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HSE IAC: a Meeting in a New Context

On May 30th the third annual meeting of the Higher School of Economics International Advisory Committee (IAC) opened at the HSE.

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The HSE IAC was founded in 2010 as an external body for the university development programmes’ expertise and includes acknowledged international researchers and experts in higher education. This time the participants of the two-day session in Moscow included Eric Maskin, Chairman of the IAC, Nobel laureate in Economics and Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University, Philip Altbach, Director of the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE), Lynch School of Education, Boston College, Timothy Colton, Professor at Harvard University, Jamil Salmi, Tertiary Education Coordinator at the World Bank, and Daniel Treisman, Professor at the Department of Political Science, University of California, Los Angeles.

The meeting has been a chance to summarize the results of work which has been carried out by the HSE over the last academic year. In addition to this, the HSE has undergone considerable structural changes, and some external factors have changed which have helped to define the developmental thrust of the Russian system of higher education and science.

‘Our meeting is taking place in a new context’, said Yaroslav Kuzminov, HSE Rector, in his opening speech, ‘The Russian government has recently headed for very serious changes in the higher education system.  Vladimir Putin has set a task that at least 5 Russian universities should enter the Top 100 in international rankings. We can consider this task as a symbolic one and claim that we cannot complete it in such a short time. But it can be also considered as a vector of desired movement towards Russia’s presence on the global academic market. This is a serious shift from a ‘protectionist’ position under the slogan that ‘our education is the best’ to statement of the problems and challenges facing our education’.

‘I believe, our task today’, the HSE Rector continued, ‘is not only to look at what we are doing at the Higher School of Economics, but to define what Russian and Russian universities should do to become global and competitive – both as regards academic and research opportunities, and the quality of teachings and the correlation between educational programmes and the labour market’.

The current position of Russian universities in the leading world rankings is poor, and so is the citation index of papers by Russian researchers in social and economic sciences (probably the New Economic School is the only outstanding institution in this regard). At the same time, in the recent SSRN ranking the Higher School of Economics was 7th in the number of authors who have publications. According to Yaroslav Kuzminov, this is due to the fact that ‘a lot of young colleagues have come to the university and immediately started publishing their papers in English’. This breakthrough, which is in some way unexpected, allows the HSE administration to talk about the start of the HSE’s ‘fast entrance into the international academic market’. ‘I hope that this movement will continue’, Yaroslav Kuzminov added, ‘But we are facing a more serious task: to be read, to be respected, to make our products respected and demanded by the international community’.

Vadim Radaev, First Vice Rector of the HSE, and Maria Yudkevich, Vice Rector of the HSE, made presentations about the key trends and challenges of the HSE’s development. Vadim Radaev reminded the participants that ‘by 2012 the first stage of the HSE’s programme of development for 2020 has been completed, and today it is high time to develop and correct this programme’.

He said that over the last year the university has continued its extensive growth. It is demonstrated, for example, in the record number of state-financed places assigned for the next student enrolment (the HSE has become the leader among Russian universities in the general number of state-financed places), as well as the launch of new undergraduate and master’s programmes (15 new master’s courses have been launched during the last year alone). The HSE has undergone a major structural reform: it has acquired the Moscow State Institute of Electronics and Mathematics (MIEM) which today includes about 3700 students and 500 teachers. At the same time, the growth of the number of state-financed places in the context of the demographic decline in Russia has led to a situation when for the second year in a row the number of fee-paying students at the HSE is decreasing (although not dramatically).

Organization of the education process at the HSE is also changing. The implementation of original educational standards is continuing, which include a stronger focus on the development of student competencies and language skills. The standard cover 19 undergraduate and 18 master’s programmes. The Learning Management System (LMS) has been launched, and over 1000 courses have already been introduced into it.

More English-taught programmes are continuing to be launched: five English-language master’s programmes were launched in 2012. Of course, there are many more courses in English at the HSE, which allows the HSE to attract international students. In 2011 357 international students came to the HSE (including those from the post-Soviet countries), and 60% of them spent a semester or a year at the HSE. But the task of further attracting students from leading international universities to the HSE is still relevant.

The university also seeks to develop outgoing relationships as well. 24 double-degree programmes with 20 international universities have been launched. The HSE has started to provide its students with grants for education in foreign partner universities. But, according to Vadim Radaev, the criteria for allocating such grants remain unregulated. What should be considered as key factors here - the students’ achievement, or the level of the universities and programmes they implement, or something else?

