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‘There Will Be No Mass Closures’—HSE Rector Kuzminov on Future Trends in Education

In a TASS interview, Rector Kuzminov discusses digitalization, society, and what the next 10 years hold for HSE

Yaroslav Kuzminov

Yaroslav Kuzminov
© Gavriil Grigorov/TASS

At the beginning of last year, no one would have thought that higher education would go online in a matter of days, but digital technologies open up new opportunities for universities, which they are unlikely to give up now. In an interview with TASS, the HSE University Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov spoke about what education will be like in the near future, whether universities will abandon campuses in favour of remote learning, and how online education may affect society.

Rector Kuzminov, today many people are saying that after the pandemic, higher education will never be the same.

The pandemic and the required isolation measures in and of themselves did not create anything new either in terms of content or in terms of methods and forms. Everything that we see today — massive online courses, online seminars, online educational programmes — was created and used before the pandemic. It’s just that now virtually all educational players have mastered these new technologies.

Will we be able to go back, with a sigh of relief, to the old formats? In ballet classes and chemistry labs — probably, yes. HSE, by the way, did not transfer chemistry, physics, or biology labs online. Nor did we move design workshops or archaeological field work online

To our relief, we will restore the personal side of the university and everything associated with the luxury of face-to-face and group interaction — the ‘Brownian motion’ of a huge campus and the ‘beautiful surprises’ that arise from it. I must say that one of the downsides of online education is the inability to just bump into someone in the hall. Everything still happens, but it all has to be planned in advance...

But universities will definitely not be the same. We have seen too many new opportunities this year. It would be a sin not to seize them.

Starting this year, almost 12% of courses have been taught at all four HSE campuses; some of them are taught by teams of scholars or scientists from several cities. For the first time, we have hired more than a hundred leading international scholars as remote professors: they teach courses, lead scientific seminars, hold one-on-one student-teacher consultations — a student gets all of this without having to leave their campus. Our renowned April HSE Conference was held entirely online and drew more than twice as many participants than before.

In other words, we have seen a huge expansion of opportunities in terms of student choice, the professional networks of our researchers, our reach, and teacher success. This can only be compared with the invention of printing.

What do you think will happen to higher education in the next ten years?

There will be significant changes. Before, these changes were simply put off to a later date. Compared to 2020 and 2010, not much has changed at universities. By 2030, however, new forms will come to the fore and lead to a new quality of higher education.

Three drivers of change are at work: the acceleration of technological upgrades and subsequent qualifications; the digital revolution; and the exponential growth of useful information.

‘Genetically’ speaking, education is a conservative sphere. Its function is to broadcast culture, to transfer the accumulated wealth of knowledge and skills to a new generation. It doesn’t matter if this knowledge was accumulated four centuries prior, if we are reading Shakespeare, or last year.

But higher education is different from secondary school and vocational college. Higher education disseminates the findings of new research. It teaches students not only to acquire knowledge, but to challenge it, doubt it, and disprove it.

Having become widespread in the 20th century, higher education largely lost this quality, its root feature. In many ways, it is now simply a broadcaster of ready-made knowledge. Today, among universities in the world, hardly a third are real research universities. The rest do not produce innovators.

The revolution in which you and I are participating is returning higher education to its original, Humboldt state. For everyone who loves the university and cares about it, this is an assortment of great opportunities

What features of the ‘new reality’ can we already see?

First of all, we see that our audience is significantly expanding. It is often said that this is due to the forced transition to online. In fact, this is not the case. All of the tools existed before. It is just that education is the most conservative of fields. And an unwillingness to change something led to denial. The pandemic, however, has made the use of online technology affordable and necessary for everyone.

Even those who did not accept digitalization before are now forced to work in this format. It’s not a fact that everyone will prefer to continue working this way, but the barriers have already been eliminated. I think this is a big change in the minds of both those who teach and those who learn.

Over the last 20 years, we have seen the same phenomenon all over the world: students have stopped attending lectures. But did they discard the material that was covered there? As it turns out, no. Students who did attend streamed the lectures to their classmates. That is, the students themselves naturally switched—albeit using a somewhat ‘guerrilla’ form of it—to online learning, which is now taking over the world.

