For names in “Chronicle of the Persecution of Scientists”, which is jointly conducted by T-invariant and CISRUS, is the story of the struggle of specific people for civil and academic freedoms in Russia. Therefore, we decided not only to record these cases, but also to tell in detail who and why decides to go against government pressure in science and education.
Many people think that in modern Russia it is impossible to publicly speak out against war without dire consequences for the person and for the organization he leads. The story about inspections and refusal to accredit one of the largest colleges in Russia, Novokolledzh, the decision of its director, candidate of historical sciences Sergei Chernyshov to leave his post against the backdrop of an anti-war position and refusal to conduct “Conversations about important things”, information about numerous denunciations addressed to him, about The fact that he instills in his own son the “values of pacifism” partly confirms these fears. But not really. Although Sergei was recognized as a foreign agent and left the post of director of the college, the college itself successfully started the academic year, and its new director Yuri Lobanov and Sergei Chernyshov himself do not give up their professional and civic positions.
How does a private college operate without a license? What allows its leaders to head an educational institution with a non-standard approach to learning in the modern rigid network of Russian education? Should you be afraid to express your opinion? Yulia Chernaya spoke with the former and current leaders of Novocollege — Sergei Chernyshov and Yuri Lobanov.
Not vocational school
The idea of opening a private college, unusual for Russia, with reasonable fees for students, was conceived by a young historian from Novosibirsk, Sergei Chernyshov, in 2017-2020, when he was studying for a master’s degree at the Higher School of Economics:
— We were told how universities can be structured according to the mind. Nothing new: individual educational trajectories, unique skills, open educational environment, human-centricity, etc. At HSE itself at that time, a lot was being implemented. Returning to Novosibirsk, I looked again at the university where I worked then. The same ideas were expressed in words. But in reality it turned out to be a complete fraud. A lot of things coincided, there were people who were also excited about the idea. And since I was a neophyte in secondary vocational education, I had no college experience, so I was able to try to organize something as close as possible to the idealistic idea that everyone is talking about. Many teachers came with experience in secondary vocational education. We have experienced several crises when we could have taken the path of conditional vocational school No. 5.
Today Novocollege is one of the most large educational institutions where it was possible to implement a model of individual educational trajectories. With this model, an individual schedule is drawn up for each student with his own list of subjects, depending on his vision of the future and his personal capabilities. Monitors college management and attendance. Approximately 5% of students study for free for their academic success, but to receive this benefit you need not only to pass the subjects well, but also to attend them carefully.
— Each student chooses subjects in one way or another related to their future specialty, — explains the current director of NovoCollege, Yuri Lobanov. — For example, there is a set of 60 different courses related to design. Of these, our student chooses 30 that he needs as a designer, for example, clothing, interiors or a web designer. Of course, the student must make an effort and decide what exactly he will study. Yes, tutors, teachers, and parents will help him, but the fundamental decision must be made by the student himself. Perhaps this responsibility for one’s choice, for one’s life, scares someone away from our college; perhaps it is easier for someone to have the director or parents decide everything for them. But Novosibirsk is a big city where different people live, including those who want to take responsibility for their lives. They are precisely the ones who need our Novocollege today.
This year, during the first wave, 350 freshmen were enrolled in NovoCollege (in total there are about 1.5 thousand people studying at the college). This is a little less than We take into account the number of freshmen last year (there were 400). But Yuri Lobanov looks at the statistics with optimism:
— Firstly, there are 350 freshmen at the moment. In October-November, based on the experience of last year, we will most likely have an additional intake: the education system in state institutions did not suit someone, someone wanted to see if we could enroll the first year, they decided to do so after listening to reviews, etc.
Secondly, this year we increased the fee by one and a half times. That is, college income has increased by at least 20-30 percent compared to last year. This allowed us to increase, for example, teachers’ salaries. We have the highest teaching salaries in Novosibirsk secondary education by a large margin. We boldly compete with universities for teachers in this regard. The minimum cost of an hour at Novokolledzhis 390 rubles, in some universities this is how much a professor’s hour costs. And the maximum cost of an hour is555 rubles, the cost of an hour depends on the rating of teachers.
