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Regular version of the site

'We Want HSE University to Develop Centres of Excellence'

HSE Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov

HSE Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov
© HSE University

The HSE Look is glad to present the second part of the interview with Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov, originally taken by our flagship bulletin Okna Rosta. This part focuses on new educational tools as well as old traditions, on cooperation with regional universities and the transformations to be achieved in the upcoming decade.

Online lectures and online education are among the most discussed topics both within HSE University and in the media. It is fair to say that the academic community has become quite divided on the subject. Proponents of face-to-face lectures often recall the essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ by Walter Benjamin to support their argument. They say that without traditional lectures, which possess a special kind of authenticity, similar to works of art, the university cannot retain its identity as an educational institution. On the other hand, opponents of face-to-face lectures point out that they are routine, outdated as a format and are not very well attended by students. There are also other concerns being voiced, such as the potential loss of contracts due to reduction of teaching hours, or the quality of infrastructure needed to implement a successful digital classroom.

Are online lectures and online education a manifestation of broad systemic transformations in the education as a whole? Or are they a more local story, so to speak - in HSE’s case, a specific tool meant to facilitate teaching a greater number of students? What can be said to alleviate the existing concerns of academic staff and students alike?

— Online lectures are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what digitalisation has to offer to the education. The first steps in such digitalisation seem to be the loudest. I firmly believe that it is not just a quirk of HSE University, but an inevitable future for all institutions. And it is not in itself antagonistic to traditional forms of teaching which you talked about.

At HSE we have sufficient resources to keep alive everything that is supported by students and the academic community

If a colleague enjoys giving lectures, if the students eagerly engage in dialogue with them, nobody is going to cancel such courses. It is good to remember that it’s not enough for us as teachers to love giving lectures, we need reciprocity from students. Unfortunately, not every teacher can claim this to be true. Education is not a one-way street, with knowledge flowing in one direction. Lectures attended by five students out of many give very little in terms of genuine interaction and knowledge acquisition, and are an affront against common sense. We can find a better format for such talks or consultations rather than lectures with physical attendance.

The point of introducing online courses into our education model is similar to any digital tool, and that is to replace what we do not enjoy, i.e. routine repetitions which require similarly routine tests. Usually, unless we are strictly required, we try to minimize or skip such activities. They are dull and we presume them to be unworthy of our time.  Most undergraduate degrees do not even offer lectures for third or fourth year students, instead focusing on seminars and practical problem-solving tasks, and that is true not only for HSE but for other universities as well.

That is why online courses will consist of lectures that explain the basic concepts of the subject and thus should not be skipped. Such a course will help students to be better prepared for the active work during seminars and will help to identify the core of the audience who are most interested in the topic. It might turn out to be only a third of the initial audience, or 10%, or 2 students who will continue communicating with the lecturer, and it’s all right. Professors will be able to engage in teaching more complex and interesting topics rather than give repetitive introductory lectures, and students will get a more personalized education of better quality.

HSE Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov
HSE University

Do you think it is possible that in a relatively near future digital education tools will replace traditional classroom work fully or to a great extent?

— In mass education traditional forms will certainly be replaced by digital ones. At Higher School of Economics as well as other research universities they will never completely replace face-to-face learning because our courses are taught by researchers who are very good in their fields. We do not have any rationale for diminishing the contact of our students with our faculty members. On the contrary, if a university does not have enough staff who can provide good quality of teaching, it makes a lot of sense for them to substitute some of its courses for online versions provided by top universities. It might be the only chance for their students to learn from a researcher in a specific field, maybe even to reach out to this researcher about continuing their graduate or postgraduate studies. HSE University, Moscow State University, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, and other top research institutions - we do not need to to overcome this challenge. That is why I don’t think that teaching at HSE will change radically.

In addition, though, our students can take courses from Yale, Harvard, Freie Universität Berlin, St Petersburg State University, etc. to enhance what our academic staff offers. Some students want to take the same subject from different universities, so as to compare details and gain a different perspective, we already know there’s an interest in this. During my own studies I used to read different textbooks so as to create a more stereoscopic picture of the problem. Others might just want to have a taste of a different university for a small price of one online course and its certificate.

