From Russia, with disappointment

Exchange students visiting Thames Valley University have not been unanimously enthusiastic about the experience
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The Independent Online
Andrei doesn't want to make a song and dance of his views on British universities - 14 years in the Russian education system has taught him to keep a low profile - but his first experience of the West, he confides, leaves much to be desired.

A student from Russia's leading university, the prestigious Moscow State, Andrei (not his real name) is in Britain for a year studying applied languages on an exchange programme at Thames Valley University in west London.

Like his 10 fellow Russian students, the 20-year-old linguist, who speaks fluent English, has made considerable sacrifices to join the programme. But he is not sure whether the £6,000 he has raised by appealing for help through his extended family to pay for his living and travelling expenses during the year will have been worthwhile.

"I expected to improve my English - but we don't have lectures specifically tailored for this. I think Thames Valley sees its purpose in these exchanges as to teach English to foreigners such that they can get by for business purposes."

He has been in London since October and has just started the second semester of the year-long course, the first of its kind offered to Russian students by Thames Valley.

His criticisms may not reflect the views of all his colleagues - other students say the only problems they have encountered were early difficulties with the level of English teaching, which was too low for most, and the failure of one tutor to set an end- of-term exam - but they do touch upon issues of key importance for British universities keen to develop links and exchanges with Russian partners.

Andy Ross, head of the School of European and International Studies at Thames Valley (formerly the Polytechnic of West London), says the university has a strong reputation for exchange courses, developed over the past 30 years.

"We encourage students to look at their studies critically, and if they want higher levels in English or any subject we can provide this," he says.

"Cultural misalignment is actually a central part of the exchange experience - the Russian students have told me that they don't have a culture of complaint. They don't tend to complain because they're worried it might affect their studies."

Professor Teodor Shanin, a sociologist from Manchester University, which has long offered postgraduate and PhD studies to Russian students, recognises the critical importance of addressing cultural issues if exchanges are to be successful. "The core of Manchester's success with Russian students is in our careful selection and systematic briefing of what they can expect in England," he says. "Teachers are also carefully guided to understand what they can expect from Russian students."

Moscow State University, he says, is an lite institution in its own eyes and Russian exchange students from such universities may have assumed they had the right to find themselves in, say, Oxford, Cambridge or one of the top five red-brick universities. "When they find themselves in a different kind of university, the results can sometimes be explosive."

According to Professor Shanin, British universities are tempted by the "mercantile atmosphere" to look to Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe to pick up business. He believes that if courses are not very carefully designed there is the danger that a few bad experiences could taint the traditionally high esteem that Russian academia has for Britain. "Students might return home with the feeling that British education is inadequate, and the next bunch of students will go to America instead," he says.

Andrei and other students admit they were given little idea of what to expect in Britain, and all were surprised at the cost of living. "We were told very little about Thames Valley before leaving Moscow. We simply came here and discovered what we saw," says Svetlana Gusyatina, 20.

Professor Svetlana Ter-Minasova, dean of the faculty of foreign languages at Moscow State University, says: "This question of knowing too little about Thames Valley University is actually a very urgent and topical one. The fact is that after so many years of isolation, when both sides were given pictures distorted by propaganda, we know too little about the world where the English language is actually used. A full briefing or orientation course is a must if we want the exchanges to be really efficient."

It is something Mr Ross and his colleagues intend to rectify before next year's exchange: a group of Thames Valley students and staff visited Moscow in February to brief their Russian partners on suggested improvements to the programme.