Thirdly, we enrolled a full-fledged first year without accreditation. This is a very important case for us, and, perhaps, for all Russian education. We are very glad that in our case, accreditation turned out to be less important than a unique educational product and atmosphere.
Accreditation or death?
NovoCollege really doesn’t have accreditation right now. Yuri Lobanov says that in this case there are only two ways—all ways to get it or just work without accreditation. But will the lack of accreditation be a death sentence? College accreditation gives the student the opportunity to receive a state diploma. It is needed primarily for work in government agencies, — Yuri Lobanov explains the second option. — But government agencies — These are a few percent of vacancies on the labor market. And for most employers, neither a state diploma, nor even a diploma from NovoCollege, or any other is important. A portfolio, experience in specific projects and skills are much more important to them. A state diploma is also important for those who are going to go to a state university — without it it will not be possible to enter there. But statistics say that only 10% of college graduates try to enter universities, although approximately 40% of students plan to receive higher education in their first year. Where does this 30% “disappear”? They are probably making a discovery: they have already received everything they need for life in college, and the university will not give them anything fundamentally new.
— I think for those who did not give NovoCollege accreditation this was one of the ways to kill it, — says Sergey Chernyshov. — The current Minister of Education Sergei Kravtsov, heading Rosobrnadzor, massively closed private universities, often depriving them of accreditation for completely flimsy reasons. 99% of universities, having lost their accreditation, actually closed: a state diploma is is the main thing that students went to these educational institutions for. There are two exceptions — Shaninka (Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences) and the European University. I think that these two universities gave their students not only a state-issued piece of paper, but also a unique educational product (which includes knowledge, an idea, a community, acquaintances, and much more).
We were treated similarly: they did not give us accreditation — everything should fall apart. But measuring people by yourself — is a big and common mistake. The same is true of people who are sure that if I myself hold liberal views, then I will actively impose them on others.
Sergey mentions two more disadvantages of studying at an unaccredited college. Firstly, young people do not have a deferment from the army (which is very significant in current realities). Secondly, Novocollege students are not entitled to a discounted travel pass.
Chernyshov and Lobanov believe that this is illegal.
College — it’s fashionable
According to the Ministry of Education of the Russian Federation, today 60% of 9th grade graduates and 30% of 11th grade graduates choose secondary vocational education programs. Yuri Lobanov says that such growth is associated with the demographic and economic situation.
— On the one hand, the children of the baby boom of the late 2000s grew up to college. There are just a lot of them demographically. On the other hand, real incomes of the population are falling in the country. As a result, fewer and fewer households are willing to support a child for at least 5 years, and at the most pay for his education, and then wait a couple of years until he gets “real experience” by working for pennies. Many choose secondary specialized education, which is cheaper, shorter, and, as a rule, more practical.
Yuri Lobanov says that many universities have also begun to open colleges. And enrollment in such secondary educational institutions may be higher than in the universities “at which” they open..
— Most private colleges in Russia actually copy the education system in public colleges, it’s just that the website design is more fun, and the educational content the same, — explains Yuri Lobanov. — It’s like fast food: cheap, familiar, without any problems. It may not be very tasty and not very healthy, but it’s on every corner. Novokolledzh is more like a decent small restaurant.
Sergey Chernyshov draws my attention to another interesting nuance in the 2023 college admissions campaign.
— What do you think were the leading specialties in secondary education? Wreliable and unconditional first place in the specialty “Law Enforcement.” In Novosibirsk, one of the colleges this year recruited 13 groups in this specialty and only three groups of programmers. And so it is everywhere.
“Talking about important things” and teachers
Sergey Chernyshov believes that it was the refusal to hold “conversations about important things” at NovoCollege that became the reason for the inspections and revocation of accreditation. However, this does not stop Sergei from continuing to repeat that “teachers who teach such lessons will go to hell.”
