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Bringing Latvian education out of the medieval age

  • 2013-03-20
  • Interview by Charo Navarro Mateo and Dorian Ziedonis

A social and economic anthropologist, a professor at SSE Riga and now minister of the Education and Science Ministry, Roberts Kilis finds himself at the forefront of leading the reform of Latvia’s higher education system. But changing the status quo of this large organization, with its established and well-entrenched interest groups, hasn’t been easy. This is even considering that most in Latvia see that radical change is needed. Kilis sat down with the TBT last month to explain, from his perspective, what is wrong with the university system and how he wants to raise it to the world-class level.

What are the basic points in the general reform, according to the needs of the Latvian higher education system?

This is a two-fold question. One is: what are the key issues to be addressed by the reform? The other is: the what are the key steps of reforms? From the list of the worst case scenarios, we have a radically decreasing number of students, due to demographic tendencies. We have extremely fragmented higher education sector, which means there are lots of players. All together there are 62 higher education institutions in Latvia. Out of them, 32 are ‘augstskola,’ or university type and the rest are colleges and some branches of foreign higher education institutions.

Are the ones we’re talking about only the ones receiving state aid?

This is all together. Two-thirds of all receive state aid in one form or another. That’s the third problem. And the system of financing higher education is unsustainable. With fragmentation of resources, which means there are so many institutions and a dropping number of students, and the number of staff in Latvia that would be qualified to teach on a decent level approximating, say, the number of staff at one university, say Lund [in Sweden]. So [we have] around 6,000 qualified teachers, with doctoral degrees teaching in higher education institutions. Many of them work in the private sector; many of my colleagues with PhDs don’t work in the institutions. But if you imagine 62 institutions with drastically reducing number of students and not sufficient number of teachers, the sector is not viable as such. You can’t run the higher education system with quality. There aren’t enough teachers. They are probably working in more than one place. They’re running across the city lecturing.

The problem with the teachers is in the quantity, not the quality?

That might be debatable. Obviously there are teachers who cannot, say, teach in English. It has been 20 years since regaining independence, and in a more competitive environment of academic positions, those people would be out of a job pretty soon, either because of pensions or for other reasons, because they cannot participate in academic and scientific activities, on the international level, because they don’t speak English.

Without the English, is it a problem for local institutions?

Fine, but then just teach in colleges. But then why should the state support the existence of such institutions; why should you employ them and call it a higher education institution? I understand that some people can’t change, though I know some in their 50s and 60s have changed, and are able to use modern technologies, to participate in conferences, no problem, but… it’s not charity.

But learning English at 50 is virtually impossible.

But what are you saying then? We have to squeeze the resources, and support those who are not delivering quality teaching… I don’t think so.

For teaching quality, is the problem just the English?

No. For example, masters level programs are often not tied to quality academic research or applied research, which is a quite normal thing in most advance higher education institutions in our neighboring countries. If you do a masters you also do some research under the supervision of some senior researcher. The same goes for a PhD. Research institutions, most of them are nominally under universities but they run their own separate projects and don’t engage many students in them. So you have that problem. Sadly, the system of financing stimulates higher education institutions not to be selective to those who want to study, applicants, because they understand that the more [students] they would have in the first year, then some of the people drop out, but there will be still sufficient numbers. So there is a waste of resources going on. You accept 1,000 students who pay for the studies, and 200-300 drop out. And the next 2 years you continue working with 700 but you have wasted the resources of 300. And not because they are out due to quality. The university is where you start your career, a platform, for jumping further. Why? Because the path of vocational education has been underdeveloped for over 20 years. It has always been considered as second-rate education. If you attend a vocational school that teaches you professional skills, after the ninth class, at the age of 16… [this is] something secondary. Most youngsters after graduating secondary institutions don’t have any qualifications, except general education. What the hell can they do? They could go and start working, but who would accept them, because they don’t have qualifications. So they’ll flood universities. So it’s a suboptimal system that’s not based on quality checks at the proper places. Quality checks at the entrance; of the program; of the teachers, that’s one line. The other line is the use of resources that Latvia has.

