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Global and National Trends in Higher Education Discussed at HSE

From October 24-25, the IX International Russian Higher Education Conference ‘Universities in Search of a Balance between New and Familiar Goals’ took place at HSE. Participants discussed issues concerning educational policies, including internationalization of education, bridging the gap between schools, universities and labour markets, as well as changes in the academic profession.

‘The conference is taking place for the ninth time, bringing together Russian and international higher education researchers. Each year, it is becoming more visible and more selective,’ said Maria Yudkevich, HSE Vice Rector, in her welcome speech. ‘This year, we received over 200 applications from 28 Russian regions and 17 other countries, and the programme includes only one third of them. Such a strict selection process ensures a high level of presentations and discussions.’

The conference title — ‘Universities in Search of a Balance between New and Familiar Goals’ — means that in the modern world, which is globalizing and developing rapidly, universities must react to changes quickly, redefining their goals and the means to achieve them. This is expected from universities by their key stakeholders: society, the state, students, and employers. But universities don’t always manage to meet these expectations.

Below is a brief summary of the three plenary reports presented at the conference.

Not everyone is capable of conducting research

The author of the first presentation, ‘Diversity, Differentiation, and the Research University’, was Philip Altbach, founder of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education. Known for his research on globally recognized research universities’ work, he is part of the Council at the 5-100 Russian Academic Excellence Project and is familiar with the realities of Russian education.

Research universities are at the top of the higher education hierarchy, and they are a small and important part of the educational ecosystem, Philip Altbach believes. But we shouldn’t forget that there are a lot of other types of universities, including polytechnic and creative ones for which research isn’t the key activity.

Educational systems should be varied; all universities should receive support, but we need to remember that not everyone is capable of conducting research.

Philip Altbach
Founder of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education; Member of the Council at the 5-100 Russian Academic Excellence Project

This means that if your university is not a research one, you shouldn’t force your staff to publish their papers in leading journals, since their main goal is to meet students’ need for high-quality education. This doesn’t mean your university is a bad one. All universities are important, we simply shouldn’t assign them with functions that they don’t have inherently.

According to Altbach, the various types of educational institutions must be clearly differentiated, and governments must make this decision and classify them. Quality assessment should lie in the basis of such differentiation, although it doesn’t always receive the necessary attention.

Meanwhile, it is still difficult to find a university that doesn’t want to be a research one. For example, such willingness is typical for applied science universities in Europe. ‘I believe this is a wrong trend: they should specialize in professional education, not compete with research institutions,’ Altbach said. ‘Otherwise, the universities’ missions blend, and everyone wants to do everything. This is unacceptable today, when higher education has become widespread and the labour market has become more complicated.’

How to improve PISA and TIMSS results

The author of the second presentation, ‘Key Factors for the Progress of the Portuguese Educational System: Measuring Outcomes, Diversifying Paths, Developing Research, and Internationalising the University System,’ was Nuno Crato, former Minister of Education, Higher Education and Science of Portugal.

Crato said that it wasn’t very long ago when Portugal was falling behind. In the first half of the 20th century it had lower levels of literacy than both Russia and neighbouring Spain. Before the 1974 revolution, only 3-4% of the population in Portugal had a university degree. The process then started to grow, and in the 2000s, higher education became widespread. Today, there are 3,000 postgraduate students per 10 million people in the country. Indicators such as teachers’ publication activities and the number of international students are also growing.

This has been achieved thanks to serious and focused effort. For example, all universities passed through a strict external assessment, the results of which impacted funding. ‘There were cases when celebrity scholars were unable to confirm their status, while those who were unknown turned out to be successful researchers,’ said Crato.

Today, the number of researchers per 1,000 people in Portugal is higher than the European average, but their productiveness is lower.

When Crato was minister, Portugal achieved a breakthrough in the PISA and TIMSS international comparative education quality studies. In mathematics in 2015, it even advanced ahead of Finland, a renowned European leader. In addition, the share of school students who dropped out decreased significantly. The unique thing about this situation was that there were positive dynamics not only among high-achieving students, but also among underachieving ones.

Effective general education is a guarantee of the high quality of university education, and some of the problems in higher education should be solved in secondary schools.

Nuno Crato
Former Minister of Education, Higher Education and Science of Portugal

Well-targeted work helped Portugal advance in PISA and TIMSS. New educational standards were introduced; clear requirements to results were established; teachers were assigned to work with underachieving students; and pupils started passing centralized tests in the 4th and the 6th grades. In addition, the authorities began publishing independent assessment results. Crato believes that independent assessment has become the key factor in school quality improvement.

Internationalization of education must be a tool, not a purpose

Hans de Wit, Director of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education and a globally recognized expert in higher education internationalization, delivered a presentation entitled ‘Concepts, Approaches, Trends, and Challenges in the Internationalization of Higher Education in the World, Lessons for Russian Higher Education’.

The main idea of the paper was  that internationalization at a contemporary university is not simply education import and export, or student and staff exchange; rather, it is part of a strategic vision. Internationalization is gaining momentum thanks to widespread participation in higher education. In countries like India and China, where demand exceeds supply, students are motivated to study abroad, while in such countries as the U.S., on the contrary, universities are aggressively enrolling international students. While at the end of the 20th century internationalization was largely understood to mean cooperation, today, it also means competition for students and teachers.

At the same time, Hans de Wit believes that universities are often inclined to be formalistic in their approach to internationalization. For example, they try to sign more international agreements, which often stay on paper only. To achieve results, real partners are needed, which can improve student and staff mobility and help implement joint programmes.

Internationalization is often seen as a final purpose, when in fact, it’s only a tool to improve education quality.

Hans de Wit
Director of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education

Internationalization must be less elitist and more egalitarian; it must involve as many students as possible. Today, the highest level of internationalization level can be found in European countries, reaching approximately 20-30%.

Hans de Wit spent a considerable amount of time working with Russian universities as part of the 5-100 Project and is member of RUDN Advisory Board. He believes that development of higher education internationalization in Russia is due to universities’ desire to do well in the rankings. To achieve that, they hire international professors and attract foreign students. In fact, he argues, it should be the other way around. Russian universities should create complex strategies and develop strategic partnerships with international universities, which will ensure their success in international rankings.

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