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Regular version of the site

Interview with ICEF director for Interfax

Director of the International College of Economics and Finance Sergey Yakovlev has talked to Interfax about how Russian universities can improve their international competitiveness, find partners in Europe and the United States, launch their graduates into the global marketplace, and find the ideal balance between their Russian roots and international educational trends.

In recent years, higher education in Russia has been in the grips of change. The Ministry of Education is outlawing ‘diploma factories’, increasing the demands placed on higher education institutions, further developing the Unified State Exam, and financing the 5/100 project, in order for Russia’s leading universities to make it to international ratings.

HSE is one of the first universities in Russia to implement a double-degree programme, as far back as 1997 (several years before the Bologna process launched). The establishment of the Bachelor’s and the Master’s programmes at an international level at ICEF has become possible due to financial support provided by banks and financial institutions, such as: VTB24, Vneshtorgbank, Sberbank. The International College of Economics and Finance (ICEF) collaborates directly with the University of London and in conjunction with the London School of Economics, a world-class centre for economic and political studies. Courses are taught in English, graduates receive a double diploma and are highly sought after on the labor market and in further education.

— Do you see the future of education in Russia as involving cooperation with western universities, expanding integration, opportunities to receive double diplomas – as at ICEF, or a focusing in on our own programmes and roots without, in the current environment, cooperating with the west?

— Of course, it’s important to understand where you came from. But relying on your roots alone would be like trying to explain quantum physics using only Newton.

Knowledge has no borders, that is paramount. If we want to have good doctors, physicists, economists, financiers, then in this globalised economy we need to train them to common levels. You cannot have an economist who is only trained using domestic theory. Of course education systems boast national characteristics, there is no single overarching system. But they are all developing along cooperative lines. This is evidenced by what we see in Korea and China, who send their students to study at the world’s leading educational institutions, so that they can then return home and work to improve the local economy. I think that Chinese and Korean economies are showing such success as a result of this approach. Of course national identity must not be lost or diluted, but as these Asian countries show, there is no threat to national identity here. Without enriching ourselves by exposing ourselves to the best experience, the latest professional knowledge, we will hinder our development.

— Our diplomas are not often recognized abroad, especially when you look at medical degrees. What can be done to level the playing field e.g. between our specialists and international specialists?

— I wouldn’t say that they’re not recognized. It depends on the field in question. Diplomas in the natural sciences have always been highly regarded. The socio-economic sciences do not have this tradition, because of our historic isolation from the global academic community. There are peculiarities when accreditation is involved. Sometimes this is related to protectionism. Each case is different.

There is not a single, unified, approach within the international academic community: in the United States, even if a professor is only moving from one University to another, he still undergoes academic certification. So in order to get a job you need a diploma, but you also have to undergo this academic test. As for medical diplomas, then you have to complete additional certified exams to confirm that your level of qualifications equals that required, in part because of differences in medical training in different countries – this is not a specific requirement set for Russian diplomas. At the same time the equalizing in law of Russian medical diplomas with those from international universities is facilitated by events such as the opening in 2014 of double diploma courses between Pirogov Russian National Research Medical University and Milan State University.

— Double BA programmes like those you have in place with the University of London – is this a way into the global educational space? Do universities and students become competitive?

— International joint programmes have gained significant popularity over the past 10-15 years thanks to the fact that joint efforts by several universities can help create broader opportunities for students in their education (which later translate as greater competitive advantages) and teachers, and also for the institution. However all this works if the partners are focused on achieving high academic standards, not just on a second diploma for the sake of prestige or income.

In October 2014 research into joint Russian-European programmes came to a close. Out of the 1,000 state accredited Russian universities surveyed, over 100 were included in the catalogue. Over 80% of them were double diploma programmes, of which about 75% were at MA level. One of the problems identified is that these programmes are somewhat undersubscribed. A lot of ‘bubbles’ – where there was a programme, but no students or graduates, and sometimes only one of the partner institutions was aware of its existence – were identified. It is the nature and number of joint programmes that reflects a university’s global reputation.

