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Putin: The HSE is a Very Emphatic Response to the Challenges of the New Era

On December 30th Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met with the HSE administration and teaching staff at the HSE professor club.

 Video of the meeting

Records of Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Higher School of Economics

Vladimir Putin started his speech by congratulating the HSE on its18th anniversary. ‘The HSE is an advanced university in every sense. It was established at a very turbulent time, when everything had to be built up from scratch – the economy, the system of government and political traditions. Society was undergoing a dramatic transformation. Russia needed new solutions, groundbreaking ideas and an overhaul of its world view. The HSE was our response to the challenges of the new era, and was a very emphatic response’, the Prime Minister said. ‘This was the first Russian university to adopt the international system of bachelor and master degrees. In 2001 it started admitting students based on their Unified State Exam results and their performance at national student contests in different subjects. The level of education has always been of the highest standard here. Teaching has been based on the outstanding traditions of Russian higher education, taking advantage of the best international practices and factoring in socioeconomic realities. The HSE cooperates with famous international universities on the double major and cross education programmes. Your alumni become real leaders in the civil service and are very well prepared for business – many start their own businesses or work for Russian and international companies. ‘The state, for its part, ‘has always supported the HSE, helping it to attract talented teachers and modernize its infrastructure.’

It is right, the Head of the RF Government continued, that last year the university was included on the list of national research universities. V. Putin promised to help with the realization of the HSE Programme of Development and reminded the audience that on December 23rd a government resolution was signed, transforming the HSE into an autonomous educational institution. ‘This will give the HSE new administrative powers, as well as more freedom to set academic policies and procedures and to manage funds and other resources. I’m sure we all understand that more freedom and autonomy entail greater responsibility for your role, your students and the knowledge they receive. The HSE will be the first Russian university to trial new academic formats, and I wish you every success in this endeavour’, Prime Minister said. He also mentioned that the HSE ‘provides expert support to the federal government, ministries and local authorities. But the scope of this activity needs to be expanded, and it is especially relevant today. I have just raised this issue with my colleagues in the government. We believe that the HSE, the Public Administration Academy and the government should set up an independent expert group to draw up proposals for the next phase of the economic modernization programme which will take us up to 2020. As you know, this phase begins in 2012. In 2012 we plan to introduce several legislative and executive initiatives, continuing what has been started, in particular the reform of the financial sector, municipal government, the pension system, where much needs to be fine-tuned, the modernization of healthcare and so on. We need a profound analysis of what has been done so far and what needs to be done through the second phase of the economic modernization programme. I believe this work is critical. I know you have prepared proposals on several issues, which I suggest we discuss through the expert group.’

The Russian government has always taken account of the HSE’s expert potential, its resources and developments, especially during the global financial and economic crisis.  ‘I believe that the government performed effectively during the crisis. Not all people have felt it yet, and many feel that we are still going through a testing time. But I’m now talking about the overall effectiveness of our efforts. Effectiveness can be measured easily, as you know. Last year the decline in production was 7.8%, while this year it will increase by about 4%.’ ‘Notwithstanding difficulties caused by the crisis, we are reforming social services and upholding social unity, which is very important. We have the public’s trust to carry on with the reform.’

Vladimir Putin admitted that the government has been criticized for spending too much. The Prime Minister does not agree with this criticism: pensions increased by almost 46%, but the average pension is still less than 8000 roubles. The situation in the labour market has also improved, 1,200,000 new jobs have been created. According to the Prime Minister, these are not only new jobs, the quality of jobs is also changing gradually, since these are jobs for highly qualified personnel. In the financial sector, ‘not only did we prevent the banks from collapsing but, as you know, we purchased the banks that were on the verge of collapse for symbolic amounts. We have been changing their structure rather than just giving them money.’ And this was, according to V.Putin, ‘the second set of measures that have been moving modernization forward during the downturn.’

Speaking about the real economy, it is also undergoing structural changes; this sector is becoming more competitive. As an example of agricultural development, V. Putin spoke about the situation in the grain market. ‘We have always purchased grain, but over the past few years we have become a major grain exporter, third after only the United States and Canada. We have even left Australia behind. Of course, the drought undermined this development: there was a decline of more than 9%. But there is one aspect nobody seems to have noticed: we’ve been saying that there has never been such a drought in the country before, and I have talked with the experts and they say that there has not been such a drought in a thousand years. There was a major drought in the 1930s, though on a lesser scale, it wasn’t anything like last summer, when we had a three-month period of 42-degree heat with no rain in the entire European part of the country.’ ‘The drought in 1930s was on a far lesser scale but we all know the havoc it wreaked: it was a tragedy, a famine throughout the entire country and a huge loss of life. This year, however, we saw nothing of the kind.’ Vladimir Putin also said that the government has decided to start trading in grain from the intervention fund via grain exchanges to the amount of 400,000-500,000 tonnes per month beginning from early 2011.