The volume of the HSE’s postgraduate programme is decreasing, both due to objective reasons (demographic and economic), as well as to the HSE’s dedicated approach to focus on the quality of postgraduate education. In pursuit of this goal, the university has launched the academic postgraduate programme (‘full-time aspirantura programme’), which will be expanded to new areas of education in 2012. At the same time, the intermediate results of the academic aspirantura work, according to Vadim Radaev, are ‘ambiguous’.

One of the key issues of the HSE’s development is related to the university’s human resources policy. Traditionally in Russian higher education, the level of teacher workload is very high, including that on the research fellows. The HSE is trying to solve this problem. Teaching assistants have been introduced in order to ease the burden of lecturers, and the researchers have received the opportunity of taking sabbatical leave once every five years. At the same time, there is still the problem of organizing an effective system of rotation among teaching and research staff.

Maria Yudkevich spoke about the successes and challenges of the HSE’s academic development. She reminded the participants that there is a three-level system of academic bonuses for publication activity at the HSE, but this stimulation policy has its downside: often the papers are published in journals of questionable quality. Among the possible solutions to this problem the Vice Rector mentioned the creation of a ‘black list’ of non-reviewed journals and journals which charge a fee for publication, as well as the differentiation of academic bonuses depending on the quality of the journal. The HSE faces a similar dilemma when supports its staff’s participation in conferences and other academic events. It is unlikely that the support of any ‘external’ activity, regardless of the level of the conference, should be an end in itself.

HSE staff members also get additional bonuses for publications in international peer-reviewed journals. In addition to direct payments, the university offers its employees such forms of support as academic writing courses, proofreading and double editing (a paper in a foreign language is edited not only by a Russian reviewer, but also by a foreign one).

International academic cooperation is taking place not only thanks to institutional agreements between universities or through personal contacts between Russian and international researchers, but also in the framework of specially created international laboratories. The HSE has won Russian government competitions for attracting leading international scientists and has created four international laboratories headed by leading international experts. Eight more laboratories with international participation are financed at the HSE’s own expense.

In their feedback and comments the IAC members focused on several key problems. The first one is the limit of the HSE’s growth. Philip Altbach and Timothy Colton, particularly, expressed their concern that further expansion of the university by adding new departments can lead to a blurring of the brand of the Higher School of Economics. In addition to that, being focused on this growth, it is important not to take attention off the development of the other regional branches. This problem is common among Russian universities: do the ‘head’ universities perceive their branches as fully-featured and equal research and educational establishments, or just as second-rate educational institutions?

It is well-known that many Russian universities create regional branches with a strictly commercial goal: to earn money by issuing higher education diplomas. At the HSE the situation is different: the approaches to the organization of the educational process and educational standards are unified for the whole university, but the problem of positioning the campuses in Saint Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod and Perm is still relevant. Galina Volodina, director of the Perm campus, gave a presentation on this topic during the meeting.

IAC members discussed the future of the campus’s development and suggested focusing on regional projects (the campus could become a generator of ideas on spatial development), to look for international partners among regional universities with similar interests and challenges, and to more closely interact (including on the level of joint educational programmes) with other HSE campuses. In addition to this, IAC members believe it makes sense to consider the option of turning the Perm branch into a leading, if not in the country, then at least in the Ural and Siberian region, undergraduate university. Such projects have been successfully implemented in various countries: from India to Mexico and the USA. And focusing on high quality undergraduate programmes does not mean giving up the status of a research university.

The IAC members thoroughly examined the problem of publication activity among Russian researchers and the opportunities for its stimulation. ‘University rankings are directly related to publication activity of a certain university’s staff’, Eric Maskin said, ‘And International rankings take into account not only the number of publications, but the level and quality of the journals which publish the papers’.

At the same time, Philip Altbach believes that the existing system of international academic journals and conferences is undergoing a crisis. Every year a huge number of pseudo-academic journals appear in the world, which manage to lure some international researchers to their editorial boards, but still have no authority in the academic community. ‘That’s why I think a ‘black list’ of journals will not help’, Philip Altbach said, ‘It will be so huge and grow so fast that you’ll have to hire special people to monitor it’.

And Martin Carnoy, academic supervisor of the HSE International Laboratory for Educational Policy Analysis and professor at Stanford University, believes that it is necessary to change the entire research culture which has formed in Russian universities. Colleagues should be the first and the most interested reviewers of their fellows’ works. It is natural for a real researcher to be interested in what is taking place near him, and in fact he does not need additional incentives for that. The research itself, the process of cognition, the search for the truth is the main incentive for research work for those who really want to be involved in it, Professor Carnoy believes.

Oleg Seregin, HSE News Service

Photos by Nikita Benzoruk

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