Rosobrnadzor [the Russian federal education watchdog] and the prosecutor’s office have begun an unscheduled inspection of the European University at St. Petersburg, sources at the university and close to the university have told the BBC. The inspectors are examining publications by the university’s lecturers and the topics of students’ dissertations, especially in political science, history, and sociology, and they are also observing classes. [In December 2016], a similar inspection led to the university’s license being revoked.
That the inspection was underway was confirmed to the BBC on condition of anonymity by eight sources, both within the university itself and among those associated with it. One of the academics told the BBC that the EUSP’s leadership was warned about the unscheduled inspection last Thursday. The inspectors arrived at the university on Monday [May 15].
The university’s rector, Vadim Volkov, responded to our request for comment by writing that he could not speak [about the matter], “especially with the BBC.” Alla Samoletova, chief of staff in the rector’s office and responsible for media contacts, did not respond to the BBC’s calls and messages.
Two of the BBC’s sources claimed that the prosecutor’s office is checking the university “for extremism.” According to one of them, the inspection is part of a campaign to counter extremism and terrorism. The supervisory authorities are interested in the content of academic papers and programs. In particular, the inspectors are looking for extremism in publications by the university’s lecturers, they said. Rosobrnadzor and prosecutor’s office inspectors have been stationed in a computer classroom two days in a row reading documents, as well as sitting in on classes at the university.
A source told the BBC that the inspectors requested a packet of documents for 2020–2023 that included dissertation topics and personal files of the university’s master’s degree and PhD students (the EUSP has no bachelor’s degree program), as well as their individual research plans, as authorized by their academic advisers. Such documents were retrieved from at least four faculties—anthropology, history, sociology, and political science—the source claimed.
The topics of dissertations and their content were always discussed at the university in terms of their compliance with academic standards, but they were not censored, one of the scholars noted. Another said that in recent years, when approving topics, advisers took in account how risky writing and publishing the work would be for the author, their informants, and the university, and whether the thesis could be successfully defended in the current circumstances.
After the outbreak of the war with Ukraine, the EUSP said farewell to foreign teaching staff and [Russian nationals teaching at the university] who fled Russia, sources said. The current audit affects several dozen of the university’s lecturers, as well as several hundred graduate students.
The technique for attacking a university, according to the BBC’s source, is standard: officials usually recruit experts who are willing to detect evidence of “extremist propaganda” and similar violations in research. These experts include people who have themselves been guilty of plagiarizing academic works, as the BBC has reported.
It is almost impossible to challenge such examinations, said a source close to the EUSP. According to them, the results of a similar inspection had led, in the past, to a shakeup of the teaching staff and changes in the curricula at the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences (Smolny College) of St. Petersburg State University.
In 2021, similar audits took place at the Shaninka (Moscow School for the Social and Economic Sciences), and at RANEPA’s Institute of Social Sciences (ION). The prosecutor’s office, as during its audit of Smolny College, asked to see scholarly articles by university staff and a “steering document on disciplinary activity” said a BBC source familiar with the audit.
The European University is a private university founded in St. Petersburg in 1994. It was initially funded by grants from American and European NGOs, including the Soros Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. These organizations are now deemed “undesirable” by the Russian authorities, but the EUSP has not received financing from them for a long time.
The EUSP Board of Trustees is headed by Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage Museum, while former Russian presidential chief of staff Alexander Voloshin and ex-chairman of the Federal Audit Chamber Alexei Kudrin are among the trustees. Kudrin is also a member of the board of trustees at the Shaninka, and he previously served as the dean of Smolny College.
The BBC Russian Service and other independent media have repeatedly reported that the intense focus of the oversight authorities on private universities in Russia (especially the EUSP and the Shaninka) is fueled by the FSB, which is unhappy with their independence and academic contacts with the West.
In 2016, the EUSP was subjected to a similar inspection by the same supervisory authorities. Inspectors then questioned students as well, but it has not come to that yet during the current inspection. Inspectors also then audited academic works for extremism, but could find no evidence of it. The only irregularities that Rosobrnadzor found find at the EUSP had to do with number of practical teachers [sic] in the Faculty of Political Science. The latter led to the revocation of the university’s license, which was reinstated only a year later. The BBC’s sources could not rule out that, this time around, the inspection would lead to the EUSP’s closure or the shuttering of individual programs at the university.
According to the consolidated register of inspections, the EUSP was audited thirteen times between 2016 and 2022, including three times by Rosobrnadzor. In October, the government banned planned inspections in 2023 of legal entities that do not belong to high-risk categories.
The BBC sent a written request for comment to the EUSP’s press service, as well as to the New League of Universities, which includes the EUSP, the Shaninka, the New Economic School (NES), and Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech). The League advertises itself as an association of new Russian universities established in accord with international education standards. The BBC has also contacted Rosobrnadzor and the St. Petersburg Prosecutor’s Office for comment and is awaiting a response.
Source: Sergei Goryashko, Anastasia Golubeva & Elizaveta Podshivalova,”Prosecutor’s office checks European University in St. Petersburg for ‘extremism,'” BBC News Russian Service, 17 May 2023. Translated by the Russian Reader