When we were established back in 1997, only a handful of people believed that we would go on and achieve long-term success. We wanted to make our Russian programme competitive at the highest international levels, and we needed external endorsement – by sitting external exams and receiving a diploma from a respected university. From their first year, all students study a single programme in English, and sit Russian and English exams. And those who manage all this end up with diplomas from and English and a Russian university. Incidentally, there were over 1,000 ICEF graduates last year. All the teachers undergo a highly selective international selection process. Our collaboration with the London School of Economics (LSE) helped motivate us, spurring us on to achieve a very high level of professional qualification, opening up new opportunities for cooperation and growth. Students gained access not only to HSE books and resources, but to all the resources of the University of London.

Consequently, the entire educational process is not merely comparable with that open to a student in an international university, it is in many senses even richer. And that is, I believe, our main achievement at ICEF and the main reason for our graduates’ success. As part of HSE, cooperating with LSE and the international programme at University of London, ICEF was able to fuse the best aspects of the two different educational cultures. And so, to answer your question, yes, internationalization is a good development model for higher education.

— From the perspective of Russian educational standards, Russian laws, is it difficult to establish a double diploma course that is in line with our laws?

— There’s that saying ‘the eyes fear – the hands do’. It’s not straightforward. It’s harder at BA level, less difficult at MA level, so we have more joint MA courses – as does Europe. The main problems involve issues of recognizing these programmes, guaranteeing their quality under educational laws that differ country to country.

— About graduates. You provide high quality education, and a second diploma opens up numerous avenues. After receiving their diplomas, people often go abroad. That’s clear. But how can we keep these talented graduates here in Russia?

— You know, global demand is what should keep them. After graduating, our students can go and work in Europe, America, Asia. But the key thing is – they can work in a highly professional area. After receiving their qualifications, graduates go out into the market, and you shouldn’t persuade them to stay in Russia or otherwise. When we say ‘persuade them to stay in Russia’ it comes from a rather ‘Soviet’ perspective on the economy: the system trained graduates to work for the benefit of the Soviet economy at home and abroad. The situation has fundamentally changed. ICEF graduates can go and work at companies operating on a global market. This could mean a Russian international firm, a Russian bank that sends them to their UK office, for example. Or vice versa, a German bank – that sends them to their Moscow representative office. Graduates are often advised: you want to get further ahead faster then go to Russia. Because you know the country, your profession, and can be very effective. In addition, graduates also move about – even under one firm. So that issue, of needing to ‘persuade’ them to stay in Russia really doesn’t arise.

But for someone like me who remembers how rare changing jobs was in the Soviet era, the extreme mobility of our graduates within and between firms, often between countries, is really something new. And they are ready and willing to do it.

— From the very beginning, from year 1, you teach in English. How ready are the students when they arrive? How well-prepared are they by their schools in English? And the Single State Exam in foreign languages – is that enough of an indicator, can you accept people based on that or does their ability have to be higher?

— On the eve of the launch (of joint ICEF-University of London) courses, colleagues from LSE asked me ‘Sergey, will we be able to find people who can teach in a foreign language?’ The problem then was with teachers, not students. Some teachers we invited to interview didn’t even understand the questions in English. And as for students, even those from regular schools, those who have studied the language well – we don’t have any problem with them. Yes, you need additional effort. Yes, you have to experience some difficulties especially in the first few months. But usually a school graduate with good grades (as many years’ experience has shown) is well equipped to study with us.

The key probably lies in the fact that they are not just taught English and sit exams. They study in English. Two weeks of immersion, and then their first lectures and the process is up and running. It is like when people arrive in Europe from other countries, start working and learn the language relatively fast. English is the professional language now, especially in finance and economics, and also IT. That’s a fact – there’s no getting away from it. Of course, some countries benefit from this: Australia, the UK, America. But what use is opposing it? You’ll still need to learn the language if you want to become a modern specialist, especially in economics, based on knowledge. I remember in the 1980s-90s, when I was Deputy Dean at MSU, on trips to Germany and France students they didn’t only accept students with English. I should also note that in ensuring we teach English, we mustn’t forget about our own language, both in terms of business and as a carrier of culture. We have even introduced a special course for students.

— Do you offer any additional exams in English language for prospective students? Or is the Unified State Exam enough?

— We don’t set any additional tests, just the USE. We only test their English to split first year students into groups. We do see sad cases when a student has got excellent USE results, but their actual level of knowledge is close to zero. We explain that we’re offering a course taught in English, and they really cannot enroll in it. Essentially, the USE’s correlation between mathematics and further study has been good, that for languages – less so. Why is a different question.

— Do international students enroll?

