The Pirogov Russian National Research Medical University (formerly the Second Moscow Medical Institute) has recently had to overcome a tarnished reputation. In the last three years, the media have mentioned it only in reference to a 2011 corruption scandal for which the university administration paid dearly: there was a string of dismissals and criminal proceedings. A new rector was appointed a year later. A world-renowned physiologist, he immediately launched reforms. Now, Rector Andrei Kamkin tells RIA Novosti’s Anna Kurskaya about its newfound international acclaim and other changes the university has undergone during the past two years.
Mr. Kamkin, what has changed at the university in the past two years?
Andrei Kamkin: When I was appointed acting rector in August 2012 (I was elected to the post a year later), Healthcare Minister Veronika Skvortsova told me to improve the university to the point where it would be internationally competitive, no later than by the end of 2015.
The university administration concluded that raising it to the level of a standard European university, rather than creating some kind of abstract partnership with other universities, was the only thing we could do.
That was a difficult job, considering the standards of the average European university, which are hard to meet in Russia. The administration faced many problems, mainly corruption, which we firmly put an end to.
The enrollment of fictitious students in 2011 was a scandal for quite a long time.
Andrei Kamkin: I cannot say that our university was more corrupt under the previous rector, Nikolai Volodin, than any other Russian institution. At any rate, I had no firsthand information about it: I was working abroad at that time. Nonetheless, we took tough measures. Several faculties were disbanded and professors caught taking bribes from students were dismissed. We told them they should tender their resignation. The majority of them actually did take the opportunity to resign, knowing what was in store for them.
So our new administration needed just a half-year to eradicate the university’s most evident vice. That represented the beginning of our plan to make the university internationally competitive. In Europe, it’s possible to be a train robber and still be treated like a respectable person, but they have nothing but contempt for a professor who takes bribes from students.
Do you consider the expulsion of students caught cheating on examinations to be too tough? Or was this just another stage of the anti-corruption war?
Andrei Kamkin: It certainly was. Would you want a doctor who cheated and got terrible grades in college to treat your child?
Of course not.
Andrei Kamkin: When the situation became public, thousands of people supported me. I am grateful to them for having encouraged me when I was starting my career as rector. However, the anti-bribery campaign was only a part of a larger picture. The next stage was even harder: we had to expel bad students. It’s absurd to keep failing students at a medical university, but ours kept students who only passed an exam after re-taking it 10 times, and there were students who were expelled seven times, only to return to the university later. Actual expulsions were extremely rare at that time.
We realized the danger of letting ignorant students graduate and become doctors, and understood that poor students would destroy the university’s reputation when it shifts to implement European educational standards. So we turned away all the bad students we could get rid of without breaking the law. Some sued us but none of them won in court.
We dealt with a third problem as well when implementing European standards; in Europe, students who are expelled from medical colleges and universities (only from medical ones) cannot re-enter them. There you only get one chance to become a doctor.
We made the decision to comply with this practice about 18 months ago. Previously, the number of expelled students was equal to the number of re-entering ones. Now, students can only re-enter when doing so in compliance with the new Law on Education, and only if they hadn’t failed any of their assignments. Previously, some clever students left of their own accord when they thought they had no chance of passing a make-up exam, and applied to return several months later.
These were our three goals related to education.
Was there a fourth?
Andrei Kamkin: Yes, the principal one. The number of publications universities have published in the highest-rated academic journals is the only reliable yardstick one may use to evaluate them in the West. Our university has always been known for its research, but it was hard to have one’s work published abroad, so we could not boast having published a large number of articles in the best foreign periodicals, even though our professors were steady and reliable contributors.
Now that we have made it a point to publish more frequently, we have achieved breathtaking results. The year 2012 was just like any previous year, with a small number of publications. This number grew by 7.4 times the next year, and by 10.5 times during the first half of this year, when compared with 2012. We expect to exceed the number of 2012 publications by a remarkable 20-25 times by the year’s end.
Unbelievable! How did you do it?
Andrei Kamkin: Everything was a matter of labor and economics. We provided our laboratories with high-quality equipment and the necessary chemicals, and have been steadily raising our researchers’ salaries for 18 months and offering them sizable bonuses. However, that did not work: the last 25-30 years have forced the faculty to rely on small odd jobs to make ends meet. Research personnel had become lazy and apathetic.
