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Yaroslav Kuzminov: ‘In the next generation, Russia will produce a constellation of widely cited researchers in sociology, economics, and political science’

HSE Rector Yaroslav Kusminov gave a special interview to Dmitry Grishankov, CEO of Expert RA Rating Agency.

— How happy are you with the ongoing reform of higher education in Russia?

 The reform is on the right track overall, but there are problems with resources and with the way some changes are being made.

Russia spends about 0.8% of its GDP on higher education — mainly from the federal budget — and private student fees contribute another 0.4%. According to the OECD, spending on higher education in proportion to country GDPs is 1.4% in the United States, 1.9% in Canada, 2.2% in Finland, and 2.9% in Sweden. Britain and Brazil spent as much as Russia, while Japan spends even less, just 0.7% of its GDP.

But our rates of higher education are one and a half times higher than in Western Europe, with as many as 90% of school leavers applying to colleges and universities; therefore the available funding is spread too thinly and ends up being relatively meagre per capita.

On top of that, the Ministry of Education has budgeted just 1% of public funding, i.e. 4 billion roubles, for research; to compare, supporting one researcher in Western Europe costs 50,000 euro per year.

— What is the solution? Doubling the budget?

 There are three policy options. The first option is to limit the admission to publicly-funded places at universities to those applicants with the highest school graduation test scores in their chosen subjects, while excluding those with lower or average performance from public-funded tuition. This will help increase the funding available for each student by 1.5 times.

Another option could be to charge all publicly-funded students a co-payment the way they now do in China and Germany, where in the past university education used to be free for the student. This will have the added benefit of encouraging students to adopt a more responsible approach both to their studies and to their choice of educational pathway.

Yet a third option is to increase public funding by half a percent of the GDP, i.e. by some 60%; such an increase will be sufficient since due to the demographic decline we will have 1.5 times fewer students in 2020 than today.

In Russia, the duration of general schooling is approximately two years shorter than in many other countries — as a result, there is not enough time for Russian students to learn the basics of several important subjects, such as economics, law, foreign languages, philosophy and sociology in general school. Undergraduate students spend the first two years in college or university completing their general education before they can consciously choose their future career path. But since undergraduate courses in Russia are historically highly specialised, many students come to realise by their third year that they have chosen the wrong department — or the wrong university. This system dates back to the Soviet times and is very hard to change.

Except for its somewhat imperfect implementation, Russia's current educational reform is on the right track. The country needs to support its major research universities focused on training professionals for the global market.

Instead of these highly specialised bachelor's courses linked to strictly defined occupations — such as 'teacher of physics and mathematics' or 'agricultural engineer' — we need courses with a broader focus, i.e. physics and mathematics, social and economic sciences, humanities, earth sciences, etc. Students also need an option — available elsewhere in the world — to switch between undergraduate and master's courses in various combinations. The proportion of students enrolling in a university with a specific occupational goal in mind does not exceed 15-20% of the admission. We should allow them more flexibility in choosing their educational pathways. Students of the world's leading universities spend the first two years studying together and specialise later.

Applied bachelor's degrees, currently available in many countries, provide another good option. By our estimates, about a third of all students who wish to study for an occupation will choose this option rather than go to a vocational school.

— The government has allocated funds to improve the competitiveness of Russian universities — what do you think the result will be?

 It depends on the approach. In 1990 in China they decided to make Beijing and Shanghai universities competitive on a global scale and tripled their budgets over one year. In Russia, the allocated funds are significantly smaller.

We need to qualitatively transform at least 15 major Russian universities that have the potential to become competitive in the global market. A globally competitive university is one having at least 20-30 internationally recognized teams, at least 500 teachers embedded in global networks and earning global-level salaries, and a modern campus.

In order to be perceived as a global leader, a university should have a strong research component and adequate funds for basic research. Only five of Russia's 600 universities — including Moscow State University and St. Petersburg State University — have substantial funding for R&D even though their research budgets are just 10-15% of their educational budgets, most international universities normally spend at least half of their budgets on research.

— But what about the HSE--is it prepared to meet the challenges of global competition?

 The HSE has traditionally invested in its development, in particular in exploratory research and new teachers. In recent years we have been spending in the region 2 billion rubles annually, a quarter of our budget, to this end. As a result, today about 300 of our 2,000 faculty members have had their publications accepted by leading international journals in their fields. We operate 20 international laboratories. We have been developing fast — but still have a long way to go.

Visiting international colleagues often say, "Your dropout rates are crazy! How can you be so cruel?" But I believe that students with poor academic performance should drop out — once you have chosen your field you should stick with it to the end. But too often, people are just lazy.

— But isn't laziness the cause of all progress?

 Not always. Sometimes it is not the cause of progress but plain laziness for its own end. Big cities in Russia have virtually zero unemployment, and people lack incentives to work hard. This is dangerous for the future of this country. Let us at least create incentives for students to be responsible for their own learning and to work hard.

— Do poor performers just drop out — or do they instead just get lower degrees?

It depends, but there will always be dropouts. At the HSE, almost half of all new students drop out during their first year, but then 30% come back and graduate a year or two later, often switching to another HSE faculty, and the remaining 20% transfer to other universities.

— What do you think of courses at Russian universities taught in a a foreign (usually English) language? Many people are proud that their university offers courses in English but is it the right thing to do when students are Russians or come from CIS countries?

In education and research, being global means that we can invite outstanding professors who do not speak Russian, and they should feel comfortable teaching in English here.

 Yes, I believe it is the right thing to do. The economy today is global, culture is global, and research is global. In education and research, being global means that we can invite outstanding professors who do not speak Russian, and they should feel comfortable teaching in English here. A foreign professor should be able to communicate with their students who must therefore speak a foreign language. At the HSE, no courses are taught in English for a Russian-speaking audience just to tick boxes and say we can do it. But if we have three foreign students in the audience who do not understand Russian then everyone should switch to English — it is natural. Similarly, if a teacher suggests a couple of English-language papers for further reading, no one should be complaining but should just get on and read them.

To become a strong, widely cited researcher, one needs to be in the 'communication core' — and we already have such researchers. It is my feeling that in the next generation, perhaps in 20 years or so, Russia will definitely produce a constellation of widely cited researchers in sociology, economics, and political science. Success is inevitable, and do you know why? Because the overall level of culture is high. We are going through an interesting period where economic and social institutions are changing right in front of our eyes. People and organizations here survive and evolve in the face of higher uncertainty than in the West or even in China.

— Another question. Let us imagine that a university — any university — becomes a world-class institution whereas its country has not yet reached a world level for a number of reasons. Under such circumstances, at least in my experience, the university serves as a pump for brain drain by pumping skills out of the country.

 I do not think that by creating a world-class university we contribute to brain drain. Let me explain using a simple example. The HSE was established 20 years ago. Ten years ago, 10% of our students left Russia, mainly for London and New York. Ten years later, we still see 10% of our graduates moving to other countries. But now we have undergraduate and graduate students coming from other countries, and every year we attract about 20-25 world-level teachers and postdocs from Western universities. Today, some 100 foreigners are employed full-time by the HSE, not including the heads of laboratories and other leading researchers who spend a few months every year in Russia — not only at the HSE in Moscow, but also in St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod.

We have the same number of skilled professionals leaving us as we have coming to Russia. Today we admit about 500 foreign students per year — this was not the case ten years ago. I am sure that 70% of these students will stay in Russia.

— Speaking of foreign students, do you mean those from the CIS countries or former Soviet republics?

 Both from the former Soviet republics and from other countries. We have to get used to the fact that the former Soviet Union is now part of a larger world.

Expert Magazine, December 2, 2013

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