Kilis’ challenges with higher education reform

  • 2013-03-20
  • By Charo Navarro Mateo

The New Action Plan for higher education reforms is now being implemented.

The low level of academic research, the weak quality of study programs and a skewed financing plan explains in large part why many say that Latvia’s higher education system is in worrying shape. Since Roberts Kilis took charge of the Education and Science Ministry in October 2011, one of his goals has been to make reforms to the system and to bring it up to an internationally recognized, and competitive, level. This has been a struggle. The higher education complex has become a battleground of sorts as Kilis, the reform-minded minister, has met strong opposition to re-inventing a department of government that is in dire need of dusting away the cobwebs and modernizing its work.

In the opposing camp, rejecting many of the ministry’s proposals stands the Council of Higher Education. The Council is responsible for activities such as working out the national concept for the development of higher education and its establishments, and harmonizing development of all kinds of higher educational establishments and of higher academic and professional education, says its Web site. Many students have also sided with the Council.
Did Kilis expect smooth sailing when he started? He told TBT: “I have to say that I underestimated the strong opposition from the institutions for systematic reform.”

The problems in higher education are many, say the ministry. From the point of view of the minister, there is an imbalance in the areas in which students are studying: there are too many students studying humanitarian sciences and too few studying engineering and natural sciences, reports LETA. According to 2011 data, of approximately 120,000 students enrolled, 80,000 were studying social sciences in Latvia. This doesn’t support the current Latvian economic or social needs of the country, say the experts. The universities cannot supply a sufficient number of science and technical specialists, healthcare workers, engineers to industry, or for research-intensive activities. Too many are studying soft subjects such as public relations and cultural studies.

The government is trying to change this by reducing the budget for social subjects, and channeling these funds to support the hard sciences and engineering. For the ministry, the priority is to increase the share of highly qualified professionals in the labor market priority fields.

The next problem is that the network of higher education establishments is too fragmented, spreading thin resources and making it harder for Latvian universities and colleges to compete on the international level. Higher education programs are quite weak in quality and in their demands on students.

Paying for studies is also a problem, where only one-third of students receive full state funding, with the rest to fend for themselves. On top of all this, student numbers continue to drop.
What Kilis wants to do is spelled out in his ‘Action Plan for Higher Education and Science Reforms in 2013-2014,’ delivered to the government and currently on the Internet to spur public debate, until April 1.

The reform agenda
The reforms could be categorized under three key initiatives: improving the quality of studies and scientific work; consolidation of higher education and the science sector; internationalization of higher education and improving its international competitiveness.

Kilis’ ideas to improve the quality of the studies start with implementing a proper accreditation system for the higher education establishment. Schools that receive state funding will have to meet, and maintain, quality standards. The poor quality programs need to be closed.

The way that the universities now manage themselves also has to change, in order to address quality issues. Currently each school runs itself. The management bodies are made up of members of their own schools, and they make decisions by themselves, for themselves. Kilis wants a governing system where academic matters are left within the school with, for example, a senate, but management, financial and strategic matters including the hiring firing of the rector are in the hands of outside, independent councils.

His example to follow is Denmark, where, he says, “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, [which consist of] persons of good public standing… very likely coming from outside academia. These people from outside make the decisions.”
Quality will also improve by changing how students pay their way through school. The minister wants studies to be financed by the state, at least while the student is in school – students study for free. He says that the current system, where two-thirds of students pay their own way, while the rest are fully paid by the state, is not fair, or effective. The state financing model would be: ‘the money follows the student.’ In this sense, the funding would follow the students to higher quality study programs. The second key initiative is to consolidate education resources. Closing the poorly performing schools would lead to a focus on the better programs.

The third key reform is opening up the higher education system to international competition. Many local educators are not competitive in the global environment, and foreign professors have a difficult time being accepted at equal levels as their local counterparts. Kilis wants to see a system in Latvia where, to teach locally, one has to meet what are essentially international standards.