The third line is opening up to internationalization and competition. If someone comes to Latvia as a French professor teaching French literature and history to those who study French, in order to become a full professor he has to show proficiency of Latvian at the highest level. According to current laws, which we are trying to change, they can only be guest lecturers, with limited input they can give, with no responsibilities quite often. Students attend, of course and enjoy the lectures, but it does not tie [in] to their development; a mark from that visiting professor doesn’t matter.

This isn’t efficient learning

Yes, this system of rules is quite protective to the current staff. Both in terms of how you actually get the position. Are there open international competitions announced? Have you ever seen this? No. The Estonians do this. They openly and internationally advertise positions. Latvians don’t.

How is it done here?

These are internal matters of universities. For example, I still work at the SSE Riga; I’m on unpaid leave while I’m minister. My title there is an associate professor. This is against the laws of Latvia, because in Latvia to become an associate professor you have to be accepted by the association of professors. It’s just that the Stockholm School of Economics is operating under different laws, a special law for when it was created. It’s common practice [in Latvia] that someone’s appointed to get a professorship. We do have this 19th century system of getting into professor’s ranks. And then again… who is taking seniority positions?

It’s like the old guild system.

Yeah, it’s protected, it’s medieval, a quite apt metaphor. It’s a guild.

Is there this kind of system for public employees?

No. (It’s not passing a state exam); here you get elected as a professor. Of course, to submit to the elections you have to present some sort of materials. It depends on the university rules. And then there’s one thing that is not as easy to communicate to the general public but is quite critical: the higher educational institutions in Latvia are run by themselves. The key main bodies of decision making are organized from within. And the recruitment, say in the senate, the highest decision making body, basically consists of members of that university. This is another medieval system. So imagine then that somebody wants to make a decision, which always would mean dealing with other faculties and departments… but, for example in Denmark, they moved quite successfully to a different kind of governing system where academic matters are left for the senate, but management, financial and strategic matters including the hiring firing of the rector are in the hands of councils. They consist of 9 to 15 persons of good public standing and not necessarily from academia, very likely coming from outside academia, being key chief executives of certain companies or publicly known persons, or retired diplomats. These people from outside make the decisions. There would be one board for the whole university, but a special branch for academic matters. And some universities have sub-councils, on innovation, that sort of thing… but the idea being that decisions about the strategy of the university, for example what kinds of subjects to teach, what kind of expansion in terms of export of education to pursue. With whom to cooperate? These issues are not discussed by senates. But they are quite crucial for the university. So probably this is one reform. This would probably go through, since the second partner in the coalition, Vienotiba [Unity], already prepared something similar 1-1/2 years ago for change. Though it was rejected by the council, they have different ideas, but at least they’re on the same page of considering that there should be serious changes in the way the higher education institutions are managed.

Is this related to the accreditation system?

The council idea is to make universities more entrepreneurial and business organization-like. This has several consequences – the council decides it can no longer sustain such and such number of programs. It cuts the programs. It decides that maybe it’s better to cooperate with that university in teaching this particular program. Rather than develop our own. From the employer’s point of view, which is a normal classical situation when I attend employers meetings, they are trying to tell me what I have to tell universities what kind of specialists to prepare. Which is idiotic. Why should the minister be involved in that. They themselves need to do this, and the council system would allow it. And employers feeling the need for certain skills in a certain period of time would then go to these technical universities and say, I’m building a factory which will be ready in 2015. I want such and such number of highly trained people, and the council immediately says to the faculty: “you have to do this.” If you don’t do this, we fire you. You can’t do that now with the senate, because the senate does not fire anybody.

So you are focused on the program’s quality.

With the programs the simplest way of getting the sector more consolidated [is to] draw a quality line, and the programs fall below that line [are not funded]; then what you say to the students and to society is: then that’s your own risk if you want to pay for that program, which we consider to be poor quality. By that, probably, the university, and that’s what they’re [now] doing, they are eliminating the programs that are considered poor quality. The number of programs has been reduced, which is the absolutely needed thing. Then you can concentrate your resources on the fewer programs that are of better quality.

Less programs but better programs.

Absolutely.

It seems like a common sense change in the structure . And with some of your other reforms, you’re facing a lot of entrenched self-interests and obstacles. Have you maybe underestimated the opposition to your reforms? There is a lot of resistance to what seems a better Latvian future in education.