This wording influenced his relationship with colleagues, who removed him from the chat of the heads of private colleges in Russia. Formally—not because of “lessons talking about important things.” And for his comments about the directors of private colleges, first collecting signatures against the threat of mobilization of their students, and then, with no less zeal, extras for a rally on Red Square in honor of the accession of four new regions. Sergei believes that the very existence of NovoCollege and the position of its leadership is a reproach to other teaching staff:
— Teachers and principals often say that they simply have no choice, that they are forced to do something heinous or to carry out for the sake of their students, school, college or university. But the example of Novokolledzh literally screams the opposite. My example says that the director can say that war - is bad and he will not support it. And here I am, alive, healthy, a trigger for those who were afraid to do this.
The new head of the college, Yuri Lobanov, is not going to return “Conversations about Important Things”.
— Firstly, New College simply does not have the tools that would allow these lessons to be conducted the way they were intended organizers. We simply cannot “ensure turnout”: students themselves choose which subjects to take. And I have not heard from a single student or his parent a desire to attend such a course. These are free people who pay for educational services. No one can force them to pay and attend this course.
Secondly, you need to understand well that among the students of this course there will definitely be people with different views. We have those whose loved ones are right now participating in hostilities on the territory of Ukraine, there are children of those killed or wounded there, and there are those who categorically do not support the war. Our teachers learn to talk about war in the classroom with such different attitudes, teach and learn to hear each other. But they are just learning, and this is very, very difficult. We need special teaching tactics and a special language of speaking.
Yuri says that at NovoCollege it’s customary to discuss everything openly, you can’t just “listen to the lesson and leave.” That’s why Lobanov thinks he’s too busy to carry out such This is possible only after good preparation, and until then it will not benefit either those who conduct them or those who participate in them.
Problems of school and teachers
Teachers are, without a doubt, a very important social group and the largest group influencing the formation of society in any country. In the case of Russia, according to Sergei, this is often not the best part of it.
— How does a person get to school? He, most often, goes through double negative selection, Sergei assures me. — First he enters the pedagogical institute, because he was not accepted anywhere else on the budget. And then, if he couldn’t get a job with more money, he goes to work at school. These are the majority of young teachers. And older teachers, unfortunately, often have rubber brains, which are best able to oscillate in resonance with the “party line.” When was the last time the average history teacher opened an academic book or research paper on history? Sergey is a candidate of historical sciences, and is now preparing to defend his doctorate in the same discipline. He suspects that “the level of support for CBOs is highly correlated with a person’s level of historical illiteracy.” It is important that Sergei himself is a candidate of historical sciences, and is currently preparing to defend his doctorate. Therefore, he can fully appreciate the degree of this very historical illiteracy.
— 26% of teachers in Russia are pensioners , the average age of a teacher is officially 47 years old, Yuri Lobanov describes the situation in an ordinary high school or college. — That is, these are people who have been teaching approximately the same thing for about 25 years. And these are people who, as a rule, work two jobs, because otherwise they simply cannot feed their children. Do you think they are ready to move to new programs? Give up everything and learn to work in a new way? And it’s not even about the people themselves — the resources they have do not allow them to do this purely technically.
Does this mean that there is no opportunity to influence the change in teacher personnel? Sergei Chernyshov believes that Russia has positive experience in this area:
— There is a rather successful example with the “Teacher for Russia” project. Graduates of the best universities in the country are offered to work as teachers in a rural school. They are paid an additional 20-30 thousand per month in addition to their salaries. By the way, even if we paid all teachers extra, it would cost us much less than the military operations that we are currently waging. They also rent housing and help methodically. Of course, you need to send 2-3 such teachers to a specific school at once, otherwise they will eat you.
Chernyshov says that this project has actually been working for several years and in just two or three years the school is becoming completely different. Why?
— Firstly, children get a completely different social experience; they see in practice that they can study not in the nearest town, but at universities in Moscow and Novosibirsk. Secondly, the teachers themselves are changing. They are gradually turning from an ever-whining community into people who need something. There is even a competition among graduates for this program. Besides, I personally believe in science. Therefore, I believe that lustration is necessary in the teaching environment, but it should be carried out on an academic basis. It would be worth asking every history teacher what scientific articles he has read over the past 5 years. And say goodbye to those who have not read such articles.
