Summer University: a Gateway to HSE and Russia

In 2014 HSE launched its first Summer University aimed at international students – since then the number of participants and courses as well as their diversity grew greatly. The Summer University opens its doors to the world on June 20, 2017, and Oksana Chernenko, Director of the Summer University programme, and Anna Mezentseva, manager of the Summer University programme, talked to The HSE Look about the programme and how it helps to promote HSE and Russia as study destinations globally.

  • What is summer university? How does it differ from summer schools?

There are many features which HSE summer schools and summer university have in common: students can get ECTS credits, the courses are taught in English, and both have international participants from different countries. However, while for summer schools international students are often an additional feature, for Summer University they are at its core. Other important differences include the duration of the programme: summer schools rarely exceed 2-3 weeks, and our Summer University (SU) courses run from June 20 to August 20. As far as the location is concerned, the majority of SU’s programme is held in Moscow, with the possibility to study at St. Petersburg and Nizhniy Novgorod campuses as well, while summer schools are usually held outside campus or outside Russia entirely.

The most crucial feature of SU is that we strive to offer a multidisciplinary educational experience at HSE, which reflects the diversity and richness of knowledge of the whole university.

  • What do you do to showcase the HSE as a whole?

Our courses represent the majority of faculties - international relations, politics, history, mathematics, computer science, economics, management – and are taught by the leading faculty members, with both Russian and international degrees, who have experience of studying and doing research abroad. This way the students can see that HSE is a globally-oriented university, both in terms of course content and its academic staff. We offer courses in three out of four HSE campuses and do our best to let the participants discover more about the educational programme which interests them, about HSE in general, about the city and the country.  The courses are scheduled in a way which allows the students to study at two or even three campuses – we had such precedents.

In addition to the main curriculum the students can study the Russian language, and it is a very popular option. Students typically have three types of motivation for choosing the language course: they came to Russia for a short time only and want to feel more comfortable during their stay in the city; they major in Russian Studies back at the home university or they want to apply for a graduate two-year programme at HSE and want to feel more confident in their daily and professional communication.

  • Summer University is held in Russia – how much is it an attraction factor for students?

The applications show that whole students emphasize the focus on the academic content of SU, there is a great interest in Russia – a country they heard so much about and never saw for themselves. Summer University is a good ‘test drive’ option for students and for their international offices at home institutions. To give an example, we had a visiting scholar from a partner university who happened to attend some of SU lectures, and he was impressed and brought a whole group of students next year.

We are also a short-term way to check that Moscow is a good destination before committing to an exchange semester here or taking a degree programme. The students get to ‘taste’ Russia and HSE – and some of them decide to stay with us. Most of the students keep in touch via our Facebook group, actively communicating with each other and staying engaged in the news about new developments at HSE and in Russian higher education.

  • How do the students find you?

We’ve got two main channels of student recruitment.  Around half of our summer participants are freemovers, and the rest comes from universities with which we have institutional contracts. We have to be universally appealing while taking into account that channels of recruitment and modes of work are essentially different.  We understand very well that they are both equally important to us. Facebook and other social networks, international education fairs – all of these tools are helpful. One of the most effective channels remains the word of mouth, both from other students and from professors.

Our institutional partners are a great source of students, but we also have agreements for the participation in Summer University only. Many universities have study abroad requirements and look for quality programmes which they can recommend to students. Sometimes they include an obligatory monthly exchange for undergraduate students, sometimes it’s up to 6 months abroad, and the universities support their students in this all the way through. 

Some universities select the courses institutionally for their students, others give them a choice among everything we offer. One of our partnership success stories is the relationship with Seoul National University. They’ve been sending us students for three years already, and we hope they will for many more to come. Their program is called SNU in Moscow, and they have similar ones in Beijing, Tokyo, Paris, Berlin and Madrid. They commission the curriculum they want their students to get because their students get assignments from SNU and make presentations of their projects using our lecture materials and consulting our supervising professors. We like to invite all the students to their exploratory sessions because they are really interesting. There was one presentation that won everyone over last year. It was about Chekhov’s literary heritage, and they visited Chekhov’s grave at the Novo-Dyevitchiye cemetery. Everything they did was so full of sincere interest in Russian literature, they were really considerate and knowledgeable. On the other hand, a different university from South Korea, Seoul National University of Science and Technology (SeoulTech), allows its student to make their own choice from the list of the courses we have at the moment.

  • How do the freemovers differ from the students who arrive via their universities?

We never know which connections will bring us the next student.  Some channels are more obvious, of course, for example, the official websites of partner universities or work with the institutional partners, like DAAD. They award scholarships for student mobility, and they have financial incentives to send students to specific universities with an assured level of quality and which match their priorities, and that includes us.

Sometimes one student can bring a group, so to speak, and later a whole university for us to “befriend” and partner with. Some students who initially came as a part of a university group return later on as freemovers and take on extra courses, spending more time with us.  It’s hard to say which recruitment channel works best for the freemovers, though we are analyzing their effectiveness as much as we can. We even have a question about it in our application form: “How did you find out about us?”, but usually, the answers are all over the place.  Our records and experience show that the good old word of mouth and buzz marketing remain the most effective ways. 

We managed to spread the word about Summer University quite successfully through Coursera’s mailing list of the people who took HSE courses this year - and witnessed a rise of interest in our computer science curriculum at SU. But it often happens that the students come because a professor advised them to, or one of our students who moved abroad, or an exchange student who studied here, or maybe through a roommate, or even a Facebook friend.

In a way, it does not matter where the freemovers come from, far more important is the experience they have here. Our long-term goal is to recruit full degree students, perhaps also  PhD students.  Several students stayed on for an academic exchange and some enrolled for a Master’s degree. Though such cases are few yet, I believe they will snowball with each year.

  • Is there a chance for you to benefit from other university’s experience?

We are trying to put ourselves out there and join the professional community. There are international academic mobility offices in almost every university, so a lot can be discussed with colleagues. We are not just passive learners, though, but also contribute our experience to the discussion. There are professional conferences, like the one held annually by European Association for International Education (EAIE), and I am a member and a resource person for a Summer Schools Expert Committee. We may not be pioneers here, but we can both offer our unique expertise and learn from others. It’s also good publicity for HSE and our Summer University. Another example of an international venue is QS Summer School Summit, and we are the programme committee members. It’s a huge opportunity for us to promote the university and establish new partnerships.

Read more in The HSE Look April 2017 issue