Riga Graduate School of Law takes new step forward

  • 2006-06-14
  • By Elizabeth Celms

ORNATE: The Riga Graduate School of Law inhabits a beautiful Jugendstil building on Albert Street, which is located in one of the city's most prominent neighborhoods.

RIGA - After months of struggling to redefine itself, the Riga Graduate School of Law has found a solution agreeable to faculty, board members and students. The school, which came close to insolvency last year, has finally re-established itself as a separate entity within the University of Latvia.

"I am very excited for the school's future," said John Burke, rector of the Riga Graduate School of Law. "I think this is the best position the school has ever been in, in terms of having a strong permanent faculty and the possibilities for development."
Only a year ago, the fate of the school, troubled by debt, poor management and faculty problems, was balancing on shaky stilts. After Latvia joined the European Union in 2004, the Swedish government - for years the school's main source of funding - began struggling to finance the institution, as it was now part of the EU. By November 2005, the graduate school faced two choices: change its business model and reposition itself, or slide into insolvency.

The Riga Graduate School of Law was born from an agreement between the Swedish and Latvian governments, aiming to speed up economic reform by educating a new class of lawyers with foreign faculty trained in international law. The Swedish government owned 61 percent of shares, while the Latvian government had 25 percent and the Soros Foundation owned the rest. Tuition was free, and attendance was open only to Balts.

The institution was financed mostly by contributions from its shareholders. Although it struggled with some financial and management problems, the Riga Graduate School of Law was hailed as a progressive model of higher education in law. So when the school's stability began to falter in 2005, the board jumped to find a solution.
It was during this period that Uldis Cerps, chairman of the Financial and Capital Market Commission, was invited to join the Riga Graduate School of Law Board to help find an answer to the problem. "The government asked me to become a board member and see how the situation could be handled," Cerps told The Baltic Times. "I realized that the school would need to be restructured and adopt a new business model."

After months of intensive discussion, in November 2005 Latvia finally agreed to buy Sweden's stake in the school and became the new majority owner. Both countries' parliaments ratified an agreement that Sweden's stake would be transferred to the University of Latvia. Meanwhile, the school would have to restructure itself while operating.
"The first step was that the Latvian government introduced tuition fees and began developing a new curriculum for the school," Cerps said.

Today, the school's transformation is nearly complete.
"You can think of it simply as a change of ownership," Burke stated. "The majority shareholder is the University of Latvia, but the Riga Graduate School of Law is a separate legal entity within the Latvian educational system. We're academically autonomous from the university."
The school's immediate plans focus on revising and expanding its curriculum and raising its level of sophistication since the Riga Graduate School of Law is no longer considered a remedial institution.
In addition to offering a master's degree in international and European law, the school's curriculum has been revised to conform to the Bologna model, which aims to harmonize the European system of legal education and allow for greater mobility of its students. "For example, a student can study for three years at one school and two at another to complete our five-year program," Burke explained.

The new establishment also offers an academic program for part-time students - those who work in the day and can only attend evening lectures. But the Riga Graduate School of Law's main priority, Burke says, is to become a leading international school of law. "We want to keep the school completely international 's both in terms of students and faculty that teach here. What's different is that now our permanent faculty is larger," the rector said.
What used to be somewhat tense relations between the University of Latvia's law faculty and the Riga Graduate School of Law, partly due to the graduate school's superior facilities and higher salaries for its faculty, have now matured into a progressive model of cooperation.

"We will participate with the University of Latvia to achieve common goals," Burke said. "We can cross list courses with different faculties within the university, as well as exchange faculty members and utilize other resources to optimize both schools. We're not in any sense intended to be isolated from the university's larger community."
As for the school's serious debt, Burke isn't worried. The institution is housed in one of the most ornate buildings on Albert Street, he reminded, home to some of the most impressive Art Nouveau architecture in Europe. It has also renegotiated its loan with the Nordic Investment Bank on favorable terms.
Cerps pointed out that the school's debt is one of the cost items the institution will have to pay back, and was factored in to the new business model.

What's more important, he emphasized, is that the Riga Graduate School of Law has survived and will continue to operate as an institution of excellence. "We have managed to save the school from insolvency and done everything to sustain its positive development. I'm very glad about the result," Cerps said.