The Rocky Road to Education Reform

  • 2011-03-02
  • By Monika Hanley

REFORM AGENDA: Many say that the government lacks vision on the future of higher education, and that its reforms are simply cost-cutting moves.

RIGA - Much of the discussion, contention and concern on the economic reforms in Latvia have been focused on the foundation of Latvian society: Education. The budget cuts for education, along with the so-called reforms to education, have had little positive effect thus far, according to students, professors and employers, and questions abound as to what the government can do to make Latvia the educationally competitive nation it once was.

A quick look at the Webometric Assesment of universities will identify some harsh rating differences between the number one ranked universities in each Baltic country. While the University of Latvia, Tartu University and University of Vilnius might each be ranked as the top in their nation, a world ranking reveals the true differences: University of Latvia at 1,132 (from 1,041 in 2008), Tartu University at 461 and University of Vilnius at 923.

In trying to identify the causes of this disparity, we look at the reforms underway, what could be done better and what will bring Latvian standards of higher education up to par to compete in the international arena.

Zane Cunska of the Baltic International Center for Economic Policy Studies (BICEPS) wrote that, demographically speaking, higher education has seen an explosion in the last two decades, and by the early 2000s, the number of students per 10,000 people had more than tripled since the early 1990s. One would think that this alone would serve as an impetus to not decrease the education budget and to adopt successful and meaningful reforms.

However, The World Bank estimates that by 2025, the number of students in higher education will shrink more than primary and secondary schools, by a staggering 40 percent, due to emigration. The World Bank seems to have foreseen something that the Latvian government is turning a blind eye to: the fact that if successful educational reformation is not accomplished, there may not even be any students attending institutions of higher learning to benefit from these reforms. In short, students, professors and common citizens attest to the fact that educational reforms must come quickly and efficiently, before it’s too late.

While not strictly a political question per se, the Unity political union (Vienotiba) has comprehensive reform of the education sector in place (in their program, plus the caliber of experts for this), however, the Unity minister did not become the Minister of Education, but we have still yet to understand why this is the case.

Reform discussions have been in play since about 2006, and so far, with the exception of increasingly alarming budget cuts, little has been actually structurally reformed. Estonian and Lithuanian education systems are highly regarded, with students migrating to Tallinn, Tartu, Vilnius or Kaunas to obtain an internationally respected diploma. In Latvia, such is not the case.
The intellectual brain drain has been going on in Latvia since about 2004, then rising economic hardship forced many to search for better jobs abroad. Today, the brain drain is still going strong, however, with a twist. “Before, I think people would stay in Latvia for their education and then depart for greener pastures,” says a Latvian PhD student of geology, adding that “now they leave for university as well. Degrees from Latvia are not as trusted,” he continued.

Aigars Kupra, a student of engineering, went to the U.S. to pursue a Master’s degree after completing undergraduate studies in Riga. He noted that one of the differences between the two education systems was a more business-focused approach in the U.S. “In the U.S., even universities/colleges are a business project; therefore, in my Master’s program, I felt that professors are interested for students to learn as much as possible, otherwise students can start to feel that it is a waste of money and time,” Kupra explained.

Lauren Rhodes, a visiting U.S. anthropology lecturer at the University of Latvia, further identified the brain drain theory: “There is an issue of a lack of homegrown scholars; I can see my students going abroad eventually for further studies,” explaining that many lecturers and professors at Latvian universities have attained their higher education levels in Norway, the U.K or Sweden. 

Some programs have been combined with others to conserve funds as well. “There is some consolidating, but at the same time the university is encouraging certain programs to expand their degree offerings, such as a PhD,” explained Rhodes.
And the University of Latvia is not the only place where such consolidation is taking place. After eliminating the State Police Academy and the Liepaja Medical College last year, three other medical schools were converted into state agencies (LU P. Stradina Medical College, University of Riga

Medical College and RSU Red Cross Medical College). While at the moment no other institutions of higher learning are foreseen to be shut down, the number of state-funded students has been decreased.
Representatives from the Latvian Ministry of Education and Sciences explained to TBT some of the most major of the newly approved supported education reforms for 2011. “In 2011, very extensive structural reforms in higher education system will take place: funding has been allocated for the international assessment programs of study. A university funding model has been developed that would complement the existing one by increasing performance and status. EU structural funds are invested in a targeted country priority to study the direction of material support to improve the learning programs, content and new, innovative study programs, both academic and research staff renewal, giving scholarships to masters and doctoral studies,” says the Ministry. 

