could be solved by the HSE. I’m talking about the creation of an internal mailing system, the type of documentation system which exists in many Western universities. We all know how much time is spent delivering contracts and other documents from one HSE building to another. This time could be spent much more productively: on carrying out research, writing books and doing other academic work. And furthermore, it could improve the work of the administrative office: staff would get mail in the morning, then sort it by importance and calmly process it, instead of sitting in front of a huge queue of people waiting to make applications, get approvals or collect a signed contract.
Oleg Seregin, HSE News Service
Photos by Nikita Benzoruk
Mikhail Blinkin is one of Russia’s leading experts in urbanism, city planning, and urban transport. He has headed the HSE Institute for Transport Economics and Transport Policy Studies since 2011 and has been HSE Tenured Professor since 2013. In 2017, Mikhail Blinkin was the recipient of an HSE Honour Award 1st Class, as well as the Golden HSE award for Best Expert.
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