I have underestimated a couple of things. First, I underestimated exactly what you just mentioned – that there’s a common understanding of the issue. It turns out that there isn’t. There are lots of key players in the sector who do not consider that the problems I’ve mentioned are serious problems; they argue that the quality of our educational system is good, because our students after they graduate can enter, after they get the bachelors, some British universities. Which is some weird kind of criteria of quality. The students themselves, ladies and gentlemen, do not complain. It’s a kind of schizophrenic suggestion.

They think they are prepared, but actually they are not.

Another of my underestimations was the I thought that everybody in the sector, or at least the majority in the sector, would clearly see the list of problems, and that we would be on a common page, a common starting point. Then we would discuss the various forms of reform, maybe the staging of reforms, timing and maybe financial matters. But we would start at the same understanding; but you see, the quality is not good, internationally it’s not valued highly, doesn’t place in any rankings, the sector’s fragmented, it’s not tied to labor market needs, the system of financing where one-third is financed by the state and two-thirds by the private sector, is morally wrong. It’s not just inefficient, it’s morally wrong. Etc., etc. But I thought that everyone would understand that, but it turns out no. So there was opposition, who claim it is not so bad.

Here you maybe underestimated that the sense between the teachers and students is that there are no problems.

I mean that the social part of the sector understands that there are problems, but not the problems that I am mentioning.

So the key is to first get everyone on a common understanding that these are the problems.

Now we have a matter of strategy. The second underestimation I had was that you have to provide a systemic solution, systemic reform that would cover everybody. Then, of course, the resistance comes quite naturally because then some players would lose and some would win. If you create a new system of higher quality then fees following students to the high quality institutions, council system, then the endowment of resources like the university of Latvia puts it certainly at an advantage as compared to, say, Vidzemes College and so on. That was my underestimation, maybe even mistake, that I thought that, as a minister I have to have a systemic solution. There was very strong opposition to that. Because what I offered was, there would be some certain of ranking of all the programs in Latvia and then state money would flow only to those programs which are of the highest quality, which is a systemic solution. And the programs that are not of higher quality would not get state funding anymore. Then there were how many calls for my resignation… I don’t know. I’ve never counted.

Why are the students calling for it?

Ask them. I think we are in a weird psychological [situation], because I would claim that those who are calling for my resignation in the student body are probably not… Those who are in favor of [my] changes are busy working.

Yes, they’re studying. They’re in the library.

They’re studying. They don’t have time for this politicking. Then there are maybe some students [with] a light weight of studies, a couple of lectures per week, so why not engage in something political?

When I was studying there was a reform around the Bologna system. A lot of people were against that because it was in a way revolutionary, but in an economical way. So people were against that because they didn’t want to pay more for studying. But at the same time they’re paying for quality. So the main thing is, changing things from the point of view where if it’s believed to be working well, there’s no point to change it. That’s the point of view of the students.

It’s surprising. Look at France. You have some sort of attempts to reform education. You have hundreds of thousands of French students marching in the streets, and asking for the resignation of the government, the British students were [pushing against] the car of the Prince of Wales, so I understand that higher education is a very sensitive issue on some significant part of students who are for various reasons against the government’s attempts to impose it.

Maybe these students here don’t see that they won’t be competitive on the global market.

Yes. That’s short term [thinking] anyway. An outlook of 1-1/2 years maximum doesn’t make you think about your career in five years’ time. So you’re simply looking at something that will happen in 12 months or 18 months’ time, and within that timespan, nothing serious is challenging you, you get your Erasmus scholarships, you can spend a semester somewhere nice, in Norway, Switzerland, whatever, it’s a good life.

But there they’re being introduced to higher level institutions and students.

Yes, but then they have to come back and say: “we need to improve our universities so that they are of the same caliber and quality as the universities that we visited.” And they’re not doing that. The self-governance of the students is not doing this.

Additional opposition to your reforms seem to be the coalition itself. Are you getting the support from [Prime Minister Valdis] Dombrovskis?