— We currently have several international English-speaking students enrolled in our Financial Economy MA course, which we run jointly with the LSE. At BA level, most international students come from the ‘near abroad’ and enroll via the USE, or are students we get via exchanges with a European university.

— Do we need to move toward greater globalization there? To give the opportunity to foreigners to sit exams in English, so that they then learn Russian? Or should we leave the foundations as they are, making them sit the full USE Russian test?

— Given the adoption of the Law on Education, which endorses the option of studying in foreign languages, the Ministry of Education has developed a new regulatory structure including as relates to enrollment, which fundamentally changes the lie of the land.

The Ministry of Education directive Number 839, which is well known in educational circles, for the first time permits entry exams for foreign students to take place in foreign languages, provided that is in line with the University’s own regulations. This primarily involves MAs, which are currently developing very rapidly, but it also opens up BA programmes to prospective students from neighboring states or further afield, who can interact in Russian but who would like to sit exams and study in English. This is also in line with international best practice: in universities in non-English speaking countries where education is offered in English, prospective students generally do not sit exams in the language of their host country.

There is one related problem – in that it is easier for foreigners to enroll via the quota system, which does not specify any subject exams, than via an entry exam in language the educational institution sets itself. This could lower the caliber of an intake, and therefore the quality of the educational programmes. I think we need to go further, and make it possible to enroll in MA and BA programmes on the basis of international exams, as is the case elsewhere on the global education market.

— Incidentally, regarding the Bologna system. A lot of time has passed and it has become more clear to employers that you sometimes get someone who tries to get a job with a BA, and they’re told ‘what’s that?’ Will we get to a point where education to BA level is respected? Or will we still have a situation in which they have to ‘unlearn’ 5 years.

— They have a similar problem in Germany, where they also used to have a 5-year higher education system. The issue is that there are numerous different sectors – we are a very large country. And some sectors, such as the nuclear industry, medicine, etc. have their own specifics and cannot be crammed into a 4 year BA course. But as for ICEF, our BA programmes are well put together and graduates do not encounter any problems. We offer a professional education, and the people who get diplomas are able to launch their careers at a respectable level, in good positions, with decent salaries.

But there are other, less professionally focused approaches to the BA. In the United States you have the Liberal Arts. This kind of BA is more of a general education, and professional specialization comes at MA level. These BA programmes are more suited to people who have not decided what career path they want. So there are different paths leading to that goal.

— About postgraduate educational courses. Under the Law on Education, it has become a level of higher education but does not equal the PhD, PhD programmes take four to five years. So will we find a way of fitting this into the system?

— I agree with you, there is a difference between that and the PhD. We offer a three-year post-grad programme: the first year they sit candidate exams, and then they start their dissertation. So they study for two years, but do not study general subjects, but professional ones, only later starting the dissertation, which delivers a more advanced level of research. In Russia, dissertations are written virtually at that same level. Of course, while collaborating with universities, we will move towards a similar model. But at the same time it is worth noting that strong universities, strong postgraduate courses, strong graduates, often perform well and work successfully with academics who have completed PhD programmes.

The research outlined above into the development of joint university programmes has identified a host of programmes offered at that level and PhD. At HSE, postgraduate courses offer the option of collaborating with researchers at European universities.

— Thousands of young people will graduate from school this year. Many are talented, have won Olympiads, and the Universities will undoubtedly compete for them. What would you advise them, how should the build their educational strategy?

— I usually tell prospective students about the algorithm for selecting programme, faculty, university, at Open Days. What are the criteria for strong, recognized universities? The best prospective students on the global market, teaching staff that are respected internationally, and graduates who are in demand. You should ask the Faculties and Educational Institutions you are applying to these questions.

And you should undoubtedly select those that are the best, so that you don’t regret that you wasted your time at a university that you don’t respect. And if you change professions, then a good university will have prepared you to be able to embrace that change, not regret it.


The Degree of Doctor of Science (Economics), honoris causa was awarded to ICEF Director Sergey Yakovlev on 11 March at the University of London in recognition of his contribution to the development of higher education in economics and the academic achievements at ICEF.

The first such award was bestowed on 24 July 1903. Since then, 570 people in academia, culture, and the arts, have received this prestigious award, including British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, poet and dramatist T.S. Eliot, artist Henry Moore, among others. Among the list of eminent LSE honorary degree receipients are President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Professor George Akerlof, and journalist Martin Wolf.

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