USC Upstate could help with overhaul of Russian higher education system

March 21, 2011 at 3:29 pm

By Stephen Largen
Spartanburg Herald-Journal

Published: Monday, March 21, 2011 at 3:15 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 20, 2011 at 10:34 p.m.

The University of South Carolina Upstate is poised to play a significant role in the overhaul of the Russian higher education system and the strengthening of ties between the United States and Russia.

USC Upstate Chancellor John Stockwell and Regis Robe, director of the university’s Center for International Studies, returned to campus last week after spending two weeks in Russia for a high-level education summit.

Led by the Institute of International Education and U.S. State Department, Stockwell and Robe met with leaders from several Russian universities along with officials from six other American universities to explore possibilities for research collaboration, faculty exchanges and curriculum development.

The exchange summit was a product of the agreement President Barack Obama and Russian President Dimitri Medvedev signed in 2009 in an effort to build collaboration between the countries.

The resulting bilateral presidential commission created 17 working groups, and the higher education summit held earlier this month was the work a study group created to focus on scientific and educational issues.

Russian higher education officials used the conference to confer with their American colleagues about a dramatic shift in the Russian higher education system that the Russian government hopes to complete in just one year.

“One of the purposes there was not only to look at possibilities for exchanges between Russian universities and U.S. universities, but to have conversations with them about how universities in the U.S. are structured — how they operate. How research and teaching are integrated,” Stockwell said.

“They have very limited experience in developing general education programs. Most Russian universities tend to be focused on specialized disciplines without broad general education of the kind we require in the U.S.”

Russia plans to create eight federal universities by taking large, prestigious universities in each of eight federal districts and joining them with smaller universities to create larger universities essentially modeled after American universities.

Historically, teaching and research have remained completely separate in the Russian higher education structure, with each realm handled by wholly separate institutions.

At the new federal universities, Russia plans to unite research and teaching, along with creating another two dozen research-focused universities.

Russia also wants to restructure how the sequence degrees are awarded in to more closely match the degree-granting procedure used in the European Union and the U.S.

“I think they are very committed to it and I had the impression that they (Russian universities) had some funding support to make it work,” Robe said.

The trip to Russia appears likely to help USC Upstate build another set of partnerships with international universities, adding to the 15 USC has with universities in countries including Italy, China and the Ukraine.

Stockwell said USC Upstate is talking collaboration with officials from the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Kazan Federal University, Kazan Technological University and Far East Federal University in Vladivostok.

The partnerships, which would include faculty and student exchanges along with possible 2+2 transfer programs, would be USC Upstate’s first in Russia.

Stockwell said discussions between the institutions will continue for the next several weeks.

Robe said if partnerships are reached, more Russian faculty are likely to come to USC Upstate than the other way around, at least initially.

“Right now there’s limited (USC Upstate) student interest in studying in Russia,” he said.

“But that could change because that’s what it was like when we started a program with China five-to-six years ago.”

Stockwell said it will take a “pretty daring student” to choose to live for a semester or year in Kazan, where the record cold this year was more than 50 degrees below zero.

But Stockwell said Russia offers an exciting opportunity for American students because most students at Russian universities speak some English and the areas surrounding the universities offer great amenities.

The breadth of USC Upstate’s international studies program wasn’t the only reason Stockwell, who will step down as chancellor this summer, was chosen for the summit.

In 1989, before the breakup of the Soviet Union and while working for the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Stockwell helped develop a partnership between the Wisconsin campus and Georgian Technical University in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.

The recent summit was Stockwell’s fourth trip to Russia, a nation he said has a history of great scientific contributions.

He said the country has the potential to “once again be a great nation” and a counterbalance to emerging China and the Middle East.

“It’s hard to imagine the type of evolution that country has experienced in the last 20 years,” he said.

“It’s unparalleled on the planet I think. In 1989 it was a gray, hopeless conglomeration of ambitions. Now, the city of Moscow alone has more billionaires than any city in the world. That’s neither good nor bad, but the change has been phenomenal.”