Russia Pays Too Much Attention to Rankings
On March 13, 2014, the HSE Center for Institutional Studies (CInSt) held a seminar to discuss the role of the joint comparative studies being carried out by universities in various countries to measure national systems of higher education. Philip Altbach, Research Professor and Director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA, took part. Later, in an interview for the HSE News Service, he shared his experiences conducting joint research with Russian universities.
— Professor Altbach, why are you interested in Russian universities as partners for joint research?
— Surprisingly enough, Russia has always somehow influenced American education. Before the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, American universities had much poorer funding. The achievements of Russian science forced our government to allocate much more funding to the US system of education in order to complete with the Soviet Union and today we have what we have. But today this investment is declining in the United States. Perhaps we need another “Sputnik Shock.”
Russia today — with its actively developing economy — is as interesting for us as the other BRICS countries. But Russia has some advantages as compared with China, India, and Brazil, namely, the high quality of its academic staff and an impressive university tradition. But Russia needs to rebuild and reform its universities.
With regards to the HSE, this university is especially interesting as a partner for two reasons.
First, usually when an American university cooperates with a Russian one, it is the former that determines the topic of the research and secures the funding. It was different with the HSE. My HSE colleagues — Yaroslav Kuzminov, Maria Yudkevich and Grigory Androushchak — found me and said: we have ideas, and we’re ready to participate in the financing, so let’s work together. Since then, the HSE Laboratory for Institutional Analysis of Economic Reforms (LIA) has constantly worked on all our projects as an equal and very responsible partner. We value this greatly. When an American university studies in Russia only what is of interest to it, the majority of the positive effect of joint research is lost. There is no pushing the envelope.
Second, the HSE is a young and growing research university that has risen to a very high level over a short period of time. Studying such universities is topical for the USA. We have a few similar universities, such as the University of California at San Diego, and we are also studying universities of this kind in other countries.
— Please tell us more about your joint research with the HSE LIA.
— We have finished three projects, and are now launching a fourth. First and foremost, I would like to mention the project related to studying the principles of payment for university professors. It unleashed a storm of debate globally, and the papers we published on this topic are actively being quoted. We had a heated discussion with our Italian colleagues, who harshly criticized our research methodology. I think they simply didn’t understand it.
Our second project was devoted to studying young academic staff in various countries, their career perspectives, work conditions, and contracts.
Finally, we are now finishing a project devoted to academic inbreeding—the phenomenon of universities hiring mainly their own graduates. This situation is often considered to be problematic. It is highly typical for Russia, but also for various countries of Europe, Asia, and Latin America—particularly, Argentina, Spain, China, and Slovenia. I think that it was interesting for our Russian colleagues to realize that the Russian educational system is not unique in this regard.
Now we are launching a new project. It is devoted to studying how rankings influence university policies. We are going to investigate whether Russian universities will become more demanding of its lecturers because of the necessity to enter the top 100 global rankings, whether new publication requirements will be announced, how university management will change, and so on.
— In your opinion, do Russian universities have a chance of entering the top 100?
— Fifteen universities are participating in the programme whose goal it is to see Russian universities enter the top 100 of one of the three global rankings by 2020. Of course, not all of them will succeed, but some of them may. I’ve studied their development programmes and believe that all of them have interesting agendas, which include growing the number of joint research projects being undertaken with international universities, introducing stricter publication requirements, demanding more from instructors, and creating incentives for lecturers to write papers for international journals. All these measures will, of course, boost the quality of Russian education.
But, we have to understand that the other universities of the world are not standing still either. At the same time, Russia seems to pay too much attention to rankings—everyone is completely obsessed with them. We should remember that rankings don’t take into account everything that has to do with the quality of education and research. I think we’ll also look into this topic in our joint research with the LIA.
— Is this just specific to Russia?
— No, not just Russia. China, for example, also pays big attention to rankings, and the Chinese even invented one of them—the Shanghai Ranking. But then, take Brazil—they couldn’t care less about rankings. In the USA, we are mainly concerned with the results of our own rankings, and pay little attention to international comparisons.
Ekaterina Rylko, specially for the HSE News Service
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