A Siberian university aims to become a global player

The first higher education institution east of the Urals, Tomsk State University was founded in 1878 to extend the Tsarist empire’s grasp on Siberia’s tribal lands.

The university’s expertise in engineering, mineralogy and geology provided the skills to unlock Siberia’s enormous, untapped oil and mineral wealth. Exiled writers, libertarians and revolutionaries the government deemed too hot to handle have helped shape the university’s cultural identity and its jealously guarded academic freedom.

Today the challenge of globalisation has replaced Tomsk State University’s mission to tame the wilderness. Russia and Siberia’s international isolation has to be overcome by openness and transparency around quality standards.

Investing in the future

Russia is investing massively in its higher education system and Russian universities are raising their game.

Under the leadership of its new rector Eduard Galazhinsky, Tomsk State University – TSU – is forging strong academic links with Western universities. His strategy is to invest in leading edge research, to attend international conferences and publish research papers in English on the university's website.

Rector since 2013 and with a special brief for research, Galazhinsky is a graduate of the university and a professor of psychology. “We are well respected in areas like mathematics, engineering, nano-technology, bio-physics, environmental science and genetics. Two thirds of the university’s budget is geared towards research,” he asserts.

Tomsk has created centres of research excellence in theoretical physics, semiconductor materials and technologies, climate and cognitive science.

In October Galazhinsky attended the Congress of Russian Rectors Unions at Lomonsov Moscow State University. Vladimir Putin was an active participant. Galazhinsky comments:

“The fact that the president of Russia was involved is a sign that he understands that countries with a high quality of education have a faster process of knowledge transferring into the economy; it helps the country increase its competitiveness.”

Tomsk State University’s concentration on research excellence may be good news for Russia, but Galazhinsky’s efforts to focus on knowledge transfer are not yet reflected in the notoriously fickle world rankings.

A few years ago TSU was, according to Galazhinsky, positioned among the top 500 universities worldwide. Now he claims, “we’ve already reached the top 300 and are aiming to be in the top 100 by 2020”.


This focus on climbing up world rankings may not be enough to convince international students, however.

Sadly for the Siberian university, there are massive inconsistencies in the way Russian institutions are judged. In 2014-15, the highly regarded and well-resourced Lomonsov Moscow State University made it to 196th place in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

Tomsk State University has a long way to go. It is a chicken and egg situation that will only be rectified when the Russian higher education system is more open to international scrutiny.

Attracting students to Siberia and overcoming perceptions of the region’s extreme climate and geographical isolation is always going to be a challenge. Located in the heart of Eurasia, TSU serves a catchment as big as the European Union.

Competing against universities in Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk, Tomsk has 17,000 undergraduates, 1,200 masters students and 600 doctoral students. Of these around 10% come from outside Russia, mainly from China, Vietnam and Siberia’s near neighbours Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

Until recently, international students from further afield were unheard of. But Tomsk State University now recruits a small but growing number of masters students from the European Union – mainly Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic, as well as a handful of exchange students from the United Kingdom studying Russian and linguistics.

It was Russia’s signing of the Bologna Accord that made this expansion a possibility.

“Bologna has made a huge difference for us,” says Galazhinsky.

“Today we use bachelor degrees as a stepping-stone to masters degrees for talented students. The two-stage system of a four-year undergraduate degree followed by a two-year masters allows us to customise individual study pathways and student trajectories.

“We’re making higher education more flexible.”

Masters degrees taught in English seals the offer. Two of TSU’s most popular masters programmes – in IT and European Research – are both taught in English.

Good value and quality

While some might be put off by snow that lasts from late November until early May, Tomsk State University offers undeniably good value.

You can get an internationally recognised degree for $US2,000 to US$3,000 a year, says Galazhinsky. On top of this the rouble’s devaluation against international currencies and especially the dollar is welcome news.

The fee may be low but the quality on offer is very high by Western standards. Galazhinsky points out that undergraduates will have 1,200 hours a year of contact time with professors – much higher than is offered in the West. And postgraduates, particularly scientists, have access to leading edge research facilities and knowledge transfer opportunities.

Like many research-intensive UK universities, Tomsk has a business incubator unit to invest in taking technology out of the laboratory into the marketplace, and to support start-up enterprises in their crucial early phase.

Last summer the university hosted an International Open Innovation Forum for biotech companies from around the world. More than 100 entrepreneurs turned up for the event, which helped companies establish closer ties and solve common problems.

TSU ploughs the money from copyrights it acquires in technology into promoting more start-ups. “I’m flying to Switzerland in two weeks to sign a contract to sell one of our companies, Dictriss Sensors, which offers commercial materials structure analysis,” says Galazhinsky.

The university has been an active partner in international research collaboration and academic exchange. Some close links are now starting to pay off in the form of joint degrees.

Tomsk’s English language website and its decision to publish its leading edge research in English as well as Russian has enabled the university forge links with, among others, Maastricht University, King's College and Goldsmiths, University of London, with whom TSU is launching a joint degree in the psychology of education and genetics in 2015.

The Siberian university has been working in a close partnership with Goldsmiths for the past four years and has been awarded what Galazhinsky describes only as “a huge grant from the Russian Federation government for setting up a laboratory of psychogenetic research which will be twinned with a similar facility in London”.

The other weapon in the university’s armoury is distance learning. The initiative is at an early stage but there is a clear determination to use technology that can cross borders.

TSU’s new distance learning undergraduate degree will be delivered in English over the internet. MOOCs are another possibility. As Galazhinsky observes: “Universities will need to react to such changes immediately. All of our thinking points to the conclusion that traditional systems of pedagogy will have to change.”

One way or another, Tomsk State University will work towards a target of doubling the percentage of international students and attracting faculty to work in Siberia. It is an imperative.

“For us the top prize is finding a unique place in the globally connected academic environment,” Galazhinsky concludes.