'Russia is an Unusual and Fascinating Сountry - There's a Lot to Study Here'
From September 27-29, HSE University St. Petersburg hosted the Analytics for Management and Economics Conference (AMEC). In anticipation of the conference, HSE News Service sat down with Christofer Gerry, Dean of St Antony's College, Oxford University, and an associated member of the International Centre for Health Economics, Management, and Policy at HSE Universty - St Petersburg, about why he has devoted his life to studying Russia, and what skills Russian students lack.
You have been studying the social consequences of economic changes in Russia for over 20 years. How did you become interested in studying Russia in the first place?
I can't give you the exact reason. These things just happen. Despite the fact that in the British media Russia is represented very negatively, I have always been drawn to it. Russia is such an unusual and fascinating country and there is so much to see, study, and learn. You know, some people are attracted to Russian architecture, some people gravitate to poetry; many are interested in international relations, but I like to study the issue of healthcare in Russia. There have been many developments and changes since the Soviet Union, but as for all countries, Russia faces really important questions and challenges concerning how it prioritizes and allocates resources for its healthcare system. Moreover, there are so few economists working on health in Russia compared to most other developed countries, I am committed to encouraging young Russian scholars and students to pursue careers in this vital area.
What motivated you to come to AMEC? What are your expectations from the upcoming conference?
Well, I am a member of the International Advisory Board for the School of Economics and Management, which meets during the conference. This means I also have the opportunity to visit some of the many fascinating sessions of the conference. There is not too much on health economics but there are lots of related presentations and talks which touch on vital issues of political economy and public economics.
What is the difference between Russian students and Oxford University students?
The students of HSE and Oxford are among the very best in Russia and the UK, respectively, so they have that in common, but there are of course also many differences. While HSE has rapidly increased its numbers of international students, Oxford remains much more diverse in terms of the internationality students.
Academically, the Russian students I have worked with at the bachelor's and master's levels have been really impressive. They are inquisitive and intelligent and particularly gifted in technology and mathematics. Typically more so than the average UK based student. In contrast, their writing and argumentation skills are often less developed than the average UK student. This is clearly a product of the differing systems but it is something that presents a challenge to Russian students when they study abroad or, as many do, seek to publish their postgraduate work in scholarly journals.
To give a basic example, if I set an essay assignment for UK based students, the vast majority who have been educated in the UK system are very competent in terms of knowing how to go about constructing an argument and integrating primary evidence and/or secondary sources seamlessly into their work – building a case to support their hypothesis but also understanding how to interrogate their own claims and to subject them to scrutiny. Typically, Russian students are less adept at this and it takes time for them to adjust to this slightly different way of thinking. It is not about expressing personal opinions but about using data and sources to construct logical arguments that interrogate a research question from a particular angle. On a positive note, in the 6 years since I have been associated with HSE St. Petersburg, I have seen that this is changing here, and the depth and breadth of the education curriculum is starting to foster some of the less tangible study skills which the previous system neglected. Conferences and events such as AMEC of course give students the opportunity to learn from international experience and to communicate with foreign mentors.
Another big difference between Russian and British students is the reluctance to ask questions. In universities in the UK or the US, a seminar is much more of a dialogue with a teacher, an exchange of informed views, while classes with Russian students seem to be about either giving the answer or not – and not exploring the issues and uncertainties that are relevant to the answer. Russian students, for example, give brilliant and original presentations but their colleagues rarely engage critically with the presentations. Again, this is changing at HSE, but I believe the existing tendencies retain echoes of the Soviet education system and its ideological views of learning content.
Do you have a set of rules of your own that you require students to follow so that your interaction with them is more fruitful?
I think different things can work with different levels of students and with different class and seminar settings. For example, in Oxford, I mostly work with master's level students and the seminar groups are very small (e.g. 5-6 students per group) and participation and engagement is not a problem because the students see these sessions as their main interaction opportunity of the week, and they prepare thoroughly for them. The challenge in the Russian system is to create educational programmes which can build in enough time and space for students to undertake independent study, which is where they learn to think and experience what it is like to explore ideas and concepts. The traditional approach to education in Russia has been to emphasize teaching but recently places like HSE are starting to shift to an approach that emphasizes learning as well as teaching. The big challenge is to operationalize that within the requirements set out in national standards and expectations.
You as a professor probably get tired of a large number of students. How are you coping with it? What is your secret to success?
I love working with students actually, especially in the context of their research projects (rather than within courses that they may not really be interested in). But, to relax, I love travelling, vegetarian cooking, hiking, and most sports. My holidays, I admit, are mostly spent in Russia or nearby countries. Last year I travelled around Ukraine; this year around Latvia and then Russia. Every time I come to Russia I feel like it is the beginning to a new adventure. I lived here for 3 years and often wonder why I left!
You have many academic publications. What advice can you give to those who are just now starting their own academic careers?
First of all, you should clearly understand what your main research topic is, what the point of it is – what the problem that you are addressing is. As a young scholar, working with a more experienced mentor is a great way of learning, and that is something that HSE encourages and facilitates. Writing an article is a kind of art form - an additional skill beyond the actual research itself - and it takes time to really develop this skill. You have to learn that it takes a long time, a lot of drafting and re-drafting and likely a fair bit of rejection along the way.