UK-RUSSIA: Pioneers plan to cross British bridge

Former managers of an international higher education partnership programme, pioneered by the British Council in Russia before a crisis in diplomatic relations sharply curtailed its activities, are hoping to continue developing wider educational benefits from the scheme.

The BRIDGE project, as it is known, was funded for four years until March last year and includes support activities for a further two years. It established Russian-UK partnerships in higher education that allowed universities in both countries to set up dual bachelors and masters degrees, share best practice and develop mutual systemic understanding.

Some 47 partnership programmes were set up after the scheme started and 37 of those are still functioning, said Alexander Mishin who, until September 2007, managed the project for the British Council.

The scheme involved universities from as far east as Amur State in Blagoveschensk and Immanuel Kant State University of Russia in Kaliningrad, Russia's western Baltic enclave. It allowed institutions to develop and offer dual diplomas, giving Russian students degrees recognised at home and abroad.

The diplomatic crisis - sparked by a souring of UK-Russian relations following the murder in London of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko - exacerbated a long-simmering dispute over the status of the British Council in Moscow.

Accusations that the council had failed to pay correct taxes, and later that it was a nest of spies, rapidly escalated. All of the organisation's offices across Russia, apart from its Moscow headquarters, were closed down.

Restricted to operating only within Moscow, most of its Russian staff left. But Mishin, and other former managers of BRIDGE, hope the work they put in to help create the network of university partnerships will not go the way of the council's operations across Russia.

"One of the many outcomes of the BRIDGE project was that we were able to train a group of experts who really understand the conceptual and cultural differences that exist between British and Russian higher education," Mishin said.

"All the Russian managers for the scheme went through rigorous validation procedures and could be useful as quality assurance inspectors on similar international projects throughout Eastern Europe."

Now a senior administrator for academic quality at Moscow's privately-run British Higher School of Art and Design, Mishin said the existing partnerships offered a network that had already provided the model for other British Council-backed schemes in India and South Africa.

"Around 150 graduates have already come through the scheme and within three years a further 800 or so will complete courses ranging from biophysics to marketing management. As many as 10% of these people go back to their institutions to teach or advise, which represents a major influence in capacity building."

The value of Russian academics and students who truly understand not only the language but the application of international standards and practices in higher education could not be under-estimated, added Mishin - who spent 23 years teaching modern languages in Voronezh before moving to Moscow.

One of the BRIDGE applicants was a highly regarded St Petersburg medical university that proposed a dual masters diploma in nursing, a novelty in a country with very few existing MA-level programmes for nurses.

"This was a totally new idea within the Russian institutional culture that was considered little short of revolutionary," Mishin remarked wryly.

Drawing on the experience of Russians now immersed in negotiating such challenging cross-cultural intellectual and academic currents would do last justice to the BRIDGE project, he said.

Lena Lenskaya, British Council Moscow Deputy Director who was closely involved with the BRIDGE project, welcomed the initiative: "Partner universities expressed a strong wish to create an association which could continue disseminating knowledge and skills acquired through the project at its final conference," Lenskaya said.

Ann Kennard, who ran the University of West of England-Immanuel Kant State University of Russia partnership, said an informal network of BRIDGE partnerships - maintained through email contact and occasional visits - had been established. Mishin's suggestion to continue using the expertise established under the project was a welcome addition to that.

"It is clear that there is a lot of enthusiasm on the ground for continued links between British and Russian institutions," Kennnard said.