Summarizing his speech, the Prime Minister said that he would be happy to hear the HSE faculty’s opinions on how work is organized both at the educational institution and in the economy as a whole.

HSE Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov thanked the Prime Minister for the visit and emphasized that it was the first visit of a Russian Prime Minister in the 18 years of the Higher School of Economic’s existence. ‘We are grateful to accept the offer for HSE expert participation in the work of the expert group for the development of national economic development programme up to 2020’, Yaroslav Kuzminov also said. 

During the last ten years the funding of education has grown considerably. There have been significant successes in this sphere, and it is important not to stop this progress. A person with higher education, according to the HSE Rector, is ‘socially and economically capable’, which is important for national development.

At the same time, The Russian system of education is not competitive in the global market. Russia is not only behind the traditional leaders in this sphere, but is also starting to drop behind many Asian countries.  It is remarkable that Russian fourth-grade pupils read better than children of the same age from other countries – this is according to international research conducted with the participation of some HSE experts. But, according to these expert evaluations, the skills gained by students by the sixth grade stay almost unchanged till the ninth. This means that there is a gap in knowledge received at school and their application in practice. One of the reasons for this situation is that additional education was either totally removed from schools or was made fee-paying and thus unavailable for the majority of people.

The Higher School of Economics is offering the following solution. It is necessary to detect weaker educational institutions and recruit new staff, including young and talented teachers. This will allow weaker schools to imrove to a more acceptable level. At the same time, according to Vladimir Putin, it is necessary to pay close attention to the mechanism of carrying out this ‘revolutionary idea’, since the government is socially responsible for all teachers, with no exceptions.

The demand for higher education in Russia is above all reasonable limits: 88% of people believe it is necessary to get some form of higher education. Our country doesn’t offer too many channels for self improvement, but access to higher education is one of them. For most people, it is a social escalator. But this creates an imbalance between the number of professionals necessary for the labour market and real working places requiring such qualifications.

What does this lead to? Firstly, not all graduates work in their specialization. Secondly, poorly prepared students enter Russian higher education institutions, including those who are not able and not always willing to study their courses. About 40 percent of the seven million Russian students are not able to study. They lack some basic competencies. One of the possible solutions is to introduce the so-called ‘applied bachelor’s programme’: a student studies at a university for two years, and then he has an opportunity either to take an academic baccalaureate and study for 2 more years or take the necessary applied 8-12 month courses and become a real ‘blue collar’ specialist . At the same time, he gets the social status which is so important for him.

In addition to that, it is very important to pay attention to university enrolment. The number of budget-financed places needs to be cut. And firstly, this should affect legal, economic and managerial specializations: there are many institutions offering substandard courses in these areas. These measures should also involve teacher training universities, since only about 25-30 percent of their graduates go on to work at schools, and those are often not the best graduates.  The number of places in engineering and technical specializations should also be cut, at the expense of applicants with low results in mathematics, physics and other field-specific disciplines. The money that will become available as a result of these changes can be invested, for example, in the applied bachelor’s programmes mentioned above.

Another measure for the improvement of higher education quality should be an independent evaluation of graduates’ knowledge. It is a common practice that state examinations are graded by the same teachers who trained the students, and an ‘independent’ chairman of the commission often merely signs the diplomas. The final state accreditation should be carried out by teachers from other universities, as well as employers and representatives from other scientific schools. This will allow a university’s work to be properly evaluated.

The Higher School of Economics also cares about the preparation of academic staff. For example, this year, 20 people enrolled in the ‘full-day postgraduate programme’: they will get a scholarship which will allow them to concentrate on their academic work rather than worry about earning money. This experience can be expanded to other universities, particularly as many of them are experiencing difficulties with attracting students to postgraduate programmes, where the scholarship is about 1500 roubles (about $50) a month.

Vladimir Putin commented on the speech by the HSE Rector and called all his suggestions very interesting. ‘If we implement at least half of these suggested measures, we shall make considerable advances in the field of education’, the Prime Minister summarized.

