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‘HSE Has Been Innovative from the Start’

‘HSE Has Been Innovative from the Start’

Academic and expert in the field of international higher education, Philip Altbach has been made Honorary Professor in a ceremony at HSE. Altbach began to study education in his youth because he believed it was a key factor to bring about change in society. Is it possible to take educational models which work well in some countries and copy them in others without making any alterations? What good are rankings and what shouldn’t we sacrifice for their sake? What gives HSE its competitive edge? Professor Altbach talked about all these issues in an interview with HSE News. 

Philip Altbach is a major world specialist in international higher education. He has taught and conducted research in leading American universities and in universities in developing countries. Since 1994 Altbach has worked in Boston College where he founded and directed, until September 2015, the Centre for International Higher Education. He is also a member of the HSE International Advisory Committee.

Not a typical American

I’m an unusual American in the sense that I studied all my three degrees at one university in the United States, the University of Chicago. I think I was very much shaped by that experience. The University of Chicago has a very distinguished liberal education, so I had the benefit of a wide education.

I’m also a person who came of age in the 1960s, during the era of student political activism. The University of Chicago in those days was kind of a left radical campus, so I was involved with the student movement. I served as the chairperson of at-a-time a large student organization called ‘The Student Peace Union’. We were one of the first organizations against the American war in Vietnam. That also shaped my political consciousness. One amusing thing that a few people know, although you can find it on the internet, is that I was the one who introduced the peace symbol in the United States. It’s probably the most famous thing I ever did. It was invented in England, and I went to England as part of a student delegation and brought it back and convinced my student organization that it was a good thing to use. It then took off and became a symbol of peace, first, against the war in Vietnam, and then as the peace symbol.

In terms of innovations and administrative structures, to some extent in curriculum, in management of the institution, and governance the Higher School of Economics is more advanced than anybody else in the country

I was convinced from the beginning that education was important, especially for social change. After my bachelor’s degree, my other two degrees are in education and social science. I had the idea of going into the schools, but I was sufficiently interested in universities that for my doctoral work I combined my interest in higher education and student politics. I’m one of the few people who spent their whole career doing more or less the same thing, studying universities and teaching about higher education.

I first came to Russia in 1964, when I was 23 years old. I came here for one of international student meetings. I was invited because I was in a student movement in America. I actually met Mr. Khrushchev personally, I shook hands with him. Later in my career, I was working in the State University of New York, which had one of the very early exchange programmes with the Soviet Union, with the Moscow State University. I spent three weeks living at Moscow State. This must have been in the middle of 1970s. I lived in the dormitory, in a very nice guest room for distinguished international people. Unfortunately, relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union at that particular time were absolutely terrible. No one would talk to me, so I had lots of time to walk around Moscow. I was followed all the time by some guys from the KGB. It was a very interesting experience. 

Joint projects with HSE

I didn’t come back to Russia for a long time until I got involved with the Higher School of Economics and started working with Maria Yudkevich on joint research projects about five years ago. Maria got in touch with me about the research project on the international academic profession we did at the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE) at Boston College. First we did a very small study at our college on faculty’s salaries. Then we started a bigger project with HSE team and looked at faculty remuneration in twenty eight different countries. We did the international part, and they did the economics part. As a result of our project, we published a book called Paying the Professoriate, which was published in English, Russian, and Chinese, and is now the most important book about the faculty salaries.

HSE has a much great international visibility than any other Russian university

Since then, we’ve done four other projects with Laboratory of Institutional Analysis headed by Maria Yudkevich, mostly funded from Russia, from HSE. In collaboration with the laboratory and our center in Boston, we have done one study which is now soon to be published, on rankings. We also did a study on inbreeding of faculty. Additionally, we did another one on young professors. Interestingly, all of these topics were suggested from the Russian side, because they are of relevance to the situation in Russia and HSE. They fit our research interest also in Boston. We have established a very good collaborative arrangement here, and we value very much our colleagues. We have had three conferences here in Moscow, at HSE, and one in Boston. All of our projects have been published by very good publishers in the US.

One of the things about our collaboration is that my center, for 20 years, has published a journal called International Higher Education. We now have editions in five different languages, one of them being Russian, and HSE is the translating organization for the Russian edition. As a result of our work with HSE on that publication, HSE had the idea to invent a journal called HERB – Higher Education in Russian and Beyond. HERB is focused on Russia and the regions of former Soviet Union and the Eastern Europe. That’s entirely an HSE publication, but we are very happy to have worked with HSE on developing that. We think it’s great – it is very nicely designed and very well written. 

HSE and international positioning

HSE take part in 5-100 government programme aimed at increasing international competitiveness of Russian universities. I’m a member of the 5-100 international committee. Several years ago we chose universities that were to be included, and we review what they’re doing and their roadmaps. Through that work, I have gotten to know some other Russian universities other than HSE.

