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OPINION: Russia’s Friendship University, Educating the Developing World for 55 Years

Somar Wijayadasa, a former Representative of UNAIDS, and a former delegate of UNESCO to the UN General Assembly, is a PFUR educated international lawyer.

NEW YORK, Jan 28 2015 (IPS) - People’s Friendship University of Russia (PFUR), which celebrates its 55th anniversary on Feb. 5, is known worldwide as a major academic and research centre. During the last five decades, PFUR has educated 80,000 students from 145 countries.

In keeping with its socialist tradition of helping developing countries, Premier Nikita Khrushchev opened the Friendship University, in February 1960, just three years after he opened the former Soviet Union to the world with the 1957 Youth festival in Moscow which was attended by 30,000 foreign guests from 130 countries.

The landmark event that influenced the opening of this University is the liberation of many Asian, African and Latin American countries from colonial rule.

On Feb. 22, 1961, the university was named after Patrice Lumumba – the Congolese independence leader and the first democratically-elected prime minister of the Republic of Congo. In 1992, following a major reorganisation of the university, the Russian government reverted to its original name – People’s Friendship University of Russia (PFUR).

1960 was ideal time for the Soviet Union not only to show the world its radical transformation of the country that was ravaged by the World War II with a loss of over 20 million of its people, but also to display its many scientific and technological advances including its Space Programme – already ahead of the United States.

But the landmark event that influenced the opening of this University is the liberation of many Asian, African and Latin American countries from colonial rule.

This mass decolonisation began after World War II when the principle of “equal rights and self-determination of peoples” was enshrined in the United Nations Charter (Chapter XI, Articles 73 and 74), and the United Nations began to fight for the liberation of these countries.

In 1945, the U.N. consisted of 51 member states and by 1965, the number had more than doubled to 117, as the newly independent nations joined the organisation.

These newly independent states, having suffered under foreign rule and exploitation for centuries, embarked on the arduous struggle to win economic independence, develop their national economies, raise their cultural levels and identities and achieve social progress.

Thus, the strategy behind opening PFUR was to educate hundreds of young people from developing countries by providing higher education in medicine, engineering and other sciences that was most needed for the development of these nations.

Among its prominent graduates are: Mahmoud Abbas, Chairman of the PLO; Michel Djotodia, President, Central African Republic; Hifikepunye Pohamba, President, Namibia; Bharrat Jagdeo, Former President of Guyana; Yousuf Saleh Abbas, Former Prime Minister of Chad, many ministers, judges, professors, ambassadors, doctors, and engineers who make a dedicated commitment to the development of their communities.

This magnanimous and unprecedented assistance continued while Western universities gave only a few one-year scholarships such as Rhodes or Fulbright scholarships to a selected few from developing countries. PFUR gave several hundred five-year scholarships including tuition, a stipend, hostel accommodation, plus passage to and from Moscow which was a bonanza for poor students from developing countries.

The biggest beneficiaries of Russian higher education have been graduates from African and Latin American countries. Since their literacy rates in the 1960’s were very low, graduates of PFUR went back to occupy top positions in their countries.

Today, the University is administered by its Rector, Prof Vladimir Filippov (1973 alumni of PFUR), member of the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Education, who was Russia’s Minister of Education from 1998 to 2004.

In 1960, PFUR had 539 students from 59 countries. Today, it has over 29,000 graduate and post graduate students – including 6,000 international students from 145 countries.

PFUR occupies 125 acres and hosts 27 buildings, enrolls students on fee payment and on scholarship basis, and offers a variety of Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D degrees in 76 disciplines.

While education worldwide is expensive, a four-year Bachelors Degree at PFUR costs about 4,000 dollars a year which is heavily subsidised by the Russian government. Education at PFUR is indubitably a quality higher education at a comparatively affordable price.

An added bonus is the opportunity to obtain fluency in Russian and a double-degree from an affiliated university.

In 2014, a four-year course of undergraduate study in an American University ranged from 18,950 dollars a year in a state university to 42,500 dollars a year in an Ivy league university.

However, both Russian and American universities offer many need-based and merit-based financial aid – making it possible for poor students to obtain a higher education.

Details of PFUR can be found in its website. Interested students from any country should apply directly to the university.

PFUR maintains inter-university cooperation with foreign universities, and is associated with many international educational institutions and organisations such as UNESCO and UNHCR.

In 2009, when PFUR established a joint Master’s Degree Programme on Human Rights with UNHCR, its High Commissioner Navi Pillay said that, “The Friendship University is probably the only place where real multicultural atmosphere exists and human rights are fully respected. The PFUR graduates will for sure occupy the leading positions and it’ll be not only because of the education received, but also because of their life in this multicultural environment.”

According to Rector Filippov, “More than 80,000 graduates, and more than 5,500 doctoral (PhD) holders of the University work in 170 countries worldwide.” They not only obtained a university degree to fulfill their professional ambitions, Filippov said, but also gained invaluable experience in dealing with different cultures, and broaden their social and cultural horizons.

Nelson Mandela said that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

People’s Friendship University has provided higher education to thousands of children from developing countries who otherwise would never have had the opportunity to receive a higher education – especially in a foreign country.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS-Inter Press Service.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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