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Higher education reform for dummies 19

I just spent half a day at a conference devoted to the higher education, organized by the EC representation and hosted by the University of Latvia. There is no shortage of opinions about the state of higher education (and science) these days and I do realize that it all might be rather confusing to outsiders. So let me provide a brief and, therefore, very oversimplified, picture of what I think is going on.

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Lets start with some rather indisputable facts:

Fact #1: For a country of Latvia’s size, there is a lots of quantity. Lots of universities. Lots of state research institutes. Lots of students (per capita). Lots of regional universities for a country you can traverse in a few hours in either direction. Finally, roughly half of all students are in the social sciences. That’s lots as well as compared with many other countries.

Fact #2: The available (but disputed) indicators suggest that there is a serious shortage of quality. For example, Latvian universities don’t look good (they don’t even look mediocre) in most international ratings. The same when it comes to measures of research, such as number of publications in decent peer-reviewed journals.

Fact #3: A lot of people would want you to believe £2 is a result of insufficient funding. Not true. Comparisons with Estonia and Lithuania (that may have slightly higher but broadly similar levels of funding) reveal Latvia to underperform by a lot. See link to my previous blog on this here.

Fact #4: Demographics means that, just in a matter of few years, there would be much less student age people around. We’re talking maybe 30-40% less. And an increasing number chooses to study abroad (we don’t know how much exactly - and many even don’t want to find out). On top of this, did I mention the economic crisis?

Fact #5: Internally, there is also a demographic problem, but maybe of tenfold magnitude. Existing professors are aging and not that many young people want to take their place. If you look at an indicators of academic ‘births’ (i.e. new PhDs granted), it’s hard to escape a conclusion that hardly anyone will be left in, say, ten years time.

I could go on, but these should be enough. So, what’s going on in this industry? Essentially, there is a bit of a fight between, lets say, the ‘quality’ camp and the ‘quantity’ camp, the latter being the status-quo of the system. The reformers say there seem to be serious problems with quality, which need to be addressed by (i) tweaking the institutions, e.g. the financing system; and (ii) consolidation of existing resources - probably at the expense of quantity, regions, etc. The ‘quantity’ camp don’t see a problem with the system as it is, and their rhetoric can be summarized as demanding more money from the taxpayers so they could produce more of the same. Needless to say, questions about quality are not welcome at all - academics know better.

What makes things complicated? Well, ‘quantity’ may seem easy to measure by, say, number of diplomas. ‘Quality’ is hard to measure and there is quite a bit of controversy about this, and one can spend months discussing this. However, one popular way is by using international university rankings. There is also a bottomline measure: is your economy doing well?

Who are the main actors and what are their agendas? Again, at the risk of gross oversimplification:

Academia (a majority). These obviously don’t think there are any serious problems in what they do and how they do it. Essentially, they demand more money so they could continue doing what they used to do. The most vocal members of this sizable group are the regional universities and also state research institutes.

Ministry of Education of Science (bureaucracy). This one seems to firmly believe that the quantity-based approach is doing fine. Perhaps the major difference is that the ministry officials use slightly more sophisticated language. Say, instead of ‘quantity’, they say ‘accessibility’. Lets go for more ‘accessibility’, the ministry says, because ‘quality’ is, well, expensive.

Politicians. On the surface, government declaration has a whole section devoted to the higher education reform that is very much in line with what the ‘quality’ camp is saying. However, things are not that simple.

Vienotiba. That’s where the reform rhetoric largely come sfrom. However, this party does not have the relevant ministry. Moreover, it has not even tried to get it. To some people, this may seem a bit ...hypocritical. What’s the value of the rhetoric if you don’t seriously intend to take it to the real world. It’s probably not a coincidence. Say, this party seems to want to reduce the social budget expenditure to achieve budget consolidation, but it refuses to come anywhere near the ministry of welfare to actually do it. Oh well...

ZZS. They’re the ones that matter because the education ministry has been their fiefdom for a very long time. What’s their agenda? Read regional lobby. Thus, this party is fully on the side of the status-quo. After all, you won’t hear anything along the lines ‘lets reform the higher education’ from this party. But you do hear stuff about “polycentric” development.

The rebels. Finally, there this very small group, led by Marcis Auzins, rector of UoL, who is pushing for ‘quality-oriented’ reforms. Boy, are these guys seriously outnumbered and outgunned?
Based on the above, you are excused for thinking that this small group of rebels stands no chance whatsoever, as the adds are overwhelming and all against them. And yet, lets see what happens.

