Higher education reform for dummies

24. februāris, 2011


Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis

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.

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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