19 Apr 2017   |   Viewpoint

We’re in a desperate fight to keep our university open

Tomorrow, the European University in St Petersburg will have its license to operate revoked. “When there are 11 state agencies scrutinising you, there might be something political behind it,” Grigorii Golosov, professor of political science, tells Science|Business

Researchers are in a desperate fight to avert the impending closure of the European University in St Petersburg, after a court revoked its license, as of tomorrow (21 April).

“It seems almost unavoidable that we’ll be shut down,” said Grigorii Golosov, professor of political science at the university, which is a private postgraduate school for the social sciences and humanities.

The university, one of only a few non-state institutes qualified by the Ministry of Education in Russia to award degrees, is appealing the decision, but Golosov is pessimistic about the chances of success. “We are remarkably unsuccessful in all our legal fights up to now,” he said.

The 27 year­-old university, which has 100 staff and 260 students, has consistently been rated among the top institutes in Russia. It claims on its website to have “greater independence from the Russian governmental bureaucracy than most other Russian universities.”

The problems began with a series of snap inspections by authorities last summer. Officials say the university has violated as many as 120 rules and regulations, such as one which says that universities of a certain size in Russia must have a gym.

“We’ve heard many absurd claims like this,” said Golosov. “When there are 11 state agencies scrutinising you, there might be something political behind it – but they will never say.”

The Russian government press office did not respond to requests for comment.

A St Petersburg politician, Vitaly Milonov, a key proponent of the country's ‘anti-gay propaganda’ law which prohibits teaching children about “non-traditional sexual relations" has suggested that one issue is the university’s teaching of gender studies.

"I personally find that disgusting, it's fake studies, and it may well be illegal," Milonov told The Christian Science Monitor. "But I'm not qualified to judge, so I handed it on to the proper authorities."

City officials are currently making moves to cancel the university’s rent contract and take over the building in which it resides  – the prized Small Marble Palace.

The university has endured escalating pressure in the past decade from increasingly repressive lawmakers.

In 2007 it received a €700,000 grant from the European Commission for a project to improve the monitoring of elections in Russia. After a reported threat from a government official, the work was stopped by the university in 2008.

The same year the university was shut for six weeks after failing a fire inspection.

Undeterred, the university is applying for a new licence to operate. “We’ll try to survive in some capacity, even if it is in another country,” said Golosov.

University officials have written to president Vladimir Putin asking him to, "instruct the government to review the circumstances of the case and take the necessary measures to ensure that the educational process at the European University is not interrupted."

Golosov says he does not have a Plan B if the university closes. “If we make back-up plans it means we’ve given up,” he said. “It would just de-mobilise all our resistance.”

Alma mater

Golosov might just be unlucky enough to see his alma mater close too. Hungary’s Central European University (CEU), where he studied in 1993/1994, is facing its own political headwind.

The right-wing government of prime minister Viktor Orban has adopted a law that would effectively shut down the institute, a move observers have decried as a clampdown on free expression and a transparent attack on its liberal founder, Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros.

Golosov is critical of the increasingly autocratic Orban, who seems unmoved by the wave of protest around the world his plan has set off. “Orban is a first grader in the school of Russian dictators,” he said. “What he’s doing is – at least – explicitly a political move, which is more than can be said for our situation.”

The case of the CEU is now under investigation by the European Commission as a possible violation of EU law, and Golosov thinks it has a better chance of surviving than his own institute.

He has a message for those leading the CEU probe in Brussels. “I hope the EU can say with great energy that closing it is barbaric.”

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