Education ministry begins long-term task of reform

  • 2010-04-21
  • By Gunta Kursisa

BRICK WALL: Tatjana Koke says her ministry will fight to maintain funding for higher education.

RIGA - The Ministry of Education and Science on April 15 announced a long overdue plan for massive reform of Latvia’s higher education system. The program is considered to be the higher education policy’s initial plan for  long term reform designed to elevate Latvia’s competitiveness in the international arena of higher education and science.

Further actions prompted by the Ministry of Education and Science are planned in four fields. Firstly, the Ministry is determined to increase the quality of studies and scientific research. Secondly, the plan suggests action to be taken such as modernizing the technical base in higher education institutions and a more efficient use of resources. Thirdly, it suggests raising the export of education and to put more emphasis on the internationalization of higher education institutions. Finally, the plan sets the aim to link the science sector with the national economy. Within the program’s project there will be 38 ‘actions’ to be taken, according to information on the official Web page of the Ministry.

According to the Ministry’s presentation, the initial plan also suggests that the support for research will be modernized; infrastructure advanced, the professional level of the university’s staff raised, with more frequent participation in international projects and more exchange of experience with external higher education institutions.
The plans also suggests the offering of study courses in official European Union languages and the continuation of the process of gaining international acknowledgement of Latvian diplomas and scholarship allocation for foreign students. In 2011, plans would provide for the implementation of tax relief for companies which offer a modern environment for practice and experience for students.

In 2009, funded support for the higher education and science sector was cut by 48 percent, due to the current economic crisis, according to daily Diena. The Ministry’s action plan, which is set from this year to 2012, also calls for a gradual increase in the national budget’s funding for higher education and science from 2013, where in 2015 it will reach 1.2 percent of GDP for higher education and 1.5 percent of GDP for science. The plan also provides for consolidation of study programs up to 2020. Currently, there are 61 universities and colleges in Latvia, and many study programs overlap. Fourteen of these higher education institutions are subsidized from the taxpayers’ pocket.

“It is necessary to concentrate the resources to make the higher education system more efficient,” says Marcis Auzins, president of the University of Latvia and one of the initiators of the reform. Concentrating resources should be understood as a reduction in the number of higher education institutions. “The process of merging universities is long overdue,” says Veiko Spolitis, academic and researcher of the Baltic States and director of European studies and international relations at Riga Stradins University. Spolitis admits that “it is a broad generalization, but very many universities are simply windmilling diplomas to those students who pay. Such a system is unsustainable and I would see, in the first reform phase, leaving a maximum of 3 to 4 universities in Latvia with a well established network of university colleges.”

The statements by Auzins, Spolitis and the Ministry of Education and Science about merging study programs is supported by Latvian Students Union as well, which has influence as the student voice in politicy making. The organization’s president, Edgars Berzins, says that “reforms are needed now, and it is necessary to rethink the duplication of study programs, if we want to make our education more efficient.”

There are 6,000 academics working in 34 universities. In comparison with other universities, for example in the University of Helsinki (Finland), or Uppsala University (Sweden), there are 4,000 teaching staff, all in one university, while in Latvia academic resources are scattered.

“Now only 11 out of all the higher education institutions publish at least 1 academic publication [graduate level research, journals] within the 6 year term,” says Auzins. He says there is a strong need for increasing the quality of research. “Latvia is threatened with becoming a provincial country in higher education if the State will not change the policy of recruiting teaching staff from other countries. For now, Latvian legislation doesn’t allow for hiring professors who don’t speak Latvian, which means that drawing in professors from other countries is difficult,” he says.

Latvia’s political class has received sharp criticism for the absence of long-term plans for the higher education system. “There are gems of academic excellence found in Latvia, but they are actually surviving in spite of the overall mis-management of the system of higher learning. In this process, those gems at the world class level of higher learning – Riga Stradins University Medical Schools, University of Latvia Faculty of Physics and Mathematics and Faculty of Chemistry, Latvian Conservatory and Academy of Arts with certain programs – have survived due to personal contacts and grants they have acquired from abroad and from Latvian science monies,” says Spolitis.
 “It was a long time ago, when there should arise an awareness that institutions of Latvian higher education are not just competing with each other, but also with other universities in Europe,” says Auzins. For higher education, Latvian universities are receiving 0.5 percent of the national budget; before the economic crisis this was 0.7 percent of the budget. Auzins criticizes the decrease of budget funding this year: “It is not reasonable that in such a priority sector as education and science that financing is decreasing, not just in the amount of assigned money, but also in the percentage from the whole budget,” he says.

Minister of Education and Science Tatjana Koke, in an interview on “Good morning, Latvia!” said the ministry “will stand as a wall against decreasing funding for higher education,” and that further cuts of public funding for higher education are unacceptable.

Concerns about the State’s budget funding appeared after The World’s Bank’s report to the Latvian government, recommending which areas should be cut. Higher education was among them.
Berzins says that scholarships for master’s and doctoral degree students are essential. Otherwise, talented students can leave the country for studies in other European countries, where funds and State financed study places are more available. “Scholarships give the opportunity for graduate students to provide themselves with study materials - books, academic journals,” he says.

The initiators of reform are Marcis Auzins and Janis Vetra, the president of the Higher Education Council, as was reported in the Latvian Student Union’s summary on the discussion about reforms in higher education, in September 2010.