The Moscow School was conceived and began operating in the beginning of the 1990s, when for the first time in many decades it became possible to create something new within Russia’s education system: something different in content, different in form, and different in methodology. The main aim of the School during this period was to create a university in Russia that could compete with the best universiti es in the world. On the one hand, it was necessary to prevent the outflow of talented youth to the West. Yet, on the other hand, it was a chance to prove that there are no fundamental obstacles to applying Western models of higher education in Russia. By resolving those first two problems, the Moscow School set itself up as a working model of such a university and as an experimental platform for testing and implementing innovation within higher education.

The basic idea of the Moscow School during that period was "the organic integration of the best features of Russian and Western higher education." Realizing this idea required a thorough selection of these "features" so that they would truly mesh together and complement each other in order to create new intellectual potential for a reforming country by using the most effective methods of teaching and self-training. In order to ensure excellence, the Moscow School has selected the best Russian scholars and trained them in leading Western universities. It has also created an academic library that to this day remains unique in terms of maintaining Western library standards in a Russian university. Furthermore, the Moscow School has created curricula and programs that have since been accredited by either British universities or the Russian Department of Education.

The results of the Moscow School’s labors show that it accomplished its main aim – it was able to create a Russo-British University wherein all elements of the Western educational model are successfully working without losing any of Russia’s best academic traditions. Today the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences is a non-commercial, private educational institution. Six years before the signing of the Bologna Declaration, the Moscow School had already adopted the "Bologna Structure." The content and quality of programs, the scope of the class periods, and the methods of academic work correspond both to Russian standards and to all parameters of the European system for ensuring quality higher education.

The second strategic aim of the Moscow School is the support and development of the social and humanitarian sciences and of fundamental education. This was very difficult in the School’s first years of operation because social sciences were completely neglected nationwide as a field. This still remains a difficult task, in that the level of commercialization of higher education is growing within the country. The disciplines taught since the opening of the Moscow School include: sociology (as a science about society, but not as an applied discipline), the theory of political science, principles of social work, and law. The School has been able to maintain such "noncommercial" faculties over the past 9 years taking effort to attract the sponsorship of international charitable foundations and organizations, including the MacArthur Foundation, Open Society Institute, TACIS, the Ford Foundation, the World Bank, and Leverhulme Trust. In recent years a number of Russian sponsors have begun to support the Moscow School, including the Department of Education of the Russian Federation (by financing research in the School) and the National Foundation of Cadres Training. By all forecasts, this strategic element of the Moscow School will always need financial help from Russian and international charity foundations, as nowadays the market is oriented towards support for business education. While a certain number of the faculties will always be stable and financially independent, another part will always require the help of sponsors.

The third element of the School's strategy is guaranteeing maximum access to its educational programs for students from Russia’s regions and countries of the former Soviet Union, especially where programs of this kind are otherwise not available. To achieve this goal, we searched for funds that could be used as grants to fund students from places outside of Moscow and since the second year of the School’s operation students from Russian provinces or from nearby countries have comprised one half to two-thirds of the overall number of students.

One final important area of activity within the Moscow School is the return of science to higher education. One indispensable condition of the work of students and teachers is their full-fledged scientific activity: professors must carry out research projects simultaneously with academic activity and they must publish their research and take part in international scientific forums. Students also take part in the School’s scientific projects, carry out their own projects with the help of the School, and write their master’s theses. One of the most important focuses of teachers and employees is turning the Moscow School into a model for education development – a “firing range” for testing innovations that could be used in higher education throughout Russia.

Teodor Shanin about Creation of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences:

The Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences project was conceived to transfer the experience accumulated by the “western” universities to Russia after a period of isolation and elimination of a part of Russia’s academic elite. The question was how to do it without simply outright copying the western universities in the differing conditions of Russia. After consulting with my friends from the Russia academe, particularly with Tatiana Zaslavskaya and Yuri Levada, I wrote to the then Minister of Education Gennady Yagodin to propose creating four experimental postgraduate universities (Russian-British, Russian-American, Russian-French, and Russian-German) to serve as vehicles for sensible integration of international experience and as the inception of the process of training new university teachers. The Minister responded positively but suggested to start with just one such university as a laboratory for promoting the programme. At this stage, the entire plan could be too difficult to implement. The decision was made in favour of British education.

Under the next post-Gorbachevian minister, the programme was approved on the condition that half of the necessary resources were to be provided from the government budget (including the appropriate building, the accommodation for foreign teachers, and the development budget). The other half was approved by the British Council and the Soros Foundation. The approval of this plan was lavished with compliments by high-ranking officials and celebrated with much fanfare at the former TsK (Central Committee of the Communist party) hotel. A working group mostly comprising the young colleagues was set up and instantly set to work. The working group was headed by myself and Yaroslav Kuzminov as representatives of two academic cultures, British and Russian.