The next speaker was Leonid Gokhberg, First Vice Rector of the Higher School of Economics, who spoke about the situation in the field of Russian science and innovations. During the last year some strategic decisions have been made which will undoubtedly influence the future of the innovative sphere. These were decisions on the support of universities’ academic potential, on the support of small innovative business, and on technological platforms. At the same time, our research shows that the level of innovative activity in Russia is still low. The share of innovative enterprises in industry is still below 10%, while in Germany, for example, this share is 80%. Speaking about the activity during the crisis, it became obvious that, unlike in 1998, when there was a 10-percent jump as a reaction to import-substitution, this time the reaction was different. Some companies restarted some unfinished innovative projects, but the main segment of innovative enterprises – 10% – remained unchanged. This means that companies have a certain stimulus to innovative activity. But generally, of course, their motivation for innovation is rather weak. According to some survey results, the majority of companies are oriented towards local markets, where they have no competitors and no stimuli for renovation. But even among innovators, two thirds of their innovations are borrowed from other countries and institutions. At the same time, it is clear that in Russia there is a full acting set of tools for innovative policy, which exists in all developed countries. ‘We have tax benefits for innovative companies, there are special economic zones and technoparks. But they lack effectiveness’, Leonid Gokhberg said.

For example, according to the results of surveys conducted by the HSE, companies try not to apply to tax authorities for R&D benefits. Why not? Because experience has shown that companies are at risk if those expenses are not recognized by the taxation authorities. This means that apparently it is necessary to introduce an obligatory procedure of evaluation of effectiveness for innovative policy measures.

The key issue is transition to the policy of stimulating the demand for innovations. Last August the Governmental Commission on High Technologies and Innovations made a decision on the development of a programme of innovative development for companies with state participation and on the development of technology platforms. Just recently a working group on public-private partnership met and considered 170 applications for technological platforms. In fact, virtually all universities and innovative companies have put themselves forward. A new term has appeared in the expert community, ‘forcing companies to innovate’. The state has really started to lay claims on its property, but unfortunately there are some problems related to the fact that industrial and local authorities themselves are not always oriented to innovation. And here it is crucial to introduce a technological audit of all investment projects with state participation; they are by no means always based on globally competitive technologies.

Competitive innovations are impossible without the support of scientific research, and this research needs to be up to date and of an international level. But in Russia, company spending on science is very low (only about one fourth of total spending on science, while in Germany this share is two thirds), and hence the state has to take the place of private enterprise.

Speaking about Russian science, in its size it’s comparable to other countries. ‘Today we are fourth in the world by the number of people engaged in science and the eighth by expenditure on science, ahead of, for example, Canada. Undoubtedly, this system is very large. Over the last ten years we have had the highest rates of growth of government expenditure on science. Russia is one of the few countries where this trend was not interrupted because of the crisis. But at the same time, over a number of years the performance of our scientific activity has fallen compared to the global level. This relates to publications in international journals, patents and so on.

One of the key problems is the outdated model of science organization in Russia, which is primarily oriented to state research institutes and engineering bureaus. In Russia almost three quarters of research institutions are under state ownership, which cannot be compared to any other sector of economy or any other developed country. And what is important is that science remains isolated from both education and the real economy. Some time ago an inventory check of R&D institutions was carried out; over 4000 research organizations were studied. It was revealed that one third of their employees lacked any form of higher education, and one quarter of organizations rent out their premises. ‘This means that institutes have become merely economic structures involved in anything but science. That’s why it is essential to complete the evaluation of the system of scientific institutions’ activity  which was initiated by the Ministry of Education and Science some years ago, and to complement it with external independent evaluation’, L. Gokhberg said. On this basis it will be possible to detect hopeless organizations and close them, since we can’t spend money on organizations where the share of R&D is only 5 to 10%.

The commitment to supporting advantage centers, such as national research centers and research universities, is also very important.  Speaking of industrial science, according to L. Gokhberg, ‘it is essential to introduce a continuous technological audit, as today the technologies coming from industrial science are outdated, as can be seen by the project of development of a long-term forecast for scientific and technological development up to 2030’.

V. Putin, summarizing the meeting, said that some of these ideas and opinions need to be studied and analyzed in further detail. He suggested that those ideas would be part of the agenda of the first orientation meeting of the expert group for the elaboration of the economic modernization programme up to 2020. The Prime Minister expressed his willingness to participate in discussions on these problems.

Nikolay Vukolov, Andrey Shcherbakov, HSE News Service

Photos by Robert Maximov