Irritant foreign agent
On May 27, the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation recognized Sergei Chernyshov as a foreign agent. Later, lawyers managed to find out the reasons for this decision. The explanatory note stated that Sergey:
- published a list of rectors who support the war;
- negatively assessed the fact that military commissars spoke at schools and colleges;
- criticized “Conversations about important things”;
- put forward the idea that “the authorities use historical memory for their own purposes”;
- called NovoCollege “an island of peace and humanism”;
- called the teachers who meekly conduct “Conversations about Important Things” and other promotions of the event “a weak-willed herd”;
- proposed to rename schools torture centers;
- separate blame for the quote “teachers in Russia do not belong to themselves”, and “the level of competence in the education system is below par”;
- told how one Novosibirsk college hung the letter Z on its facade;
- told how he wears a yellow-blue bracelet bought in Batumi;
- criticized teachers who justify murders.
And besides, he talked with foreign agents, which means he was under foreign influence.
On August 3, the Leninsky District Court refused to challenge Chernyshov’s IA status. But he does not intend to stop, planning to exhaust all possibilities: ahead of him is the city court, and, if necessary, the regional, Supreme Court. Often citizens who have received the status of foreign agents are trying to leave Russia. Many of them have already done this. Chernyshov does not want to leave, but wants to go to the end.
— In Russia, what is scary is not the severity of the legislation, but the unpredictability of law enforcement practice. Analyzing the stories of different intelligence agencies, I have not found clear trajectories of why people become or do not become foreign agents, nor how the state interacts with them after receiving their status. A case is opened against someone after six months, against someone after a year, and against someone they don’t open a case at all (the latter currently includes the vast majority of IA living in Russia). But a case can be opened without IA status. No one expected that Evgenia Berkovich would be arrested for the performance.
Sergei also has a version of why he is so annoying and attracts close attention from the “patriotic” public of Novosibirsk, which writes angry comments to his VKontakte account:
— First of all, they don’t understand why I even speak out. I am not a politician, I have not expressed and do not express any political ambitions, I have never participated in rallies, and I do not go abroad. Secondly, the uncertainty of the position of Novokolledzh. The college quite clearly articulates a non-oppositional, but moderately liberal anti-militarist position. At the same time, the college was created without state money, without the money of the oligarchs, we did not squeeze out buildings from anyone for pennies, did not give bribes, the college does not coordinate with the conditional “curators from the state” the appointment of a new director — This is a precedent. In addition, officials are often guided by a simple principle: “if they suddenly ask you something later, they will have something to report on.”
From New College to New University
Recognized as a foreigner, who resigned from the post of director of NovoCollege, Sergei Chernyshev not only does not plan to leave Russia, he plans to open a new university in the near future — Siberian University of Liberal Arts and Sciences named after Yadrintsev. Nikolai Yadrintsev is a Russian publicist, writer and public figure of the 19th century, researcher of Siberia and Central Asia, one of the founders of Siberian regionalism, discoverer of ancient Turkic monuments on the Orkhon River, the capital of Genghis Khan Karakorum and the capital of the Uyghur Khaganate in Mongolia.
— If I just wanted to make money, I would open an institute of psychology or programming, data analysis or something similar. These are the areas that are currently experiencing a renaissance. But I don’t want to do that. I sincerely believe that, first of all, we need good liberal arts universities with a good liberal arts education.
Sergey is confident that the crisis that society is currently experiencing is a crisis of humanitarian knowledge. He believes that the Soviet model of a specialized university has long outlived its usefulness, and 80% of officials in universities and the Ministry of Education are weather vanes who try to predict the party line. This system needs to be changed, because it was the insufficient level of development of the social and human sciences in Russia that largely led society to crisis and war.
Text Yulia Chernaya
Yulia Chernaya 26.10.2023