Student enrolment in HSE University’s online courses alone is now over 3 million students worldwide. Not all of them go so far as to get a diploma, nor do all go so far as to pay for the course. But no one scolds the library because you opened 50 books, looked at them, and then decided to read only the 51st. This is how people make choices. Online education gives a previously unthinkable expanded range of possibilities. It doesn’t matter where you study, where you live, or whether you are able to move to a different city or country. No matter where you are in the world, you are connected the knowledge exchange system and the discussion of new knowledge, which is offered by scientists and scholars from leading world centres.

The second global change that we are seeing now is short tutorials and so-called microdegrees. The lifespan of a new technology in the modern world is less than five years.

To have a student enrol at a university and expect them to master a certain technology and then find a job was possible 50 years ago, but not today. Technologies grow obsolete before you even graduate

But in the labour market, you have to present certificates of specific qualifications — and microdegrees fulfil this task. You can earn a microdegree outside your university (there are many commercial courses worldwide that prepare students for professional exams) or as part of a larger educational programme. If universities do not want to lose revenue, they will work to enter this market.

Third. More than now, the education system will rely on external educational resources and services. Education is structured into two segments: the provision of specific academic and assessment services (‘short’ educational products that are technological and algorithmic, with clearly measurable results) and the educational environment in which a student develops their identity. A research university has one kind of environment: first and foremost, it includes interaction with scholars and scientists and participation in research. A teaching university has another, which is to a greater extent shaped by students’ personal interactions and participation in social projects.

Against this backdrop of the widespread use of external educational services, the responsibility of the university itself will come into sharper relief. The university is a developing environment, a place of communicative interaction. The university still today forms a person’s system of personal connections, acquaintances, and relationships—students carry this system with them their entire lives, and it supports their careers. In the social sciences this is known as ‘social capital’.

Fourth, we are seeing the rapid growth of digital educational services as separate products and their gradual replacement of aspects of traditional courses. The question of which aspects is easy to answer: the ones that teachers do not relish, find inspiration in, or find interesting — the routine tasks that are nevertheless important for the student. Often it is these very tasks that fortify students’ knowledge and skills and ensure student feedback for the university. The main complaint from students is precisely that — a lack of feedback, insufficient assessment of their daily efforts. Without this, many students lose their motivation and stop focusing on their classes. Digitalization helps to solve this problem, or at least to alleviate it significantly.

Digitalization means digital learning systems — from group computer games that simulate production or management decisions. It means ‘educational problem book’ programmes based on artificial intelligence. It means automated assessment systems. It means simulators of technology use. It means being able to use laboratory equipment remotely. The mechanisms for all of these projects are already in place; the task that remains is to enter the content. So far, only massive open online courses (MOOCs) have entered university curricula.

A significant portion of educational resources will be available outside of the university. Providers will include universities themselves (Coursera and EdX platforms are current examples), as well as specialized training firms and technology providers. The trigger here, of course, was the pandemic and forced isolation, when everyone, without exception, had to master remote learning and online courses. We can say that everyone entered the water and, when the flood is over, many will nonetheless continue to enjoy swimming.

The colossal expansion of educational opportunities will lead to the eventual elimination of courses that are ineffective (uninformative, uninspiring, unoriginal) from university practice. Leading universities will begin to use this reality to their advantage: after all, the freed up resources can be used to develop research and retain the best professors. Already, HSE programmes boast about 745 MOOCs, and three quarters of them (75%) are from other universities.

We can also talk about two other big shifts that are highly likely.

Language barriers will disappear. By 2025, language will no longer be an issue for us. It will be as if each and every one of us has their own personal translator. The higher education market (indeed, education in general) will be completely global. This will give Russia, China, and Latin American countries a chance to enter the world market with their own original educational products.

Now the language of the global market is English — this is the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. This will most likely be reversed. This shift in the coming decade is just beginning, but it will be a huge shift.

And finally, higher education will become more and more equal in quality, less and less elite. Digitalization and the unification of the educational resource market to a significantly level the playing field for students, no matter what city they live in or what university they study at. The blatant imitation of education, which ten years ago was widespread in many countries, including Russia, will be completely wiped out of the market. Higher education will not yet become universal, like school education, but it will be a more reliable stepping stone than it is today.

Can we say that online education is here to stay and that all students will now study remotely?

