MGIMO’s “Global Small Town”

MGIMO’s “Global Small Town”

29 September 2023

Ironic as it sounds, this is how the School of Government and International Affairs, MGIMO’s unique English-speaking department, is jokingly referred to.

Alexander Bobrov, the Dean of the School of Government and International Affairs (SGIA), was born into the family of a Russian diplomat, one of whose business trips happened in the height of the Arab Spring back in 2011.

«A few months before taking the Russian Unified State Exam, a civil war broke out in Libya, where we happened to live at the time. We were thankfully evacuated by EMERCOM and flew back to Moscow,» Alexander recalls. Upon arrival, Bobrov was admitted to MGIMO’s Faculty of International Relations, where he studied a handful of languages like French, German and Arabic. He graduated in 2018 with high honors, earning a red diploma, and had his sights set on working at the Russian Embassy in the United States. That is, until the «visa wars» began. At some point, Alexander realized that waiting around for a VISA could drag on indefinitely. «That’s when I decided to visit my old alma mater and see if I could put myself to use. I was quickly welcomed by my faculty’s dean’s office, where I then asked if they needed any help around the university. I was honestly looking for any available position just to avoid going crazy from sitting around and doing nothing.

MGIMO Journal (MJ): Do you think that you made the right move?

Absolutely! Yuri Alekseevich Bulatov, my old dean, treated me very fatherlike. From day one, he went out of his way to gradually immerse me in all the intricacies of managing education. After all, education management is an art; in order to succeed, you must first master three key skills. First, it’s imperative to have exceptional organizational capabilities, that way you can manage and support educational programs administratively by working closely with various facilities, including the language departments. Afterall, each department functions in its own unique way. Secondly, it is important to constantly develop your skills as a teacher-educator, because MGIMO doesn’t just «sell» educational services, but rather provides student with real educators and mentors, nurturing not only future colleagues and professionals, but also people who will be actively working in critical civil positions. Lastly, it’s also important to bolster scientific research and development — both from MGIMO’s students and staff.

MJ: Sounds complicated.

I’m not afraid to admit, I was incredibly lucky when I came back to my university. From my first days at work, I had the honor of studying one of the greatest, and most complex MGIMO management systems: the Schol of Governance and International Affairs. There’s a reason why it’s referred to as as primus inter pares, or the first among equals. Although I worked on a voluntary basis as an Assistant Dean, the experience was truly invaluable. A year later, Yuri Alekseevich reached out to Alexander Nikolaevich Panov, the Head of the Diplomacy Department, and not long after, I was then hired to teach alongside people who have implemented Russia’s foreign policy for decades. I mean former foreign ministers, deputy ministers, and ambassadors. Suddenly, I found myself juggling two jobs at once — one in the dean’s office and another in the Diplomacy Department. It was this double workload that helped me grow a steel spine. And I couldn’t be more grateful! When a young employee joins the team, they are usually given a huge amount of work so that they can challenge themselves and grow professionally. In my first few years at MGIMO, I often subbed for my senior colleagues, and conducted lectures, seminars, master classes, as well as supervised midterms and exams for all undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate courses at all faculties (including the Odintsovo and Tashkent branches). When the end of the academic year rolled around, I was told: «Listen, you either go work for the State or stay with us». Without batting an eye, I chose to stay at the university, which had my back during one of the most difficult moments of my life. I’ve never regretted my decision since!

Unfortunately, in the fall of 2019, Yuri Alekseevich stepped away from his position due to illness. For several months Olga Vladimirovna Lebedeva, my PhD supervisor, and I had the entire faculty riding on our backs, with her being the Acting Dean and me as her Acting Deputy. Then, when in the beginning of 2020 Andrei Anatolievich Baikov, now Vice-Rector for Science and Research, became the supervisor of our department, we concentrated all our resources, sharing and maintaining our ties to other facilities. This is very important since students from various facilities would come to us for all kinds of help. Honestly, this is the most important function of the dean’s office — to help students find a way out of any situation, even the most difficult and desperate ones.

MJ: How did you become the Dean of the School of Government and International Affairs?

