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Turbulence Is a Time for Unexpected Solutions in Education

The state is getting rid of underperforming universities, backing large universities, and online courses are vying for market space. These and other trends were the subject for discussion on April 7 by participants in the plenary discussion 'Paths of the Development of the Professional and Higher Education in the Conditions of Economic Turbulence' at the XVI April International Research Conference on Economic and Social Development.

Better and worse

There are two trends at play in Russia's higher education market, said Russian Education Minister Dmitry Livanov. On the one hand the state is getting rid of institutions and branches that cannot offer quality education, they face a filter – over two years they have to cut off those parts that have 'essentially already died'. All educational organisations whose activities raise concerns are subject to checks. But no particular figure has been set for the number of higher educational institutions that should exist on the market – cutting away the dead-wood is all that is required, and that will be based in purely qualitative performance.

On the other hand, the state supports the finest institutions. This chiefly means universities that manage to assert their competitiveness on the international stage. They set their freown goals and this advanced level of autonomy frees them from indicators imposed top-down. Any ratings are relative, and improvement in any one rating is testimony to the university's success, but a university's place in the ratings represents the academic community's views on its place in the hierarchy, the minister stressed.

In order to develop successfully, the best institutions need significnat freedom, Presidential Aide Andrei Fursenko (education minister 2004-2012) said. But there can, by definition, never be a large number of these 'centers of excellence'. Higher education must respond to concrete, pragmatic, needs – economic, social, and political, and their operation must be closly bound to the further development of the economy, public life and the country as a whole.

Higher education for the regions

The first two federal universities – Siberian and Southern – started to be formed a decade ago. Now there are 10 such educational hubs spanning a diverse range of different disciplines, that resulted from the merger of several universities. They work for their regions, and in many have raised the standards of education and research – this is the model that is in demand, Dmitry Livanov believes.

Structural and substantive reforms took place at the Southern Federal University, Marina Borovskaya explained. Research equipment efficiency use grew five-fold, teachers took on a more public role, and the volume of research produced also rose. She feels that the current arrangement – with the universities brought together into the Southern Federal University – makes sense, as in the Soviet era the large university was broken down into smaller units, and now they are being reintegrated

Moscow State University of Mechanical Engineering is another university that works in the interests of its region. There was a time when it didn't seem to have a future in the city, as there were no car plants left, Rector Andrei Nikolaenko recalled. But the university won a Federal competition for strategic development, funds were awarded (albeit modest compared to the funds involved in creating the Federal Universities), and it was merged with several other universities. HSE helped its reforms, and the first thing that Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov did, when discussing the structure of this university, was to cross out all the departments on the chart illustrating the structure. 'That was a shock,' Andrei Nikolaenko said. 'How could a university work without its management system?'

 Over time, we will see a division in the educational services market: the best tutors and universities will produce quality online courses, and some weak institutions will adapt to the new environment by shifting to online courses, improving quality

Heads of educational programmes took on the main management role in the university, they created the students' trajectories, without thinking about the departments' own interests.  They built a highly disciplined system of 'project activity' in which future engineers create real facilities in project groups. They turned what had been a highly specialized institute of higher education into a true Polytechnic, preparing engineering staff for the Moscow region, and it today remains a massive institution, attracting teaching staff away from its competitors by offering more money and greater creative freedom.

Money is spend more efficiently in a large institution, Andrei Fursenko believes, and instead of 'candle factories' at each department, it is possible to create centers where academic resources and equipment are pooled and shared (there are 14 in the Southern Federal University), and to launch inter-faculty and interdisciplinary educational programmes. Given the demographic situation, in which the number of students is falling each year, Dmitry Livanov argued, weak educational institutions will likely be left without a student body to teach. The rest need to join forces under encouragement from both federal authorities (major universities enjoy privileges) and the regions.

Dmitry Peskov, Director of the Young Professionals section at the Strategic Initiatives Agency, the long-term strategy is to ensure that different kinds of universities, big and small, all have a place in the educational system. Now the state is focusing its efforts on rigidly controlling quality, but over time there should be more freedom. He thinks that creating an 'oligopoly' of the leading universities will hinder competition on the market, and that diversity should be retained. Especially since there are some well-known examples of small universities charting solid growth, Andrei Fursenko noted, recalling that initially HSE and PhysTech could not compete with MSU. So this economic turbulence is time for unexpected solutions to the problems facing higher education, and we just need to be more active in looking for them, the former minister said.

New education

Alongside restructuring the university network, another trend is gaining ground in Russia: new mass higher education, HSE Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov said. If weak institutions close, what takes their place? The demand for higher education will still be there, and it will still be difficult to send school graduates to Polytechnics as they're needed in heavy industry. Mass higher education is vital, as it creates a cultural level that gives people the ability to adapt to changes, start afresh, and this is as true of general higher education as it is of professional education.

The prerequisite for this new mass higher education is mass online courses that enable students to form their own educational programme. New educational institutions will replace weak ones, and they will help people build their own education and direct them to potential workplaces by transforming their enhanced capabilities into applicable qualifications. Over time, we will see a division in the educational services market: the best tutors and universities will produce quality online courses, and some weak institutions will adapt to the new environment by shifting to online courses, improving quality.

But there are obstacles to online education, as Martin Carnoy, Academic Supervisor at the International Laboratory for Education Policy Analysis noted. At 18 years of age people are not disciplined enough to study independently, they need tutors, mentors, to track their performance, organize their collaboration with other students. 'You can find any good lecture, on any subject, in any area on the internet, but they remain notes. To qualitatively change how students view their studies, you need tutors with particular qualities, not great orators, but people who can be equal partners with the students in their research,' Andrei Fursenko said. He believes that the student must take responsibility for their own work, not complain to the government.

One instrument that could be used to increase this responsibility would be student loans, Yarosloav Kuzminov says. Today there is not much demand for it, just several hundred people took student loans out from Sberbank last year. But no consistent attempts to introduce it have been made, and so this remains an area for analysis, research and proposals to government.


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