It seems to me that students to a very large extent already studied remotely, but now this trend, of course, will grow. However, one should not expect massive closures of university campuses. Even after the entire educational process was transferred to HSE’s online system, our campus remained open, and approximately one out of every 10 students comes to campus every day to meet with colleagues and organize project teams. Interpersonal connections are crucial in education. Therefore, traditional education, or what we have now come to call face-to-face instruction, is not going anywhere. Schools will not disappear, universities will not disappear, but the format of activity will change: it will be more creative, project-based, and fuelled by passion. The demand for coworking spaces will grow, not only for university students, but also for pupils. If you go to the HSE Lyceum, you will see how the pupils take initiative on their own; they gather without their teachers.

But, of course, the new reality implies a reformatting of the university environment — such as the university library, for example. If you go to the HSE library, you see books, but only one out of every ten students is using them. The remaining nine out of ten are sitting at their laptops, accessing those same books electronically. But they come to the library. Some come for individual work, some for group work. And it is important that this work takes place surrounded by books — not only as carriers of knowledge, but also as symbols of knowledge. We surround ourselves with signs.

But, I say again, the emotional connection will not go anywhere, the feeling of being part of a team that studies together and thinks together will not go anywhere. That is what is most important. And this, of course, is much more important for secondary schools. I don’t believe in online primary or secondary schools at all. When it comes to some courses for pupils, sure, but when it comes to the full development of a child without a school environment, no.

Why don’t you believe in online education at the primary and secondary school levels?

Because school at this level is more about upbringing than education. It is about helping children become individuals rather than ensuring they gain a certain set of professional competencies, like at the university level. In secondary schools, students are not yet adults, and online education will therefore always play a supporting role.

It is no coincidence that universities tried to preserve in-person classes and even lectures for first-year students until the last moment, though this format is not productive for senior courses. But first-year students attend lectures; they want to have the university experience. Therefore, secondary school and the first year of university remain in the realm of in-person instruction, the realm of traditional approaches. Online education is for broad professional education and self-education

In your opinion, what areas of specialization will be in demand for university graduates in the near future? What prediction would you make?

It is difficult to make reliable predictions when the situation changes every three to four years. But right now, we see two areas to which people look that are in growing demand. This is IT — not programming, I should clarify, since it is already common, but software engineering or business systems analysis, and so on. The second area is what can be called the applied humanities: design, communications, media — that which would have been called journalism before — as well as, by the way, Asian languages, strange as it may seem.

Is journalism still in demand?

Yes, but now it is more about media skills and not strict journalistic skills. In reality, a journalist still has to first get some kind of education in order to be a worthy interlocutor. But knowing how to present something, how to grasp a story, how to offer yourself and your project in a way that will get it noticed — it seems to me that all this is becoming very important. The ability to present yourself, make yourself visible, break through this ocean of information so that you will be noticed. Remember the poster that read ‘I'm pregnant’ at the president's press conference? It turned out that the woman holding it was not pregnant. She just wanted attention, and it worked.

HSE is the leader of Russia’s national programme to improve the international competitiveness of Russian universities. The programme has just reached its conclusion. Now the Ministry of Education and Science is talking about the launch of a new programme, Priority 2030 (the Strategic Academic Leadership Program). What do you make of the results of the completed programme and the prospects for the next one?

Project 5-100, which ended last year, was a very successful programme. If we look at its results and compare it with programmes of other countries, then Russia has managed to significantly increase its international profile in a number of areas: economics, chemistry, and the digital humanities. And this is a significant outcome. For example, today, two Russian universities — HSE University and St. Petersburg University — are among the top 10 universities worldwide on Coursera. This is a huge achievement — we have overcome the dominance of US universities.

Of course, as a country, we need to expand our share of the global research university sector. The task of advancing in the international university rankings remains important. If Russia is currently represented in the top 100 subject ratings by 15 universities, then in 10 years we can hope to be represented there by 50-60 Russian universities.

Why specifically the top 100? Why not the top 200, or the top 50? Why set your efforts on the rankings at all?

The ratings reflect a university’s weight in the global division of labour, its relevance, and its reputation. Today not a single country, not even the United States, which has been attracting promising scholars and scientists from all over the world for 50 years, participates even in half of the scientific and technological frontiers that exist in the world. Scientific research is global and divided. Participation in the exchange of advanced ideas and in scientific communication plays a critical role. Roughly speaking, when a university places in the top 100 in biology, it means that university’s scientists are invited to all of the specialized conferences and symposia, and that postdocs and graduate students attend (and are invited) to them. That is, they are deliberately included, they are equal. But there are tens of thousands of universities in the world! And thousands work in every subject area.