For the first time HSE Development Programme places a heavy emphasis on our university actively contributing to the advancement of education systems in Russian regions. In the past couple of years HSE has already launched a programme for postdoctoral fellows from Russian universities to boost academic mobility within the country, but what are the new forms of cooperation that the Development Programme envisages? Would you say that regional universities are looking forward to these new cooperation opportunities?

— I would like to recall that newly established HSE would not be what it is without the assistance and support programmes of London School of Economics, Sorbonne, and Erasmus University Rotterdam. We know very well what it means to be a university which learns from others, and now we are making our first steps in becoming similar mentors in return. I think there is nothing wrong with seeking and accepting assistance and guidance from those who have already developed good and innovative practices. There are many colleagues in the regions who are already cooperating with us or who are looking forward to setting up such initiatives. Of course, there are many of those who are in doubt or think it’s a Trojan horse of some kind, but there’s nothing to be done about that.

HSE Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov
HSE University

Will there be ‘pilot regions’ specially selected for implementing such programmes with regional universities?

— I am certain there will be, because we have good working relations with several governors, and we also have active goodwill on the  part of the Ministry of Education and Science. However, we don’t want to launch the programme with such top-down approach. We would like to begin by welcoming  teachers who are genuinely interested in this cooperation and mobility opportunities rather than were delegated by their universities. It is going to create a much more organic start of the programme, and any kind of liaising with regional authorities and ministries might wait till 2021.

How HSE in ten years will differ from today? What are the key points, based on what the university commits to under the new Development Programme? How can we make sure that we are moving in the right direction?

— We have talked about one of such key changes which is easily measurable, and that is the organic growth of the university (read The HSE Look 3(43), November 2019 for the first part of the interview).

Another key development that can and should be traced is establishing centres of excellence. Their aim is to be academically attractive on a global scale for colleagues from the top universities, and they will have the resources to invite visiting scholars

I believe we have several research centers which could try to achieve that, such as Faculty of Mathematics, Institute of Education, Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge, and Center for Institutional Studies. Some of them will flourish in this regard, some might not, but HSE is already attracting quite interesting researchers as visiting academics. I think centres of excellence are a symbolic thing which shows whether you are an interesting destination for other academics to simply collaborate and work side by side.

Most of the other measurable results are the ones we are already used to monitoring, such as the percentage of international students, quality of publications and their citations. We can plan how to improve these things, of course, but they are not new.

I think one of the most important changes will concern the contracts with academic staff. HSE has been relying greatly on several tools which help to promote the desirable behavior and standards, such as bonuses for top-tier publications and for getting the ‘best teacher’ award, as well as the research productivity assessment. I think that over the next ten years the biggest leap will be from using these tools which force people to comply with certain standards to conditions which simply help put to paper productive behaviors which our academic colleagues already practice. We are planning to switch to longer contracts (three and five years) and award more long-term bonuses for achievements (currently most of them are for one year only).

This will help to bridge the conditions for our academic staff with those in Western universities which we are trying to compete with and benchmark against. It is going to be a huge shift, so that we no longer need special tools to push people to do better, but the very quality of the academic community will be helping them advance. Such is the nature of great environments: it would be strange to work at Harvard, Chicago, or Lausanne university and stop moving forward, and we want HSE to attain the same quality, to keep getting better. People do not come to work for Apple in order to slack off, and this is the drive we are looking for. We need to keep asking ourselves whether we are moving towards this goal or not, and if specific things bring us closer or farther from it. 

And it creates a different image of HSE as a university: with greater freedom and confidence. We need to overcome the era of self-doubt; after all HSE has been created by researchers for researchers, and we still are not feeling entirely great in our university home. So I am really hoping that by the time I am 70 years old, we will finally achieve what I intuitively envisioned when I was 35, and that I will still be a part of this academic community while not being at the helm of HSE.

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