What’s been done?
The accreditation program has started, and is showing results. New standards subject to an international assessment define the study program quality. The international criteria are applied not only to the programs, but also to the teachers, through stricter requirements. One requirement is for between 40 and 65 percent of them to have a doctoral degree.
From the educators’ point of view, this implementation is possibly excessive, considering the low wages of academic staff in general, and particularly when talking about the minimal pay for research. “The ministry calls for quality and professionalism. Everybody needs a working project; that means that one is a professional. It becomes difficult when the wages are as low as they are currently, because teaching takes so much time and some [professors] need to get a second job (…). You cannot ask for quality with such figures,” says Janis Berzins, professor of Political Science at Riga Stradins University.

Related to research requirements, the problem is even worse, because there aren’t enough journals interested in publishing articles about local issues. “There may be a certain number of local journals, but it needs money,” adds Berzins.

Maintaining quality, when it comes to new entrants, is moving forward. The ministry has sent its proposal on the licensing of new programs to the government. This would mean that new schools would have to meet the standards in order to be allowed to operate.

The ministry expects that a new management model, instituting the idea of councils, will happen soon, as there appears to be support within the coalition. The schools in this way will also be open to new ideas from the outside. Decisions about the strategy of a university, for example what kind of subjects to teach or what kind of expansion in terms of export of education to undertake, would be taken more effectively by an outside body, says Kilis. It is expected that this year there will be established a new institutional government structure, leading to a council system.

Currently, the higher education establishment senate determines the structure of the financial resources for a higher education program, then the funds flow to the students who have priority - those with economic needs or with the highest academic results – though only one-third of students benefit. The new financing model changes this. Kilis’ plan is for higher education to be free, with several possible financing options, including the idea that imposes a ‘graduate tax’ on students. Funding would be through a ‘super-fund,’ which would eventually be self-sustaining based on students paying back their study loans.

“With ‘the money follows the student,’ the incentive is [for schools] to offer better quality programs to attract more students and get more money from the ministry. The students are free to choose what they want to study,” says Berzins, adding that the students, with loans from the state, can “pay them back when they are finished with their degrees, in a very flexible manner.”
The higher education institutions, represented by the Council of Higher Education, are in agreement: “We understand that the model of financing of higher education must be based on state financing for full time students,” says Janis Vetra, chairman of the Council of Higher Education of Latvia.

The ministry expects to implement this so-called more economically efficient financing model this year.

Consolidating the fragmented and large number of programs is already well under way. Administrators saw the writing on the wall early in Kilis’ efforts and were slashing mediocre programs in anticipation of the accreditation standards.

Work on internationalization of Latvia’s higher education system, and making it more competitive, is also showing progress. Kilis mentioned that efforts were “devoted to the changes in the law, so that more European languages can be allowed in the academic setting here.”

An uphill climb
Early in the process, a group of foreign experts came to help evaluate Latvia’s higher education system, with the results being used in the reform process. Kilis says that the Council of Higher Education might have manipulated the findings of the evaluation, which the Council’s chief, Janis Vetra, strongly denies. If the data was altered, this would have resulted in possible errors in the ministry’s work.

Upon further investigation, the ministry on March 8 decided to go ahead as it submitted a complaint to the Prosecutor General’s Office to evaluate possible wrong-doing by Vetra.

The ministry also has to struggle against its own coalition government, which is not always supportive of the reforms. In early January Kilis accused the coalition of stalling, blaming both some in the coalition, and some in the education sector. He added that discussions within the coalition on the reforms were “extremely difficult.”

Some, though, who oppose the reforms say that Kilis has not always been the best communicator. Dombrovskis at times has also said that “there is no dialogue with the education sector or coalition [and Kilis].”

Nonetheless, without needed reforms, Latvia’s higher education sector risks falling further behind in the global race to attract the best students. Quality education is one of the pillars of a modern economy, not to speak of a necessity for a well-educated populace.

Kilis has the public’s support for his reforms. What seems hopeful is that further progress in implementing his ideas should continue through this year, all explained in his “Action Plan.”