Over the past ten years, we have changed the world’s attitude to Russian science and research: if in the first decade of the 21st century Russian science was perceived as a flagging shadow of its Soviet forebear, today it is a truly existing value. It is modern, and it is made up of young scientists and researchers — not just an outgoing generation.

We have not stopped the ‘brain drain’, but there is now a strong counteracting force. Leading Russian universities are not missing out on strong graduates and promising scientists. Russian universities are accepting young researchers from other countries that have strong universities

If we take the universities of Project 5-100, the number of dynamic scholars and scientists we have attracted from abroad exceeds the number of those whom we have lost to foreign universities. In other words, brains are ‘draining’ in our direction as well, and that is a wonderful thing.

Researchers, when looking for a place to land, usually consider two factors: 1) Will I have access to the necessary equipment (or data) for my research? And 2) How rich is the academic environment? Will I have interesting colleagues? To understand what we have managed to do in the latter respect, I will give our own example. At HSE in 2010, 12% of our faculty members had published articles in international scientific journals. Today this number is almost 70%.

Over the past 10 years, in fact, a new group of research universities has emerged, representing Russia amongst the elite institutions of the global educational community. In 2020, the number of Russian universities placing in the top 100 in their subject areas reached 15. In 2013, there were only three. The revenue generated by applied research developments by participating Project 5-100 universities for our economy have more than tripled, reaching an average of one billion roubles per university. The number of foreign students has increased 250%, to an average of 2,500 per university. No other country has achieved such results in such a short time.

Today it is possible to use the serious potential generated by leading Russian universities to achieve the country’s strategic development goals. It is necessary to include universities in the development of the country not only as suppliers of workers, but as creators of new knowledge and technologies. We need to think about the transfer of material and social technologies created by universities into real life and into the real economy. Our knowledge should help the country to develop, people should feel comfortable and confident in it, and businesses should make money. These topics are traditionally very important for HSE. The motto of our university is ‘We do not learn for school, but for life.’

Another important area is to ensure the advanced development of universities in the regions of Russia. We cannot exist with 25 competitive universities. Russia is a big country. We have many regions, and each of them should have a strong university.

I don’t believe in investing in a region if its high school graduates do not stay there to continue their studies. Almost a third of Russia’s regions do not have a single university where the average student Unified State Exam score is above 70. When people say (despite the fact that there are universities in the city), ‘We have nowhere to get a higher education’ — that is a tragedy for the region

If a region cannot retain its intellectual class and has no attractiveness as a centre of intellectual activity, it has no future in the new economy.

We must advance the entire system of Russian higher education through our online courses and network programmes with regional universities. But most importantly, we must help the best regional universities become research universities. The task of academic leadership is that about 100 universities will be selected, not 25. But the existing leaders should influence a wide range of higher educational institutions and, directly, students through mirror laboratories, network programmes, and online courses.

I would like to touch upon a topic related to the 2030 HSE Development Programme. Does it include anything new in terms of social outreach, governmental cooperation, or student activities?

There are three or four key tasks that we would like to accomplish in the next ten years.

First is the transition to project-based learning, starting from students’ first year of study. HSE is a research university that is very well represented in world-class scientific and academic research. However, it is a research university for us — the teachers — but not for the majority of our students. Yes, we now have 15–20% of strong students who find themselves engaged in research. But we want every student who enrols at HSE to undertake a research project. Therefore, our strategic goal is to implement a project-based curriculum.

It’s a difficult task, and it is so costly that we cannot do it with our own teachers alone. We must use all of HSE’s resources — we are getting our alumni, experts from firms and ministries, scholars from research institutes, and researchers from other universities involved. There is an incentive for them — HSE attracts very strong, perhaps the strongest, students in Russia. For many, working with such students is a value in itself.

We will not be able to achieve this task without student initiative. Therefore, we must dramatically increase their educational contribution, the contribution of senior student mentors, and the contribution of the organizers of collective projects. This is a completely new goal for the University. Previously, we were catching up. Now we are endeavouring to do something no other university in the world has. We don’t know if we can achieve it within the next ten years. Maybe it will take longer. But we have already started doing it.