However, many of these so-called reforms have ended up in the past as further budget and staff cuts, putting additional strain and pressure on students and faculty. The Ministry also revealed that places for students will also be cut by an additional 3 percent.

Various experts have weighed in on what exactly needs to be included in these reforms, something that has yet to be wholly specified by the Latvian government. Vjaceslavs Dombrovskis of the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga identifies the clash between government reforms and academic opposition as a “quantity vs. quality issue.” He explains that “Essentially, there is a bit of a fight between 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.”
Professor Indrikis Muiznieks of the University of Latvia has also taken the current government’s vague ideas for structural improvements (mostly consisting of cutting budgets) and outlined an extensive plan of specific reforms that should be not only adopted, but put into place and executed. Most specifically, this list of reforms includes a sort of Master Plan for Education and Research.

Though too complex to fully include in this article, the plan mandates that research at the universities increase the quality of studies, facilitate the internationalization of the studies, and contribute to the international recognition and competitiveness of all the HEIs and R&D institutions.

University colleges, says Muiznieks, need to be supported in regional centers (e.g. Valmiera, Rezekne, Liepaja, Ventspils), and their teaching programs (concentrating at the professional Bachelor’s level) should address local developmental and employment needs.

The most important item, of course, is funding, or lack thereof. Professor Muiznieks explains that the government still has an instrument – real estate – under which conditions of the transfer of the real estate property into possession of its derived bodies [higher education and R&D institutions], can be bound with the demand to execute definite institutional changes and permission to invest the funds obtained in the process of the conversion of the redundant real estate into the structural modernization of the participating institutions.

Muiznieks continued by saying that the model of individual study funding should be the conditional, fixed loan, which is granted to the student for the studies in any public or private university, and which has to be paid back or may be waived in dependence upon the further professional career of the graduate. In addition, he says that the public institutions of higher education need to be granted some base funding in conjunction with the tasks which are formulated by their new governance bodies of the universities and which are approved by public authorities.

Public funds for fundamental research should be granted to the universities proportionally to their research outputs and distributed within the universities among the research groups on competition basis. State R&D institutions should be funded by the public authorities or private institutions who are consumers of their research outputs.

An ambitious undertaking to be sure, but is the government ready to execute such a plan? Veiko Spolitis, parliamentary secretary at the Latvian Ministry of Defense, explains what steps should be taken at a very basic level: The number of taxpayer-paid fractional institutions of higher learning need to be decreased, from the presently high number of 16 to 4 in the short term, and to 2 in the medium term. This would save administrative costs, avoid unneeded overlapping of programs [the Agricultural University prepares only 1 percent agricultural specialists out 100 percent of its student body, but they had almost a 500 percent increase of funds from the public purse from 2004-2007], establish measurable criteria for evaluating the programs on merits instead of the ‘old boys’ networks in the MINEDU, establish centers of excellence, and establish gradually brands of efficiently run universities (with scientific publications and other criteria following).

Muiznieks, Spolitis and other international and local experts and academics can agree that the number one area to focus on improving is Science and Technology. “Technology and science should be concentrated in the centers of excellence (under present circumstances in the University of Latvia, and probably a newly founded University of Riga), because they would have to compete on a par with the best EU universities,” said Spolitis.

Professor Muiznieks also explained that the idea of Innovation Centers (IC), possibly in cooperation with local vocational secondary schools, should also be explored. “If unique research facilities are located in regions where strong university colleges are present, for example, Irbene radio antenna near Ventspils, the possibilities to create an International Research Infrastructure (IRC) or an IC has to be explored.”
“Whatever reforms will be introduced, it cannot be accomplished by further budget cuts unless we suppose that killing of the system is a reform, too,” he adds.

With so many academics, students and citizens passionate to lend their involvement to the cause of fixing what is considered one of the nation’s greatest problems, the future is looking fairly optimistic, despite the seemingly constant government budget cuts and unhealthy reforms.