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Komentāri (19) secība: augoša / dilstoša

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Tina 02.03.2011 12:55
Paldies, Vjaceslav! Priecajos, ka kads artikule sis problemas tik adekvata veida!

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louis bags

I will correct away grab your rss feed to remain up to date on any succeeding articles you might write
http://www.louisokay.com

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Diesel 01.03.2011 10:44
Labs blogs. No malas šie trūkumi ir skaidri redzami, sevišķi tādēļ, ka esmu ieguvis augstāko izglītību Latvijā. Augstskolās ir daudz tiešām labu pasniedzēju bet arī tikpat daudz cirvju. Skaidrs, ka pats sevi neviens nereformēs - neviens nav pašnāvnieks. Tas tas ir jādara kādam "no malas". IZM - nezinu... Saistībā ar nepieciešamajām reformām sāk šķist, ka vajag izveidot "valsts reformu biroju" premjera pārraudzībā vai kaut ko tādu, kas, par spīti stagnātu brēkšanai, paņemtu viņus pie dziesmas.

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n.k. 01.03.2011 09:35
if he says its oversimplified then why write its oversimplified, seems he's already said caveat emptor.

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M.B. 01.03.2011 08:35
n.k. - it's OK to simplify. However, if you make it too simple => may miss important points and arrive at the wrong conclusions. So I think my comment still has some merit:)

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n.k. 28.02.2011 14:32
slava wrote:
'So let me provide a brief and, therefore, very oversimplified, picture of what I think is going on.'

m.b. wrote:
Good article. Unfortunately, if this is indeed a "small group of rebels vs the system", the chances of success are (almost) zero. Also, I think is a bit oversimplification to view this as a "good reformers vs bad bureaucrats" fight.

if slava writes that his blog is an oversimplifaction of the issue then why bother pointing out that you think its oversimplified? hardly seems a worthwhile comment.

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M.B. 28.02.2011 10:47
Good article. Unfortunately, if this is indeed a "small group of rebels vs the system", the chances of success are (almost) zero. Also, I think is a bit oversimplification to view this as a "good reformers vs bad bureaucrats" fight.

More on this in my blog on makroekonomika.lv (kapec Latvija ir tik gruti veikt strukturalas reformas)

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John W 26.02.2011 12:25
Also, if we are going to generalise, I would add that well-respected academics from well-respected universities can also produce worthless garbage. In the last section of the film "Inside Job", there are some entertaining interview moments when some respected professors in the field of economics are challenged on the issue of their objectivity (they include Martin Feldstein and John Campbell of the Harvard Economics Department and Columbia Business School Dean Glenn Hubbard and Finance Professor Frederic Mishkin - Mishkin in particular comes across as an utter imbecile).

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John W -> Tenis 26.02.2011 12:10
Good point about overlooking or not seeing plagiarised work, but it isn't the case with just those institutions you mentioned, believe me. It was certainly widespread (I don't know anymore what the case is) in a much more respected institute of HE.

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Tenis 26.02.2011 08:34
Very good, perceptive blog. I love all these losers demanding more data & statistics, as if a blog is a research paper (which they have probably never seen) rather than an opinion piece.

From my position, the biggest problem is with these small, and not so small, private institutions (Turiba, Baltijas Krievu Akademija (or whatever), RICEEBA etc) that basically hand-out diplomas to anyone willing to attend classes (occassionally) and hand in papers (typically of dubious quality and origin). This contributes to a "race to the bottom" that almost all institutions participate in. What to do?
* Real, rigorous outsider peer-evaluations of all HEI's, simply closing down those that do not match up (in terms of full-time qualified staff, library and research facilities, and basic research output).
* Those HEI's that pass this test should then be given about 5 years to focus on developing their (international peer-reviewed) research output & teaching quality before another major review.

This would cut the number of institutions and lead to micro (lecturer) level improvements. It would be a start (but not the end...)

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Ivars Graudins 25.02.2011 17:30
A worthy article Vjačeslav!

It's certainly not a “sidrabota saule lec” symbol for the higher education in Latvia. Latvia is an example of education for education's sake, which is not synchronized with the existing real world needs. There's lack of results-oriented attitude all around, as maintaining a status quo educational culture dominates. The choice for “gut courses” prevails as it is easier to get a sheepskin. To maintain the quantitative student throughput, plagiarization, a form of nationwide corruption, is not combated, as Latvia's real world sets an extremely decadent Soviet era precedence. It is a poor model to emulate and an akin for “finishing” schools in not having anything better.

