No License to Teach

A Western-style university in Russia is hamstrung as authorities keep denying its license to teach.

December 22, 2017
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A rally this month in support of European University in St. Petersburg

The European University at St. Petersburg has no students. It has no classes. The Western-style institution does not have an educational license, and Russian government authorities have so far denied its applications to regain one.

Some suspect the university is being targeted for ideological or political reasons, even though they say the exact reasons the university has seemingly come attack, and who might be behind a campaign against it, remain unclear.

“It is clear that the controlling agencies are prejudiced against the university,” the rector, Nikolai Vakhtin, said in written answers to questions. “There are numerous hypotheses to explain why this is so. However, there is no solid evidence pointing to any reason, or person who might be the driving force behind this attack.”

Officially speaking, the European University has merely run afoul of bureaucratic rules. The small private university, which offers graduate programs in the humanities and social sciences, is well regarded internationally: one statement in support of it from the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies describes it as “one of Russia’s leading academic institutions” and as “a beacon of academic internationalism and disinterested scholarship at a period when the geopolitical situation has sometimes hindered fair-minded debate between scholars based in the West and in the Russian Federation.” But the internationally oriented university now finds itself locked in a yearlong battle with Russian authorities over regaining its educational license, which was first suspended last December.

Without a license, EUSP, which was established in 1994, is highly limited in what it can do. “At present, the university has no students because it has no license, nor does it conduct any educational activities,” Vakhtin said. “The university is currently functioning as a research institution: its professors are engaged in numerous research projects. At the same time, the university is active in offering public lectures, a form of operation that is considered legally as ‘enlightenment,’ not ‘education.’”

“We are carrying on,” said Grigorii Golosov, a professor of comparative politics at the university. “Some of our former students are now hired as research assistants. They carry on their research projects that they started as dissertations, but now they can’t write dissertations.”

“The problem with the situation is that it is of course by definition temporary,” Golosov continued. “Now we are working with our former students from the previous year, but next year we will have nobody … and then we will have to reconsider our educational model completely -- of course on the condition that we do not receive a new educational license.”

The Background

The European University’s licensing woes began in summer 2016, after the Russian politician Vitaly Milonov, who is known for his role in promoting Russia’s law banning so-called gay propaganda, filed a complaint against the institution. An article in The Christian Science Monitor quoted Milonov saying he passed along complaints from citizens and students, including a complaint about the teaching of gender studies. “I personally find that disgusting, it’s fake studies, and it may well be illegal,” Milonov reportedly said.

According to the university, the complaint from Milonov triggered a series of inspections from 11 different regulatory agencies. The Federal Service for Supervision of Education and Science, which is known as the Rosobrnadzor, found 120 alleged violations -- “most of which,” the university said, “related to the presence or absence of certain documents in the university departments.” After the university sought to remedy the alleged violations, that list of 120 was reduced to 32, and then four.

In December 2016, the Rosobrnadzor suspended the university’s educational license. In a statement, the university maintained that the four violations that led to the suspension of its license were of “a formal nature”: specially, issues related to whether a necessary percentage of the political science and sociology faculty did practical work in the fields they taught and whether faculty on fixed-term contracts held appropriate certification. The university was also cited for not having a gym at the location specified in its license, even though it said it rents one in a different building.

A court temporarily put the suspension on hold -- permitting the university to resume teaching -- but in March a court ordered the revocation of the license. After unsuccessful efforts to appeal, the university applied for a new educational license in August.

On Sept. 28 -- all of this is according to an account published by the university -- the Rosobrnadzor rejected the application. The university protested that the regulators’ inspection report “lacked a list of specific violations and instances of noncompliance, which consequently makes it impossible to take measures to eliminate them.”

On Oct. 17 the university submitted a new set of documents. On Dec. 6, it received notice that the license application was again declined. The university said two reasons were cited: allegedly failing to meet fire safety requirements -- which it disputes -- and allegedly providing “unreliable information.” The rector, Vakhtin, said the university has not received clarification about what information was considered unreliable.

He said, however, that “in all probability they meant the following: in the documents submitted by the university, its legal address was indicated as Gagarinskaya 3, that is, in the old location. At the time of submission, it was correct information. Between the submission date and the denial date, the breach of the building lease contract was formally approved by the court, so by the denial date, the information turned to be ‘unreliable.’”

Parallel to the battle over its license, the university has been fighting the termination of its lease agreement for its former building, which is known as the Small Marble Palace. As the university previously reported, St. Petersburg authorities terminated the university’s lease following a finding by city inspectors that the university had made unauthorized changes to the historical building.

EUSP had been in negotiations with the city over a renovation project for the palace in which it planned to invest millions of dollars. In November, the university reported that an arbitration court upheld the termination of the lease.

A ‘Kafkaesque’ Situation?

The university has announced that it will submit an application for a new educational license in February. In a statement, the university said it “has worked with a group of friendly licensing experts and prepared an action plan to make our building and our licensing documents over the top ideal in terms of all conceivable requirements.”

The press office of the Russian embassy in Washington did not return email requests from Inside Higher Ed seeking comment about the situation regarding EUSP’s license. A phone number for the press office rang unanswered.

Ivan Kurilla, a professor of history and international relations at EUSP, contrasted the situation with that of the Central European University in Hungary, which earlier this year said its future in Budapest was in question after the government passed a law that was widely seen as a targeted attack on the university and its founder, the liberal financier George Soros. The Hungarian government has disputed that the law specifically targeted CEU.

“The difference with Hungary, with Central European University, is that there everybody knows that the government has taken on the university because it’s liberal, because it’s connected to George Soros,” Kurilla said. “In Russia, nobody took any responsibility. We don’t know who is behind this attack.”

Kurilla said he is hopeful the university’s licensing issues might be resolved in its favor after the March presidential elections. “But it’s getting more and more difficult to be an optimist in this situation,” he said.

Ilya Utekhin, a professor and head of the anthropology department at EUSP, described the situation as Kafkaesque.

“There is the outer appearance of bureaucracy, inspections, rules and requirements that we comply with or do not comply with. All of it is a silly bureaucratic game that is a curtain. Behind that curtain there is a real thing -- the idea that European University should be banned from teaching, banned from influencing the young generation and banned from propaganda, teaching Western values,” Utekhin said.

“Of course, now most of us understand that the authorities do not want us to the get the license. That is quite clear from the recent events,” said Golosov, the professor of comparative politics.

Golosov said the crackdown on the university has “always involved some formal criticisms on the part of the authorities. They always said that something was technically wrong, whether it was in teaching or the building and so on. But it is quite clear that they simply wanted us to be closed, and since they are in position to do that, they achieved that.”

Asked why the authorities wanted the university closed, Golosov said, “This is a simple question if it is to be answered in abstract terms. The Russian authorities are obsessed with control. It is difficult for them to tolerate the existence of an independent academic organization here in Russia. They understand that the European University is independent … They know from practice that they actually cannot command the European University, and their fundamental assumption is that if somebody is not controlled by them in Russia, then it’s controlled by somebody else inside Russia or mostly from outside Russia.”

Vladimir Gelman, a professor of political science at EUSP, said that the principles underlying the European University “imply certain organizational authority, freedom of thought and international integration,” while the approaches of the Russian state are based upon “overregulation of every field, including education,” limits on freedom defined by the state, and isolationism.

“This is the essence of the problem, in my view,” Gelman said.


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