No. (sigh, and a pause) Of course, things change with time. But there was a period in late November when the prime minister openly said that I am the key, whatever, break on the reforms. He said, “The minister of education is the key responsible person for why the reforms are not going as fast as they could, and that the reforms should be discussed with all sectors involved.” This is something that is rarely happening, when the prime minister publicly, not personally, makes such statements. And if the prime minister, who is the head of the government, is dissatisfied with whatever, he has been calling on the phone and we have been meeting, in fact two weeks before his announcement we met exactly to discuss matters of higher education, so there is some sort of feeling that I either this is a political competition, because if something like reforms goes through, in higher education, which is by all, recognized as the most difficult field, then of course the party that I kind of represent [Reform] may claim the medals. Why should you help your political competitor, yes who’s currently in the government but still a competitor, to gain. It’s better to have this game of attrition. This is a game of attrition. This is in a way the formal support in the rhetoric, but it’s difficult to get things through.

Have things changed today?

Well, we have changed, with a slightly different strategy. [We’re] not now thinking we need to push through systemic changes for the whole sector. We agree, in the form of a memorandum, with individual universities on the basic principles of reforms, and then together with those universities, the five or six biggest ones, and come and work as the sector ministry, and then prepare these reforms and go to the government, and then the government would probably find it a bit more difficult to reject them, if they wanted. We’re not going alone now; we’re going together with the universities, who have been very helpful in support of the reforms. Secondly, we have established the working group in the coalition where we discuss matters of higher education. For example, the next meeting, on the coming Wednesday, will be devoted to the changes in the law, so that more European languages can be allowed in the academic setting here. It seems we might be pretty close to success for agreement within the coalition about that. The same goes for the issue of Councils, something we might agree on, with our political colleagues. Again, there are the new municipal elections looming, and nobody knows how it will go. What has happened, as you might have noticed, is there’s a common understanding that there is something wrong with higher education. If worse comes to worse, there’s one thing I did. I made it public knowledge that there is something really wrong with higher education. It’s no longer some sectorial, specific views.

It seems like you have the support of the public.

Well yes. The polls we did in December show that all the specific reforms I’ve supported in all cases are supported by the majority of the public. Language, tougher accreditation, opening up to international competition for professorships, these all have figures of 50 percent-plus [support].

It’s now just a matter of getting it implemented.

[We have to] get that support long enough to pressure politicians, but currently yes, there is public support.

So people are starting to understand what are the problems of higher education.

The public are starting to link together that Latvia will be lagging behind with its quality of higher education. Before, the link was not made clear. So, there was one issue of our development and welfare, and something as sacred as higher education, and I guess more people are starting to link that together. A higher quality of higher education would probably guarantee, or at least lead to a higher level of welfare. There is a point in investing, in energy, roads… to make that education better… not just for me, but in general, since that would probably benefit the economy at large. I hope that this link is beginning to form. That’s exactly the key issue as to why higher education is so important.

It takes a long term perspective.

Yes.

We’ve been talking about the main issues of reform. What has so far been done, and what is still to be done?

What is done is that there is a new system of accreditation in place. And then there will be, I think in the next days, announced an international body that can participate in a competition for a tender for who can be running the accreditation. Before that it was a local institution that didn’t have recognition from European association of accreditation organizations, so now we’ll have a recognized accreditation agency, so they will be doing the accreditation. Then, the next thing that is done is, we have submitted to the Cabinet the rules of licensing. It again might take some time for discussion. The licensing of the programs and the accreditation are two different things. Licensing is when you’re allowed to [start] with a program, a school. Somebody comes to the state and says, ‘Hey, I have a nice program, engineering,’ and licensing is the process of saying, from the state’s point of view, it seems that what you have designed may work well, and we see that you have resources for that, and we’ll give you the chance to try it out. Accreditation is the process of checking already running programs against the standards. So both, licensing and accreditation are very important. Let me give you an example. Somebody comes and gives a description of a program and says, ‘Teacher X teaches in English. Before, nobody would go and check that. Whether the statement written in the document that he or she teaches [in English] is actually true, and now, the new system of licensing would check that. Therefore, you cannot lie. And again, about resources, now they’ll actually go and see that they have premises, books, computers, access to databases, because how can you teach if you don’t have elementary infrastructure. So I think both these things, accreditation which is about running current programs, and those who will be coming [through licensing], both have been made tougher. The third thing has not succeeded as well as I wanted, but is something that’s moving. The universities themselves are downsizing the number of programs prior to our accreditation process. So now they’re checking and revising and closing down the unsuccessful programs, because they know the accreditation is coming.

