The article focuses on an elite institution, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO according to the Russian abbreviation). However, the problems and issues that are raised are similar to, if not exactly the same as, what we have in almost every institution elsewhere in former Soviet Union, including in Armenia.
MGIMO is a Moscow-based public institution of higher education, founded after World War II. It offers programs in International Relations, Political Science, International Economics, Law, Management, Journalism and Public Relations, at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.
MGIMO is known to be an elitist institution. During Soviet period, admissions to MGIMO were reserved for the children of Communist Party and state officials. Among its famous alumni, we can mention Mr. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s current Minister of Foreign Affairs and Mr. Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan.
The author of the article, Maria Yulikova, presents her report from the perspective of international, mainly Western, students studying at MGIMO probably because they can recognize the problems much easier and better. They are from outside the system and can compare their experiences in Russia with their previous ones in the West.
Of the 5,000 students enrolled at MGIMO, one of Russia’s top colleges in the field of International Relations, over 800 come from abroad. But despite the fact that Russian higher learning institutions are renowned for their profound teaching of theory, Western students are finding it hard to translate their Russian degrees into suitable jobs and practical experience back home.
“I don’t know if my Master of Arts degree from MGIMO will be recognized in the States,” said recent MGIMO graduate from the United States, who did not want to be named. “When I was choosing a graduate school, I read on the MGIMO website that this school was participating in the Bologna Process, a 1999 agreement on common standards for higher education systems throughout Europe. I believed that it would help me make my future diploma convertible. Nevertheless, despite the school administration’s promises, I still have no Bologna certification!”
“My program mostly consisted of political theory, which is certainly interesting, but I could have learned it at home. I wish my MGIMO instructors told me more about current Russian politics,” the U.S. student lamented. “Moreover, the one mathematical class I was assigned to was mostly abstract theories; as to the application of math to make prognosis in political situations, most notably during elections, none of this was covered. We had one 2-week long seminar on statistics, which barely covered the basics. No course on Economics, Statistics, or Economic Theory was offered in my program.”
While Western, particularly American, higher education is considered more work-oriented, Russian schools are famous for the large number of theory courses in their curricula.
Whichever specialization within the field of International Relations American graduate students choose, they are supposed to pass a set of required courses in Economics, Law, Marketing, and Quantitative Analysis. Students of Russian universities majoring in Political Science generally don’t study these “practical” disciplines; they are more aware of History, Diplomacy and Political Theory.
Students from the West often single out the fact that the way Russian university professors communicate with students is quite different. “In Spain, our teachers are like friends; we feel quite equal and can call and talk to them more often than here. Such friendships help us learn even more about our professions than just in the classroom,” said Férnandez.
Likewise, most Western students are used to a more flexible curriculum: a significant part of their academic programs consists of elective courses. Graduate students pursuing a Master’s degree in International Affairs at Columbia University (one of the top U.S. schools located in New York City), for instance, get to select nearly half of the classes they take, although these courses have to be related to their specializations. MGIMO graduate students select just three or four of the 28 courses they have to undertake.
In Russia, international students, especially those completing full-study programs as opposed to exchange students, are often confronted with major bureaucratic hurdles. For decades, Russian institutes and universities were mostly involved in simple exchange programs with foreign schools.
- No linkages between theoretical studies and their applications
- Curricula disconnected from future job requirements
- Rigid curricula; students cannot personalize their studies
- Bureaucratic and unresponsive administrative culture
- Large power distance between faculty and students
- Nominal & superficial compliance with the Bologna Process
If in Western Europe or the Unites States, M.A. programs at top universities cost 20,000 - 25,000 Euros per year, MGIMO programs cost 6,000 - 8,000 Euros per year, depending on the field of specialization.