St. Petersburg’s European University Faces Closure


European University, St. Petersburg

Earlier this year I posted an item about political threats to the existence of Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, and European University in St. Petersburg, Russia.  The threats to both institutions continue, but it now appears that European University may be at the end of its rope, having lost both its license and its building.  The following excerpts from an article published on the website Science/Business tell the story:

The university, which has 100 staff and 260 students, has consistently rated among the top institutes in Russia, and is one of only a few non-state institutes qualified by the Ministry of Education to award degrees.

But after losing its teaching licence this year, followed by a forced removal from its premises and then the departure of its rector, action against the university now seems to have entered a final stage.

On 5 September, the school applied for a new licence to operate; if it is not approved before November 1, the university will not be able to enrol students for the new term. . . .

The problems began with a series of snap inspections by authorities last summer.

Officials say the university has violated up to 120 rules and regulations, such as one which says that universities of a certain size in Russia must have a gym. The university’s failure to display anti-alcohol leaflets was another infraction.

It was a notable step up in pressure, which has been building for the past decade. The university first found itself in controversy in 2007 when it received a €700,000 grant from the European Commission for a project to improve election monitoring in Russia. Soon afterwards the university was shut for six weeks after failing a fire safety inspection. . . .

After it reopened, the university fell into the local government’s crosshairs for offering a class on gender studies. Vitaly Milonov, an ultra-conservative member of parliament who rose to prominence after proposing  an ‘anti-gay propaganda’ law to prohibit teaching children about “non-traditional sexual relations”, lodged an official complaint against the university.

“I personally find [gender studies] disgusting, it’s fake studies, and it may well be illegal,” Milonov told The Christian Science Monitor.

Despite attempts to rectify flaws found by officials, the university lost a court battle to hold onto its teaching licence. Over the summer, the university also had rights to its home in the famous Small Marble Palace taken away.. . .

Since the university’s failed appeal in the courts, the rector, Oleg Kharkordin, has stepped down and been replaced by Nikolai Vakhtin.. . .

Vakhtin said bureaucratisation of education in Russia has reached an unprecedented level. “Universities are losing their academic freedom not because there is ideological pressure but for the simple reason that literally every lecture and every seminar is regulated by federal standards. I hope that the ministry realises this and will stop following this road which, I am convinced, is a dead-end,” Vakhtin told Science|Business.  . . .

Freedom House, a US-based human rights watchdog, says Russia’s education system “is marred by bureaucratic interference, international isolation and increasing pressure to toe the Kremlin line on politically sensitive topics.”

There has been a crackdown on critics in recent years. In 2014, two scholars were sacked for speaking out against Russia’s invasion of Crimea. In the same year, the authorities removed more than half of the previously approved school textbooks from the country’s classrooms, leaving much of the market in the hands of a publisher owned by a close associate of Putin.. . .

The Russian government may also be sending a message to the Open Society Foundation headed by Hungarian-American billionaire financier George Soros, which has contributed funding to the European University.

Soros, a major funder of programmes that aim to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law, has long been a bête noire of the Kremlin, who see him as puppet master in a plot to install pro-western governments in the Balkans and Central Europe.

According to Anna Kowalczyk, a spokeswoman for the Open Society, the foundation gave over $27 million to the university between 1996 and 2015. The Russian government classified the foundation as an “undesirable” organisation in 2015 and banned it from disbursing grants to Russian partners.

The justification for the move was that it is necessary to stop foreign governments from interfering in Russia’s internal affairs. . . .

Under the forthcoming events section of the university’s website, is a message that simply reads, “Stay tuned”. 

You can read the full report here.  Scholars at Risk has also opened a file on the case, which can be found here.

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