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University Is a Positive Social Laboratory of Change

University Is a Positive Social Laboratory of Change

Global education gives students a new perspective on the world, and teaches them to value differences of opinion, external expert withProject 5-100 Francisco Marmolejo believes. In interview with HSE News, he talked about the different criteria international students use to select which university to study at, why universities should not be entirely focused on ratings, and whether education can change the environment in global politics.

— You know the Higher School of Economics pretty well. What are the university’s key competitive advantages in the educational market today?

— First of all, the long tradition of the university in socio-economic sciences is, in my opinion, a very good way to present the institution. But it is a nice surprise to see that this institution goes beyond these traditional disciplines. Mathematics, for instance, is one of the fields where the university is well known globally. Economic studies from an original perspective are another advantage. I’m sure there are others. I know there has been very good work in urban studies. Those are some of the areas that we, people outside HSE, know about.

The other distinctive element of this university, which is becoming better known, is that it is a globally oriented university, as distinct from other universities in Russia. In other words, it is an institution that is trying to excel in specific fields, but also one that is becoming a truly global university.

— Speaking about international students, do they choose a university because it is a major research centre, or because it is well-known for its educational programmes?

— It depends. Believe it or not, a great majority of international students, when looking for an institution to study at, take into consideration those factors that we sometimes overlook. For some of them, of course the research angle is extremely important, especially for graduate students who are trying to further develop their knowledge in a particular field. But for undergraduate students, who make up the majority of students globally, and who want to study abroad, there are many more elements which are important. First of all, they are looking for a place where they can have a meaningful, productive and interesting experience. They want a place where they can not only learn all the academic contents that they could learn at home, but where they can also get all those elements that will help them develop as individuals. And they are often also attracted by other seemingly trivial factors. For instance, in the case of the U.S., there is a very clear case: if a university is doing very well in a particular sport during the year, say, in basketball, then you’ll see that the year after there is a huge increase in applicants who want to go to that university. Because they were attracted by the basketball activities! Another element, for sure, is economic. They try to find a place where the cost benefit of going abroad is acceptable. And the last but not least is the situation with credits. One of the problems students face when they go abroad, especially if they are non-degree-seeking students, is that when they are overseas, they are learning something for which they will receive a credit. They want to make sure that when they go back home, that credit is going to be recognized as part of their academic programme. Otherwise, they will be losing a semester or a year. So, research shows that the key elements that students take into consideration are a good experience, both as individuals, as well as academically, the relevance of what they are learning, all those extra things of the location they are going to, the economic situation, and the fact that what they study will be recognized at their home institution as part of their academic programme.

— What development areas will be the most noticeable in the next decade?

— There are several fields in the world which are currently developing a lot of promising activities. In my opinion, rather than specific areas, the interdisciplinary approach in different areas has far more potential. We can see that happening right now in the world, fields which are not specific to one topic are demonstrating the most promising developments. So, I think, the challenge facing institutions such as HSE is to be flexible in their academic curriculum, in such a way as to give students the possibility to combine different fields in creating their own portfolio. What is the connection between neurosciences, mathematics, and music? At first glance, the three of them have nothing in common, but for an individual, this might be the right combination of areas for development, turning that individual into a successful professional. So, I think, rather than specific areas, the point is for institutions to create a structure where flexibility is available for the students as they put together their portfolios. It is important not to forget that, especially in developed economies, a great majority of jobs of the future are professions that don’t exist today. That means that we, as institutions, need to be prepared for that type of uncertainty by making sure that students really are prepared with the abilities they will need.

— So, is interdisciplinary approach the key to success today?

— Absolutely. Because nobody can predict what the future will be. But what everybody can predict is that it will be very different from today. We need to prepare people with the tools for tomorrow rather than with tools from the past, as unfortunately currently happens in many higher education institutions around the world.

— It is often said that a lot of universities today pay special attention to research and to attracting specialists, but they don’t pay enough attention to undergraduate students. Why do you think this is happening and what can be done to change the situation?

— It happens for many reasons. One is that the rankings unfortunately pay much more attention to certain elements, such as how many Nobel Prize winners the institution has among its faculty members, how many publications the institution has, and other similar elements. Unfortunately, the rankings force institutions to pay attention to those indicators of quality, and undergraduate students become a casualty. There is a joke about that: the ideal university for that type of researcher is one that has everything except students. And this is very sad, because at the end of the day, a university’s major contribution to society is preparing people, people with the necessary skills to become engaged, productive citizens of tomorrow making a meaningful contribution to society. And universities should put together sufficient internal strategies in order to make the faculty members and administration aware that students are the most important thing. We should never forget that at the end of the day, the central element in our higher education institutions are the students. 

— What are the best strategies to promote research in English-language media?

— That’s a good question! I would suggest that the first component is to carry out good research, because that, alone is a good way in to any outlet. The second, of course, is to train researchers to properly communicate to international audiences. They may be able to do good research, but they should also be able to communicate that in the proper way.

— In such a complicated political situation, do you think that global education can help change it? School students are not very interested in politics – so perhaps they can change the situation in future?

— I fully agree with that. We may seem romantic or naïve in thinking this, but I truly believe that education is the best enabler of social mobility all around the world. And we in higher education probably don’t bear the entire responsibility, because this is a social problem, but our higher education institutions are the last place where students can have that awareness, understanding and recognition of the fact that the world can be a better place. I’m a firm believer that international education is the best tool for this, because it allows students to see the world outside of traditional perspectives. It gives individuals the ability to value and recognize diversity and different points of view, as well as providing them with the tools that they will need in the future. Research shows very clearly that successful professionals of the future will be the ones who know not just the particular interdisciplines in which they were trained, but more importantly, they will also have have the capacity to work in teams, and the ability to speak at least a second, if not a third or fourth, language. They will be individuals who are able to recognize and to value diversity, who are tolerant, and curious, with a desire to keep learning for the rest of their lives. And all these admirable ideas are very well achieved by international education.  So, I believe that it is possible. The more we allow students to acquire a global understanding of the world, the more likely, I believe, those individuals will become key enablers of change in our societies.

If HSE continues making the case where students, researchers, and other members of the academic community are in a positive social laboratory of change, the more the institution will continue to position itself globally as a meaningful institution.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev

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