Isak Froumin, Academic Supervisor of the HSE Institute for the Development of Education, told us what the status of the National Research University means for the Higher School of Economics and how this status has been gained.
- Isak Davidovich, as we know, recently the HSE became one of only 12 universities which have won the right to be a National Research University. In your opinion, is this new HSE status an award for work already done or stimulus for further development?
- I think that the Higher School of Economics has been very lucky, and not only because it has been recognised by the government. Victory in the national contest of research universities is not like a victory in the Olympic Games or a world championship. Those victories are the culmination of a career:they allow the winner to get a prize, a material reward, to rest on his or her laurels and, for example, open a school for young figure skaters or athletes. Our victory, and maybe it might sound pompous, forces us to start a new cycle of development, to publicly set ourselves goals by which the state and society at large will judge us. The future of our country largely depends on the existence of modern research universities. That's why the HSE has, on one hand, gained a very honourable position, and on the other hand, faces very difficult tasks.
- What are these tasks?
- Firstly the launch of scientific research in areas of priority for our university, i.e. economics, management, sociology and public administration, on a modern and globally competitive level. I have to admit, that unlike Russian physics or chemistry, where we still have outstanding and world-renowned scientific schools, in social and economic sciences we have almost no opportunity to rely on our Soviet heritage. Our task is much more difficult:we have to build our own scientific schools almost from scratch, which will produce new economic models, sociologic concepts and new management technologies in business and public sectors. These need to be attractive internationally. If we fail to do this, we shall be doomed to constantly import not only material technologies, but also social and economic ones.
- Does the HSE really have people capable of creating such models and technologies?
- Yes, we already have such teachers and researchers. But please don't forget that education and help for young people in their personal and professional development remains our most important mission. We should unite the processes of creating new knowledge and of absorbing the best existing knowledge with the educational process. This is our second task. On one hand, we are already doing it, and we have research and educational laboratories and various seminars for our undergraduate and postgraduate students. But if we try to be objective, we see that only a few of our students are involved in these research and education laboratories, and of the graduates from our postgraduate programme, only a few have carried out really surprising and interesting research work. Also, if we look at the number of publications by our professors and researchers in leading international journals, we can see how far behind the leading world universities we currently are.
- How can this situation be changed for the better?
- Here I can tell you about the third challenge that the HSE is facing. It is connected with the two aforementioned issues as well as with the new right obtained by our university. This is the process of radical innovation in the contents of education. The truth is that today we work according to the educational standards that have been created for all Russian universities. And despite the fact that we took part in their development, they reflect not the forefront of international higher education, but just a step up from the generally acceptable level. This is not bad, but what is expected from us is leadership and creativity. We could say that we are currently facing the same challenge we faced when the HSE was being created, when we started to prepare students for the professions which were just emerging, when the educational standard was being created simultaneously with the appearance of the profession itself. Now, as we've got the right to work according to our own standards, colleagues will keep a close eye on us and ask:‘How will they use their right? Will they develop something interesting, fascinating and stunning, or will things remain the same?'
- HSE is the only university focusing on the humanities which gained the status of the National Research University. How do you feel about your colleagues in the area of humanitites?
- So it goes, social sciences in our country are not just on a low level, but massively behind compared to world science, and most of our researchers have not mastered modern methods of research. We are also short of strong social and economic universities. So it is good that at least the HSE has got into this list.
- Initially, how did the HSE weigh the chances for getting the new status?
- I think that if such a contest had taken place ten years ago, we wouldn't have stood a chance. But over the last ten years we've clearly made a breakthrough, while technical and natural sciences have started falling behind. It's not for nothing that the HSE has become one of just a few Russian universities which got into The Times league table - a very authoritative and respected ranking of world universities. That's why when we were applying for this status we understood that maybe we had a chance. But the struggle was tough:initially there were 136 applications for the contest, 28 of them were selected in the second round, and 12 winners were selected in the final. It shows how high the standard of competition was.
- How was the programme, which the HSE introduced to the contest, developed?
- It was created on the basis of the university development programme which was developed with the participation of a broad range of colleagues and was accepted at a conference of staff members in 2008, and supported at the rector's election. I believe that very important solutions have been found as part of this programme. We understood that to break into the world educational environment we need to not only focus on existing areas, but to enter the vanguard of scientific developments and discussions, i.e. to research the most pressing current issues.
Another solution is to preserve the climate of innovation which is inherent in the HSE. The strive for innovations is not some unhealthy desire to constantly try and do something else. We should just bear in mind that what was new yesterday becomes old today. Things that were unique for the HSE in Russia in early 2000s, are becoming common practice. We were the first university to introduce the credit system, the module system, the double-level system, and we have always been the leaders in updating the contents of socio-economic sciences. But today we see that some universities from the Top 30 are leaving us behind in some areas, and we're in danger of falling by the wayside. What will help us keep our leading position is not fighting old battles, but taking on new challenges.
- Now there will be many people who will say that the HSE will get sackfuls of money...
- Yes, the good new is that we have received a considerable investment already - 150 million roubles (about $5 million). However, this amount is not a major part of our budget. Also we should understand that this financing through the of national research programme has some strings attached. We can only spend this money on five main areas:development of technology infrastructure, development of educational programmes and materials, advanced teacher training, development of educational information resources and creation of a system for providing the quality of the educational process and scientific research. Please note - there is no money just for research salaries. We are expected to earn money for research and implementation and commercialization of our R&D by ourselves.
- In connection with this, will the requirements for teachers, undergraduate and postgraduate students toughen?
- Firstly, the requirements will toughen for the university as a whole. The government expects the HSE to become a center of socio-economics science development at international level. It should become standard practice for every senior student to be involved in research and project activities. Therefore it is clear what demands will be placed on students and teachers.
We are speaking about a very serious challenge. Every department;regional branches, faculties, institutes and centres will have to understand their role in this strategy.
- What results are the government expecting from you? Are there any conditions connected with the programme's implementation?
- We have a system of indicators which we are obliged to meet, and shortly they will be officially approved by the government. Monitoring of these indicators'will take place annually. We shall also prepare an annual report on the work done. But the progress we shall hopefully make will be evaluated not only by the government. An external supervisory council and an international academic committee will be created for this purpose.
- Is it possible that the list of national research universities will be reconsidered by 2018, if indicators are not impressive?
- The law on research universities says that if a university fails to meet the demands of the programme it can be deprived of its status. Our colleagues from the Ministry of Education and Science told us that it will be good if at least ten out of twelve universities retain their status.
- And the last question:is it true that our university will have to change its name?
- Well, ‘to change'is a bit too strong. The Higher School of Economics will remain the Higher School of Economics, but it seems that the full official name will change to ‘National Research University - Higher School of Economics'.
Oleg Seregin, HSE News Service