Then we rearranged the laboratory routine to comply with European organizational principles, supplied top-notch equipment, and began to pay the traveling expenses of staff members who were going to research conferences. We also raised salaries to the equivalent of those offered by European universities and established 30,000-50,000 ruble bonuses for every published contribution.
What are your staff’s duties to the university?
Andrei Kamkin: Researchers must provide one or two articles per year, and each team of three instructors must provide one article. That’s how we got our publication rates to skyrocket. We will double the faculty's salaries next year, but each researcher will have to contribute three articles per year and each instructor will be required to have one per year published, as they do in the West. This arrangement is fully justified, given our status as a national research university; the faculty of such universities must dedicate half of their work time to teaching and the other half to research. That’s natural, I think: one must store knowledge and pass it on.
This is why our number of publications has increased amazingly in just two years. Our faculty members publish books in the West, and they’re selling well.
We were efficient in removing obstacles to obtain the status of an international university. We applied to Cambridge to allow our students to sit for the IMAT exam; they have confirmed that we comply with their standards.
As we know, on July 31, Pirogov University was entered in an international list of universities where students may take the IMAT, which includes Cambridge and Oxford.
Andrei Kamkin: Only Russian nationals can take the IMAT at our university for the time being, although it’s been proposed that we allow individuals from all of the CIS countries to take it. We’re putting off the decision until next year, considering the huge number of applicants we expect, and the huge amount of organizational work required. The Cambridge authorities agreed that we should divide the job into two stages.
Who will be allowed to take the test this autumn?
Andrei Kamkin: Only Russian nationals who are enrolled in the International Department this year who are paying tuition. If they wish, they can obtain two degrees, one of them according to European standards. Only such students will qualify to sit for the IMAT on September 16, as well as all subsequent examinations. There are more than 40 such applicants now, all with excellent final grades and five or more IELTS points for English language entrance exams.
Why does the IMAT matter so much to your university?
Andrei Kamkin: Admission to the test grants us all the benefits of a Western university, from enrollment to gaining universally recognized degrees five years later. A second degree from a European partner university is guaranteed even earlier. We have made all our curricula for the 1st year through the 3rd conform with the European requirements, and all we have to do now is coordinate our curricula through the 6th year. A careful analysis of the education we offer revealed its superiority to its Western peers in certain disciplines, so we have pooled the best achievements of the Russian and Western medical schools, to Pirogov University’s great benefit. We borrow the latest technological discoveries.
Now we can send our students to the West to study certain disciplines, and we teach foreign students. It was very hard to arrange such exchanges previously.
We launched a dual-degree program with the University of Milan this year, so our students will be able to receive two degrees. We will embark on a similar project next year with the University of Turin and the Vienna University of Technology, this one for our Department of Medical Biology.
We will extend the number of partner universities. This is not our only goal: Pirogov University will achieve international accreditation after five years of work on European standards, and our degrees will be recognized worldwide.
Do you have foreign students now?
Andrei Kamkin: Students from African and the post-Soviet countries come, mostly via Russian Healthcare Ministry quotas. These are based on the Education Ministry’s recommendations, which are determined, in turn, by federal government resolutions. Students from the Middle East and all of Asia usually come independently and enroll under individual contracts. The nature of enrollment is similar for other students: 60 from Latin America, and two to three each from Germany, the Czech Republic, the United States and Canada. All told, there are about 1,000 students in the Foreign Department.
Foreign applicants pass entrance examinations to enter university on equal terms with Russians. They pay for their studies and receive standard Russian degrees, which are recognized in Malaysia, a majority of the former Soviet republics and some other countries. Otherwise, they are confirmed individually.
Will your graduates be the first to obtain internationally-recognized Russian degrees in medicine?
Andrei Kamkin: Ours will be the first universally-recognized university degree in Russia and the entire CIS. However, it’s too early to discuss the matter in detail now. We will begin cooperating with the medical university in Milan. Turin and Vienna are joining next year, and Germany and Britain somewhat later.