My general opinion is that the Higher School of Economics started its ‘path toward modernization of the university’ earlier than the rest of them. Many of the ideas that the 5-100 programme is doing are similar to what HSE has been doing for a number of years. That puts this institution ahead of the game. I think, most of the committee members think that, in terms of innovations and administrative structures, to some extent in curriculum, in management of the institution, and governance the Higher School of Economics is more advanced than anybody else in the country.

It’s a matter of having an international consciousness.  I think that HSE from the beginning has had that, looking in Russia, but also looking out. And partly because of the strength of knowledge of English here, but mainly because of mentality of many faculty members who are interested in what’s happening in other parts of the world and bring some of those ideas back and see how they work in the Russian context. It’s never possible, in my view, to simply copy something from someplace else. You have to interpret and figure out how education ideas, for example, from America or other places will fit the Russian realities. The university has pioneered in all of these things in the Russian context. I think this is very interesting and important.

Higher School of Economics is a new institution that was formed by a unique group of people led by Kuzminov, the current rector, who came to establish this place with a new idea about universities in Russia. It got started from the beginning to be innovative. I think it’s kept that spirit all time. It’s been willing to take risks in terms of reorganizing itself several times, modernizing the curriculum, encouraging its professors to speak out on public questions in the country, and so on. I think that’s been quite important. One comment that I made at our advisory meeting this time was that ‘every time I read an article in The New York Times or other important media in the U.S. about Russia, always there is a quotation from some HSE faculty member’. HSE has a much great international visibility than any other Russian university, including MSU or MGIMO.

I think one has to be careful about forcing everybody to publish in English about everything. Universities need to respect the work which is published on a particular country in the language of the country

HSE has also been more active in hiring faculty members from the international market. That brings people here from other countries, who bring their experience and work in universities elsewhere, both ideas about university organization and, mainly, ideas about their fields, which are international.

HSE, as any good university, has to think about what is actually important and what would be good for the university, for the country, and, especially, for the students, and for research. Certainly, it’s interdisciplinary work, which HSE has always done. Also, opening up the curriculum with the major/minor system is very important and needs to be pushed further at this university and elsewhere in Russia. HSE is working on MOOCs now – open online courses. I think in Russia it is one of the biggest universities that is doing some of those MOOC courses. HSE has tried very hard to become less of a top-down bureaucratic organization than the Russian tradition.

Research plans

I have several books coming out in the coming year. One of them is about American higher education, because I work also on domestic issues in the United States. This book, which I have co-edited with colleagues, is the main book which is used in courses about higher education in the U.S. Unlike Russia, we have a professional field called ‘higher education studies’, and many people who go into academic administration have masters or PhDs in higher education. We have in the U.S. about 250 such kind of programmes. The one at my university is one of the older ones in the country. The other book is a collection of my writing about international issues in higher education. 

'English language imperialism'

It’s true that English is the main language of international scholarship, and it’s true that most of the journals which are accounted for the rankings are in English. In Russia and in many other countries, such as China and India, the pressure on professors is to publish in these journals, because that’s what gets you into the rankings, and that’s what gets you a lot of citation counts and makes you famous. But there is other scholarship about particular countries, Russian history, for example – there should be a place for that in Russian. I think one has to be careful about forcing everybody to publish in English about everything. Universities need to respect the work which is published on a particular country in the language of the country. Particularly, on a country which has a big language, like Russian, which is not only the language of Russia, but also is widely understood in former Soviet Union countries.

 In Latin America, increasingly, the pressure is to publish in English. Although, I must say, in the Latin American context, there is a lot of resistance to English publication, because there is a long history of nationalism, colonial influence and the desire not to be dominated by the North, meaning the United States. So, for political and social reasons, scholars don’t like to publish in English. But the pressure continues in that direction.

When local context is important

I’m careful not to claim that I’m a specialist, for example, on China although I’ve written something about Chinese higher education. But I don’t speak Chinese, and that culture functions in Chinese largely. One has to be careful about that. I’ve been in this business long enough. I think to be fairly sensitive about different approaches to knowledge, different methodologies and so on. I can understand that there are these differences. Many Americans, particularly Americans who have no knowledge of much of the rest of the world and think that they are methodologically very well trained, don’t care about what anybody else thinks. I’m not one of those people because I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve written a number of books about India, but I’ve studied India very carefully. I lived there and studied one of the Indian languages, which, interestingly enough, I’ve never used, because the higher education system and most educated people function in English, so it’s very convenient for me. I would never write anything in detail about Russia, other than maybe some brief observations, because I don’t know the language and I haven’t spent enough time here. 

How to build a successful university

There are several key things, which any, particular research university, requires. One of them is good governance that isn’t too bureaucratic and involves the faculty in decision-making. Another is resources, money, which needs to be not just given at one time, but consistent. It’s not possible to go up and down and be successful. Then there is academic freedom. Also, there should be no corruption. It’s a challenge in some Russian universities. Finally, it is meritocracy for students. You pick students on the basis of their ability. Those are the key things, which are important for anyone who wants to build a successful research university.

Prepared by Lyudmila Mesentseva

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