I became dean in early 2023, and it actually happened after a series of pivotal moments in my professional life. For starters, I had to successfully defend my PhD thesis, which was a huge challenge since my thesis council consisted of academic legends like our Rector A. V. Torkunov, V. G. Baranovsky, A. A. Gromyko — Director of the Institute of Europe Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences — and many other honored scientists. Later, Anatoly Vasilyevich introduced me to MGIMO’s Academic Council, which gave me some practical experience working in the main collegial body of our university. Another important milestone was in January 2022, when the Dean of International Relations position was up for election. I decided to run as a candidate, feeling that it was important that I speak out about the fate of my old department. I managed to get on the first ballot with 22 votes in favor, thanks to the support from my senior colleagues from other departments. With all honesty, this continues to inspire me, even to this day! This election taught me to conceptualize my professional experiences and communicate them publicly to a wide audience. I am incredibly glad that the winning candidate, Andrei Andreevich Sushentsov, and his team continue to implement many of the provisions that I campaigned for into the faculty.

MJ: Last year, Anatoly Vasilyevich reasonably proposed to head the SGIA. What was the proposed development concept and what are its main tasks?

I was given the reins to the faculty on its tenth anniversary. When the first dean, Jan Ilyich Vaslavsky, was just launching the English-language bachelor’s program back in 2013, he only had a small handful of students to work with. This normalized using a more individualistic approach to each of our students in the SGIA. My predecessor, Mikhail A. Troitsky, began recruiting dozens of students for various training programs, both in international relations and economics. I believe that it is my task to scale up and expand all that we have achieved so far. We are not only the main English-language undergraduate program at MGIMO, but also the only de facto faculty where admission is open to those with various international (IB — International Baccalaureate) and national high school diplomas (USE — Russia; A-Level, GCSE/IGCSE — Great Britain; SAT, AP — USA and many others). By attracting such candidates, we can maintain the most diverse and global student body in the entire history of MGIMO’s existence. Students from over fifty countries around the world have either studied or are currently studying with us.

As for the development concept, it is quite simple: we want to transform from the already established English-language bachelor’s program into a full-fledged international faculty, that touches every aspect and level of education. This includes creating English preparatory courses (analogous to Germany’s Studienkolleg), in addition to bachelor’s (Undergraduate), master’s (Graduate) and postgraduate (Postgraduate) English programs. This year, we launched a new master’s program — «International Diplomacy and Political Regional Studies». In the future, we hope to turn it into a one-year program, which would be an interesting choice for students graduating from the English-language bachelor’s programs at MGIMO. Many currently prefer to leave the university following graduation, but this program might incentivize students to stay. Also, it can increase foreign demand for a Russian-based education in social studies and humanities.

The entire Russian-speaking world considers MGIMO as one of the world’s top universities in training international relations specialists. However, not everyone outside the Russian-speaking world has heard of our «Russian Harvard», as famous American diplomat Henry Kissinger once called us. Developing an international faculty will contribute to the development of a much-needed English-speaking environment within the university. In many respects, MGIMO is still a Russian-language oriented university. But it is impossible to be competitive in the global market if there aren’t additional English-based educational opportunities, the demand for which is traditionally higher than those available in Russian.

MJ: How would you go about solving this problem?

We are working on a variety of management and marketing solutions aimed at entering the educational market of non-CIS countries. This includes creating a worldwide network of partnerships with academic mobility agencies (a completely new practice for MGIMO), as well as developing a more proactive advertising campaign, by creating websites, commercials, contextual advertising and using social media to spread information about MGIMO and do so in a variety of different languages. We have already translated MGIMO brochures into ten languages! Information is available not only in Russian and English, but also in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Arabic, Hindi and even Farsi. Now we are seeing the fruit of our labor: when we posted a video of our first Open Doors Day on YouTube, we included audio and subtitles in ten different languages. The number of views we had outmatched any other MGIMO department.

We are also investing a lot in multilingual promo videos and are updating our English-language website with corresponding versions in all the earlier-mentioned languages. Not only that, we intend to expand our linguistic palette in the future, not only because MGIMO is a Guinness World Record holder in terms of the number of languages being taught at university, but also because promoting MGIMO in various languages can significantly strengthen MGIMO’s brand and solidify loyalty among foreign audiences. This can then allow us to overcome parental fears of sending kids off to «the scary unknown» and debunk all sorts of myths that have been spread about Russia and our university.