The second task is to develop large, university-wide research projects. HSE traditionally makes large projects that bring together economists, sociologists, and lawyers. HSE supports reforms; we work with the government and with the presidential administration. These projects go beyond the standard academic scope. They have strong practical applications; they are understandable and significant for Russian society.

We are scholars: we have our own ivory tower that we love and cherish. But we leave it from time to time; we don’t stay cloistered inside. We keep the doors to our tower open

Now we want to make largescale research projects a standard for our university: this goes for fields in the humanities as well, such as philology and history — that is, fields in which this is not commonly done. In every area of study, we need to reach a point where we can set goals that are understandable not only to the academic community, but to society as a whole.

What will these projects be like? Could you give some examples?

One project, for example, seeks to reconstruct how late Soviet institutions worked. It involves a system of interviews with capable people who found themselves in the 70s and 80s and can explain how, say, the State Planning Committee worked. This is a network project in which, we hope, not only HSE will be involved, but also many researchers throughout Russia. But, for sure, if we don’t reconstruct and record how the system worked — a system that is gone but that we have inherited — we will make the same mistakes; we will not learn from them. The importance of this project is understandable to many, it is interesting for society, and it will involve hundreds of people.

Another project is related to literature. There is Russian literature and there is Soviet literature. We read it, or pretend to read it, but what impact does it have on society? How does it transform not into some well-known quotes, but into behavioural norms? What do people take from it? What are its ethical limits? What descriptions does it hold of historical structures? Therefore, we are doing a big project on how literature transforms into society and through which institutions— schools, theatre, cinema, and/or literary journals that a lot of people read or used to read. The project examines this issue over the course of about a century.

A very interesting project, the core of which is philosophical in nature, is applied ethics. The growth in the number of decisions people make makes us do a lot ‘on good faith’, to take at first glance the first acceptable offer. This is rational in terms of economy of effort, but people need to eliminate options that lead to blunder, to damage. All over the world, ethical constructions — the concepts of worthy and unworthy, good and bad, the boundaries of what is acceptable — do not replace the economic calculation of utility and the legal accounting of consequences, but rather take a place next to it.

What is the third area included in the 2030 Programme?

I have already spoken about expanding our selection of courses, research topics and projects, as well as our body of academic and professional supervisors outside of the University. Based on this widely expanded selection (it will indeed become global), we will develop personalized academic courses of study (individual curricula) for each student.

This includes not only ensuring student choice but providing support — academic counselling and personal coaching.

I will also mention the fourth area: we assume that HSE will become a provider of online educational courses and network programmes that will involve an order of magnitude more students than the university has today. In 2030, we will retain our core 50,000 students; we will not expand this core, but we will add to it the same number of students from other universities, whom HSE is responsible for teaching certain subjects or blocks of subjects. And hundreds of thousands of online students from all over the world will study HSE courses and receive HSE certificates. That is, the scale of our educational activities and our influence will increase several times, if not an order of magnitude. This is not a unique path for HSE — many leading universities will follow it. But we were the first to formulate it as a systemic task.

At the Gaidar Forum it was announced that a world-class research centre for the study of human capital will be created. What is this project?

The economy is changing. The role and significance of the state in the modern world is no longer determined by natural resources and production capacities. The conditions for the development, self-realization, and creativity of each person are becoming increasingly important. Global challenges have led to the prioritization of development resources.

What is human potential? In fact, this is what lies at the heart of human capital. We are used to talking about a nation’s human capital: roughly speaking, how much we are worth, the extent to which we are able to earn for ourselves, for our employer, and for the country in the foreseeable future. But why a person may or may not earn money has never been researched. Psychologists, sociologists, and educational theorists are engaged in this question, but their work remains fragmented — it does not fit with the work of economists or with state policy. We want to change this.

When we turn to the concept of human capital, we break it down it into factors: education, culture, ethnicity, various behavioural factors, and human cognitive capabilities. What is a person who then begins to participate in the economy to bad or good effect? What about a person  who refuses to participate in the economy and becomes economically unsuccessful? For example, an individual who is in prison is economically unsuccessful. They do not earn money; society spends on them. There are many other categories of unemployed individuals who are economically unsuccessful in various forms. This is also an element that is not covered by capital. We don’t account for them, but these are real people. They also need to be investigated and made useful both for society and for themselves.

Interviewed by Kirill Boriskin

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