But you said this is not as successful?

I wanted it to be more successful. There was a [report] run not by the ministry, but by the Higher Education Council, the independent body. Just a couple of hours before you came, we discussed with the auditors, Deloitte, about how good or bad the process of researching the quality of higher education has been by the Higher Education Council. It seems that the report will not be positive. Therefore, a lot of resources universities put into preparing self-reports and data might not have been put together well, and may not be used for a faster process of accreditation. That’s why I say sadly that we’d probably have to go for some renewed check rather than use this report. There are too many problems along the path of the process that makes it highly problematic to use this report.

Some experts thought that the data was manipulated.

Yes. I’ll give an example. I think it’s official now, there was a lady, her name was Dr. Hilton. She ranked programs in one of the universities as such: two programs good; two programs average; and two programs bad. And she was the head of the expert team. After the higher Education Council published the reports, of those six programs, four were put in the first group, two were put in the average group, and none in the third. What would you call that? And there’s no signature from Dr. Hilton on the paper. There’s something really weird going on! I cannot disclose all the things, but that report they’ll make public.

According to the Council, the report has to be done by the first of April. And according to them, the report was objective. But I said to them that so many experts from foreign countries said that it was manipulated, it wasn’t objective. They said that it was made by the experts, not the Council, so it has to be objective. Why was it manipulated?

I think there were a lot of things going on like that: half-filled out [forms].

What is the motive for manipulating this?

Can you make an intelligent guess? We really saw that, when we made our calculations, which were based on wrong data, as it turned out. So, our calculations were also wrong. We sort of, in good faith, accepted the data provided by the Higher Education Council, a body of high standing and authority; why should we start doubting? And when there was a ranking of the programs, from the best to the worst, with 170 programs being in the worst group, plus the statement that the state won’t give money to those that are the worst programs. Then you saw what happened as a result. You saw that universities [receiving] claims for resignation, which is for me a straightforward thing. They reacted self-defensively on something they know is wrong.

We’re talking about a lot of money as well.

You can imagine that one student brings to the university 1,500 lats… not bad. And one program can comprise, for example, 100 students. This is worth a fight, right? Imagine being told that 150,000 lats is being deducted because one part of your program is bad. Altogether we calculated approximately 6 million lats was spent in a way that was not of good quality. Six million lats. It’s half the money needed to buy [computer] tablets for children in Latvia.

Then this is everything that’s been done so far with reforms?

In the spring we’ll probably get these motions through the parliament, about language, opening professorship to competition, and hopefully the changes in the governance structure, this council idea. In parallel there is another exercise of evaluation which is about research institutions. This is going to take place this spring with the results coming out in May. All scientific research institutes registered in Latvia will be screened for their quality. And although this is not higher education, it may directly influence how higher education functions.

Looking at the economic sustainability of the system, what about the student loan system. You are interested in copying the Australian system? How would it work, and how do you want to make the change?

I guess from a purely theoretical view it wouldn’t be right to call it a loan system; it was our mistake to call it a loan system initially, because people here are kind of afraid of taking loans, although they loans for some things, but for education… but the idea is that if you have quality programs, measured by accreditation, and the students who are accepted in these programs, and the state pays for all students all their expenses, and if necessary also maintenance, which means that all students here study free of charge while they are studying. Once they finish, then here are some possible variations, scenarios: one of them is to introduce a graduate tax. A small amount of money for whoever has a higher education; a special kind of progressive taxation. This would be paid for a particular time period. The other option is to divide those who have graduated into those who work for strategic professions, in fields where the government needs them; then they would never pay back anything to the government for their studies. Whereas if you have chosen another profession, or have chosen to leave the country, you would pay back the money the government invested in your education and maintenance. It’s not a loan system, because there are special provisions. For example, you do not repay if you are under a certain level of income, or for some time are unemployed. If you cannot repay within 25 years, it is discarded. You pay only when your income reaches a certain level. It’s more like a graduate tax mechanism. And why we are preparing this is because currently, one-third of the students get paid by the state for their studies; they don’t pay tuition. And they may also receive a stipend, though it’s not sufficient. So you have to somehow add up by other means. But they don’t pay tuition. There are students in the classroom, where one-third are paid by the state, and two-thirds are paying themselves. And there’s no link whatsoever of the fact that you’ve been paid by the state to what you do after you get that education. You can go wherever you want and do whatever you want. And I think that’s not just. Seventy-five percent of taxpayers would never get that high education. And then there’s no responsibility with it.