MJ: You mentioned a new recruiting tool — an «academic mobility agency». What is that?

First, I’d like to stress that creating a network of partner agencies to promote academic mobility is crucial in order to enter the market of the so-called «far abroad countries». Here, of course, I refer to Russia’s group of friendly countries. Right now, we have no need to invest in attracting CIS students: our university not only retains a very strong position in those countries, given our rich shared history, but it is also one of the most popular universities for these countries. Meaning, the demand for a Russian-based education is already met. If we were to develop academic mobility, we would be following in the footsteps of other leading universities, whose presence in the Middle East, Asia-Pacific, Latin America and Africa has already been made at turn of the century. Students from these regions account for up to two-thirds of the total number of foreign students enrolled in various university programs in the US, UK, and EU.

As for what I mean by an academic mobility agency: this is either a company, or a specialized department of a travel company or an individual entrepreneur, that engages in attracting students from a particular country to a particular university. Today there are over 23 thousand similar organizations worldwide, aiming to make foreign educational services more accessible. The largest markets for these agencies are traditionally in China, India and Brazil. They provide schoolchildren and their parents with consulting services to search for and enroll students in a particular program of a desired foreign university or institute, simultaneously while helping them overcome various transport and logistical obstacles (obtaining a visa, moving to a foreign country, etc.). By concluding contracts with universities, the agencies pick out the most talented young people that are seeking a higher education, provide them quick and direct access to any foreign institution, all while minimally wasting time and resources.

Not every university can afford to open foreign branches or keep its representatives abroad, so these companies act as brand ambassadors and disseminate targeted advertising information in local media or social networks, as well as share information aimed at the parents of potential students. This, in turn, contributes to more successful enrollments and more application submissions, while also promoting programs that were otherwise low in demand.

MJ: How can MGIMO and particularly the School of Government and International Affairs compete with Ivy Leagues?

MGIMO has one unquestionable advantage. Ranked 34th in the QS World University Rankings in Political Science, we are behind only a small group of American and European universities. In other words, we are undisputedly a leader of the so-called «non-Western world» in education. But most importantly, the SGIA’s educational programs are five to six times cheaper than the English-language programs close to us in the standings.

MJ: So MGIMO is a good alternative and easier on the pocket?

Of course! Add that to the 53 foreign languages that we teach (which, by the way, no one else in the world has), as well as the high-level English language training that we do. Thanks to our programs, our graduates can easily pass any kind of Advanced-Proficiency (C1/C2) exam immediately after graduation.

MJ: Apart from learning languages, how does studying at the SGIA differ from similar Russian-language programs?

Practically everything! First of all, courses are taught entirely in English and that means students are constantly practicing and improving their speaking and writing skills. Currently, English acts as a lingua franca, or a bridge language, thus knowing it is vital when competing in global labor markets. We are proud of the fact that practically all our graduates enter a master’s/postgraduate program in Russia or abroad or find their first job within the first six months after graduation. Secondly, when a student enrolls with us, they are guaranteed to also take another language which they indicate in their application form (usually a UN language) as their first foreign language.

To master their first, second and English languages, students practice advanced communicative methods through academic writing, public speaking, critical reading, etc. This allows students to be able to integrate into any foreign cultural environment. Additionally, MGIMO practices integrated learning, where foreign language classes are synchronized with a huge amount of humanitarian knowledge acquired in class. Having the greatest international student body in greatest international university in Russia, we have created all the necessary conditions for applicants and bachelor’s graduates with different degrees to study here.

That is why it is impossible to draw up an average portrait of a SGIA student— we have such a mixed student body! From the most talented Russian students admitted by the Unified State Exam to creative Russian-speaking applicants, we have a collection of individuals who’ve studied in IB, A-Level, or SAT programs all around the world. These are the incredible and amazing students who fall within our ranks! From the moment they step into MGIMO, their cultural and national background allows them to literally feel, see and be a part of modern international relations, plunging into a sea of rich cross-cultural communication. There’s a reason why our faculty is jokingly called a «global small town». Even though we come from all corners of the world and have different social and cultural backgrounds, we end up living close to one another, building bonds that no border can break.

The School of Government and International Affairs (SGIA)