Some time later, the Minister of Education informed the working group that the Ministry was unable to find the building that was intended to be part of the Russian contribution to the programme’s budget. The working group found an alternative solution to this problem just to be told that no solution to the problem of apartments for foreign teachers could be found. The working group found an alternative solution to this issue too but then we were informed that the promised development budget could not be obtained “as this year’s budget has already been set.” When the British Council’s representative in Russia received this information, he informed the working group that, as matters currently stood, the British Council has backed away from the project and the funds allocated for it would be used for other purposes. This information was brought to the Minister’s attention as well as the working group’s decision to quit working on the project.

There are ideas in which the flame of vital force seems to be burning and such ideas rise from the ashes. Some time later, I was invited for a talk by A. Aganbegyan, Full Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the new President of the Academy of National Economy. He told me that he knew about the Russian-British postgraduate university project, and suggested to revive the project. To my response that, after what happened, I was not ready to go on working with the Ministry of Education, he answered that he was personally offering us a venue for running this programme on the premises of the Academy of National Economy. His only condition was that, in the beginning, I was to undertake the responsibility for getting the newly-created university into operation.

A new working group was set up. Later on we secured the necessary approvals from the Ministry of Education, got the university curricula validated by the University of Manchester (thus allowing to issue the UK master’s diplomas), and won the support of a group of scholars (future teachers). During that period we had also obtained financial support from several supporters of whom the Academy of National Economy was the first.

Before the University's inception, the teachers of the three initially planned faculties (sociology, law, and social work) completed a six-month internship with three leading UK universities (London School of Economics, the University of Manchester, and the University of London). Each group of teachers prepared the work plans for their faculties, paying particular attention to teaching methods. At the same time, three staff members of the University’s future library and two executives were sent to the UK to study the work of their British colleagues.

We had also agreed with the leading UK institute of library management in Liverpool that they would prepare the UK part of the book order for our academic library. The academic library was built and properly equipped. Two foreign specialists were assigned to take charge of the library and teaching English for the term of two years. The validation agreement was signed with the University of Manchester that provided for the Manchester’s considering master’s degree diplomas for our graduates after they complete quality assessment of our university.

Throughout this entire period we had to fend off the demands of our Russian ‘well-wishers’ to begin to operate immediately, i.e. without a thorough preparation, so as to deal with the challenging problems of delivering academic postgraduate education that equals the quality of the leading UK universities. We managed to defend ourselves from this kind of ‘friendly support’.

The Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences began its work in September 1995. 

The Moscow School is a "pioneer" structure for substantial, organizational innovations that enrich Russian higher education as a whole. Among the innovations currently being developed by the School are the following:

1. The integration of qualified humanities knowledge in administrative, economic, and business activities. To accomplish this purpose, there are various management faculties in the School: the Faculty of Management in Education, Cultural, and Social Spheres. They are currently negotiating the creation of a Master of Business Administration program in the field of higher education and a Master of Public Administration program for managers in the social sphere.

2. The creation and development of new disciplines that support professions necessary for the job market. In recent years, a number of unique programs have appeared, among them being Management in the Sphere of Culture, Psychological Consulting, and Training of Specialists in the Sphere of Educational Policy. By creating such programs, the Moscow School has also tested out a new approach to education: a competence-based approach oriented on the acquisition of not only knowledge, but also skills necessary for successful professional activity.

3. The development of new forms of organizing educational activities. During the past two years the Moscow School has created a distance-learning program based on one of the existing faculties. Distance learning is not just another innovation or a fad. Currently, the question of accessibility to quality higher education is a burning issue in Russia. The program could help people with low mobility that need a higher education to find their place in the world. There are also problems connected with the quickly-changing requirements of the job market. In light of such conditions, Russian universities should use modern information technologies as effectively as possible to allow for active entry into the field of education. In autumn of 2002, Manchester University’s Faculty of Management completed a validation of its distance-learning program (Postgraduate Diploma level) and, in January of 2003, began making it a reality. The Moscow School considers distance learning to be a key element in developing a system of lifelong learning.

4. The integration of the Russian educational system into the Bologna Process. Over the course of its existence, especially over the past several years, the Moscow School has considerably advanced in its ability to influence the country’s educational system. Participants of the Russian educational process are recognizing the School more and more as an example of the fact that, for Russia, the ideas of the Bologna Declaration are not foreign and are not some outwardly-imposed innovation: the experience of the School convincingly shows that integration into the European field of education is possible and does not involve any negative consequences for the Russian system of higher education. At the current moment the School is negotiating with the Department of Education about the possibility of creating a “test site” based around the School and with the goal of perfecting the trends given by the Bologna Declaration. The conceptual foundations of such a step are currently being worked out.

5. The development of strategic pathways requiring high-quality specialists. Among the Moscow School’s most large-scale and successful projects is the creation of the Centre of Researching Educational Policy (CREP). This project is directed toward encouraging the modernization of Russian education by means of training specialists in key spheres of educational activity, primarily in the field of educational policy. The Center’s task is to form a cohort of highly skilled, forward-thinking analysts and experts to analyze and create educational policy within their regions and the country as a whole. One of the key features of the program is its format. The possibility of training in Open Learning mode allows it to attract a special contingent of students–– adults working the high-ranking positions. Only an educational system of this sort can give the opportunity for people of such a level to receive necessary education. This education system is actively used in universities all over the world, and the Moscow School is an innovative structure for Russian education.