What do you want to make these changes?

It might be simple. You establish a foundation, say a study loan foundation. Like in England - Study Loan Company. And you put a lot of money in that foundation; where would you get the money? From shares of privatization, which is still possible, we have shares in Lattelecom, LMT, and others. Or, you simply borrow on the international markets.

Can the state afford this program right now?

Well, 700-800 million euros are needed for the system to become self-sufficient. You understand that you invest in students, and at some point they start paying back. And once they start paying back, this is paying for the next students.

Do you find more support, or opposition to this idea?

Opposition.

What are the main things with your reform that you still need to accomplish?

The first is to have a government declaration on how the higher education system would look in 2020. A government commitment that would contain both the eventual number of higher educational institutions and the parameters for them. So the government would say: currently we have whatever number, and in 2020 we’re aiming to reduce that number by 50 percent. Secondly, that government decision would also lead to instruments planned in how to use structural funds for the next period – 2014-2020. We already have proposals made how, for example, a university gets funding only if in cooperates with some other university on a joint program. Maybe doctoral programs are run only when they’re joint programs, not separate. The two things, from the managing process, are to get government to accept that declaration and vision, and secondly have rather detailed measures written in planning documents for European funds usage. Socially, publicly, probably it would not be bad to have more positive and joint interest in transforming education, but that’s not just me who can do it. That’s also maybe the media can do something. The controversy is more about this, rather than understanding that ‘yes we can,’ we can be better than the Estonians, better than the Spaniards, for example.

Yes, in Spain the budget for education for the next years is dropping. But in Latvia is the budget for education increasing, or in this eurozone crisis it’s difficult to grow the budget?

The Latvian government just a couple of weeks ago borrowed around 1 billion dollars easily at low interest. And we can privatize. And the size of Latvia is not big, and in a way it could be done like this [snaps fingers]. But you don’t immediately need 800 million euros. You can borrow in chunks. So I don’t think there is much of a problem. We have external debt which is [at a] very healthy [level]; we have calculated, 3-4 GDP [percentage] points we can borrow very easily. What could be a better investment than in education? That would be money borrowed to invest in education. Probably the best investment ever.

Lithuania is moving forward with partnerships with British schools, foreign schools, this may be more of on an official, legislative level.

Yes.

Is Latvia moving in that direction?

(sighs) No, not yet.

In Latvia, would that have to be on the legislative level to happen?

There are some examples, like Riga Business School.

These are at a higher level, supported by the state.

Yes, indeed.

Is this something that you’re looking at as well?

I haven’t, but I’m aware of the imminent threat of these ventures in terms of [attracting] students from standard, traditional universities to these new ventures, which partly exist on the Internet, which is fine. That is also my surprise; [some] don’t see the threat, though the threat is imminent. Such ventures might develop more and more. If our students can go to the UK, why can’t the UK get their branches here? In cooperation, franchising, and they would out-compete our traditional institutions. I think that’s a very serious signal, and I cannot explain why the universities do not pay attention to that.

There’s so much on the Internet, good quality.

You can easily check on whether the lecture is quality or not, right? A lecture on macroeconomics. And how many lectures on macroeconomics are there? Maybe there’s no point in lecturing on it anymore in the classroom, do something else. Seminars. You can watch Nobel Prize winners lecturing on macroeconomics. These kinds of things, which are not developing, and which are not being taken seriously, the feeling I have is, I’m kind of a doctor who wants the patient to survive, but the patient spits on you and throws all these bandages on you, all the blood…

But step by step, you are getting to your goal; people are starting to understand the necessity of reform.

Yes, but the patient itself, doesn’t understand.

Talking about an unstable coalition, how much time do you have left to complete your reforms?

I think the worst scenario would be until July. After the municipal elections.

So that’s a lot of work to do in limited time.

Yes, sure. The issues won’t disappear by themselves. They’ll stay, and probably somebody else would continue in a different way, and maybe better than I would. So, I’m not that pessimistic; I may not be optimistic about me being in that position forever, at least until some part of it is done.