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MOSCOW – One of Russia's best-known graduate schools, created to avoid a brain drain among top academics in the newly open Russia of the 1990s, has lost its state accreditation, amid fears of a wider clampdown on educational institutions with strong Western connections.
Russian government auditors last month revoked the accreditation of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, the second case in a year that a private school which partners with a European university has been downgraded.
"They are closing down independent intellectual centers," said Mikhail Gelfand, a biotechnology professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
Known colloquially as Shaninka, after British sociologist Theodor Shanin who founded it in 1995, the school routinely tops Russian university rankings and launches its students into prestigious careers at home and abroad. Shaninka, a small school that graduates about 450 students a year, also runs a joint program with the University of Manchester in Britain, and students can receive both a Russian and a British degree.
The government audit in May started out routinely, said Konstantin Gaaze, who teaches sociology at Shaninka, but three days later the auditors apologized and left abruptly, without sharing their preliminary findings with the school, as is normal.
A month later, the education oversight agency announced that it was stripping Shaninka of its government accreditation, citing violations.
Among these was that the dean of the school's law department has an undergraduate degree in history, not law — even though he does hold advanced degrees in law and has published articles in international law journals. Another complaint was that a theoretical course on political and legal studies did not include a laboratory-based workshop.
Shaninka's troubles follow a string of regulations passed in Russia in recent years that restrict the work of nongovernmental groups and media that receive foreign funding. The audit also took place when Russia's relations with the West were at a particularly low point. London had accused Moscow of the March poisoning in Britain of a former Russian spy and his daughter. The Kremlin denied the accusations and responded by closing down the British Council in Russia, a government-funded group that promotes British culture abroad.
Shaninka's president, Sergei Zuyev, would not speculate about what could have brought on the sanction, but staunchly disputed the findings of the audit.
"People who teach here are usually well-known researchers in Russia and abroad who are published widely, but for some reason we are told that these people cannot lecture or hold certain positions at the school," he said. "This is strange. I don't agree with that."
The University of Manchester said in a statement that it "has validated programs at the Moscow School since 1996 and in that time they have not caused any concern with regards to academic quality and standards."
Rosobrnadzor, the agency that conducted the audit, did not respond to a request for comment. But deputy prime minister Tatyana Golikova has recently called for giving top universities more freedom in setting their own curriculum and for reforming the way auditors are chosen, the state news agency Interfax reported.
Gaaze said academic standards at the school are far superior to those at most Russian universities. He said he had to read up to 150 books and up to 500 articles during his graduate course there.
"I had a feeling that I simply didn't know how to read books before I enrolled at Shaninka," Gaaze said.
Arnold Khachaturov, a philosophy major at Shaninka, says the school teaches students to think independently.
"They call it a hotbed of liberalism but I would rather say it's a greenhouse for critical thought, for independent analysis," Khachaturov said.
While the university can continue to operate without state accreditation, it will not have access to government funds for scholarships and will not be able to offer deferrals from military service to male students.
Students and professors are concerned that Shaninka might follow in the footsteps of the European University in St. Petersburg, another top private liberal arts school that lost its government license last year under similar circumstances. The university was left to function only as a research center and can no longer educate students.
A bitter twist in Shaninka's case is that a watchdog group has revealed that a dissertation defended in 2005 by Svetlana Nikonova, one of the experts who audited Shaninka, had been plagiarized.
"This is the usual case of a dissertation that was copy-pasted from the works of other people without any references," said Andrei Rostovtsev, who heads the Dissernet group.
Nikonova declined to speak to an Associated Press reporter when reached for comment.
Nikonova's work is one of about 8,000 "garbage" dissertations identified by Dissernet volunteers since the group was founded five years ago. Among those exposed are national lawmakers, one federal and many regional ministers, university presidents and deans, and other prominent public figures.
Rostovtsev says such dissertations are usually "purchased" by government officials, members of the military, doctors and even university professors because academic titles give better pay, perks and prestige. A dissertation can cost from $10,000 up to $50,000.
Since Dissernet's inception, about 200 people have been stripped of academic titles because of bogus dissertations.
Against this background, experts are all the more worried that President Vladimir Putin's government has decided to go after Shaninka.
"The authorities view independently thinking people, whatever their views, as a potential threat," said Vladimir Gelman, a political science professor at the European University.