A change to a qualitative educational culture requires a change in overall attitude starting at the roots with childhood education and parenting. Unfortunately many parents are in the social grip of get rich quickly schemes that does not bode well for a desired knowledge economy.

The idea of one nation for all, over just where every person is for himself, calls for paradigm shift in Latvia's educational culture, starting by introducing androgogy – a more of an independent hands on effort – over the staid pedagogy – a dependent hand holding lecture mode form. The resistance to change needs psychology support in the ranks of political leadership elected by the citizens, and a core interest group that drives this change via some non-governmental agency. Essentially it is a several prong approach in riding herd over the politicians and academics to attain a competitive knowledge economy.

The overall government's objective in the cause and effect to improve the standard of living for Latvia's inhabitants should be transparent and visibly tracked methodology so that it is not an out of mind and out of sight promises-not-kept election rhetoric. The overall change should be milestone driven towards attaining long-term results over short-term gratification of look: how great are our per capita figures! Quality education should have outside/inside drivers (interest groups) that lift Latvia out of a vicious dead end circle of getting nowhere. Besides, Latvia is small feature in the globalization of the planet and needs to compete harder than other nations in order to be recognized and respected as a meaningful contributer.

Latvia has a culture of song and dance that is second to none. It demonstrates that quality is not foreign to Latvians. It just needs to be transferred to the educational realm of everyday way of living.

May dieviņš save the Latvian nation!

Ivars

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G.D. 25.02.2011 17:09
Good article. However, I am also not convinced that the regional universities are the real problem in terms of costs (but I really don’t know). Even if they are, for tactical reasons I think it wouldn't be right to attack regional universities but start with pushing for reform in the two oligopoly institution in Riga. After that, when RTU and LU set the standard, natural dynamics of competition kick in and the rest of the system adjusts automatically.

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Student 25.02.2011 16:53
What about students and their motivation to study? Just one example - ten years ago, at age 27 I had just secondary school education and it was completely enough for me. Unfortunately at this point I had just two ways for further life - to study and eventually earn more competative salary or leave the country because person without formal education were classified as unworthy plebeian.

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Grieta 25.02.2011 15:33
I am not definately an expert in higher education. But as a student who has graduated bachelor and master programmes in University of Latvia (social sciences) I can say unambiguous, that there is no quality at all. And ofcourse all this mainstream of low quality lecturers and proffesors who have been sitting in their institutions for a years and haven't improved in their presentation manner nothing during these years are trying to save their asses now. Noone is ready to look into eyes of the future and to take adequate decisions for improving general quality of higher education

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Jānis Vanags 25.02.2011 13:24
Show us the numbers! Students per capita in Riga vs regions. Money spent per student in Riga vs regions. "Quality" per dollar spent in Riga vs regions. etc...

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Krists 25.02.2011 13:00
And one could add another party (or event two)- students and student unions. Within a year national student union officials have shouted for the Money follows quality approach; and yet denied any attempt to cut some piece of quantity in sake of quality. Regarding students.. mostly voting by feet - by going abroad (quality) or making long queues for social and especially Communication sciences (quantity). A tip for an easy going reform - retitle natural science programs and include verb communication, like communication and chemistry. Sounds weird, but I would bet it would do the trick.

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Anita 25.02.2011 11:48
Probable "oversimplified" but this is actually how it looks like for a person who is outsider but at the same time very close to the system, at least I've come to very close conclusions. I would add that noone (read- HEIs) wants to be a looser and thus planning period is as short as of the EU structural funds (2013), which actually contributes to further fragmentation of HE system. This is the time of collecting bonuspoints and growing muscles which will be helpful later on, in determining which HEIs will remain when there won't be enough of students anymore. What's sad is that we're still unable to move from fighting consequences approach to actually strategic action.

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Kristaps 25.02.2011 11:32
While I must agree on general assumption, that indeed there is serious quality problem in Latvia's higher education, I do not think that regional universities are the key problem here. In fact - the status quo - majority of universities and students allocated in Riga - only deepens crisis in regional development, because there is almost nothing that can keep young people in regions unless there is university. I believe that "quality" vs "quantity" problem should indeed be assessed, but not on solely expense of regional universities, which, actually, are a minority not majority in our higher education quantity problem.

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Mareks 25.02.2011 10:56
As the author wrote, this is a rather oversimplified explanation. I would add that one of the most significant factor is the "fear factor". A change or a minor shift towards "the quality approach" would have a cascading effect on the structure, jobs, control over "cash flows". Needless to say, many fear that they may loose their jobs (even those who are well aware that something is wrong with the system).

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