More foreign students would boost prestige

  • 2014-07-03
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

Hardly any other field in Lithuania has seen, over the last decade, so many reformers as has
education. As nearly every Education and Science Ministry minister has caused ripples or stirred
the waters, the incumbent minister, Dainius Pavalkis, has not been much of an exception to this rule.
He has triggered firestorms by his strong push for vocational training and for stricter university
admissions. Amidst the fury, the minister agreed to answer The Baltic Times questions.

You have got to agree that the discontinuation of education politics that we see happening with a new minister taking over is a pretty bad thing…

I did not start destroying what has already been done by my predecessors. With my feet in the ministry, I told everybody: “I am not coming to ignite a revolution…” In fact, from the start, I’ve been a supporter of dialogue, discussion and well thoughtout decisions. However, education, which has to go ahead of the society, cannot stay put. I’d say that change and improvement is inevitable in it.

What are other the most problematic education issues you’d like to sort out?

The shrinking numbers of schoolchildren have exacerbated the problem of the teachers’ workload and, hence, their pay. As the number of pupils goes down by 5-7 percent every year, especially so in countryside schools, the teachers are forced to work at several schools to have a proper workload, or to make do with a couple of lessons. The Lithuanian government strives to maintain small rural schools, because they are often the only cultural fireplaces in the countryside and are the local communities’ activity centers. However, we see that the educational quality in some of the schools, alas, is lower. As a result, senior class children are being brought to larger secondary schools and high schools.

You’ve spoken out that there are too many universities in Lithuania. Do you still stand by this statement?

I do think that nearly 50 universities are too many. To be precise, we have 23 universities and 24 colleges. I believe that all would agree that a structural change in the state’s higher education is necessary, especially having assessed the country’s demographic situation and the global higher education market. All the universities are autonomous, which means that the Ministry cannot do much about their functioning; there is a growing understanding among them that they have to coalesce.

When will Lithuania see its universities among the top 500 in the world, or at least in Europe?

This will happen when they start working hand-in-hand, rather than competing between themselves. For the smaller universities willing to get to the top, there is only one way for that – to coalesce the resources. Meanwhile, the larger universities can be a lot more visible on the global stage with the attraction of larger numbers of foreign students. This is what we see happening over the recent years, as the presence of foreign students has grown 25 percent over five years - from 3,000 in 2009 to 4,000 students this year. All the universities offer around 90 study programs in English, Russian or Polish. As the ministry has done its part in the process of consolidation, now it is up to the schools themselves to make certain strides in that regard.

What are the labor market’s needs now?

Perhaps Lithuania is not much different in that sense from the rest of Europe, where the need for IT, engineering and bio-medicine specialists is the highest. When it comes to skilled blue-collar workers, Lithuania is short of skilled workers in a number of fields, mostly in metal processing, construction, services, public nutrishment and global cargo haulage.

Has the Ministry ever carried out research on the investment return into science and education? What ought Lithuania to do to have the Lithuanian scientific facilities on par with those abroad?

Such research, as a matter of fact, is underway. World practice shows that investments into high technologies can result in a very high economic return, especially in the fields of the World Wide Web and IT. We indeed have many state-ofthe- art scientific facilities built; now it’s high time to employ them and achieve results. We are currently establishing five science and business [centers] with a different scientific specialization for each. The total of investments into them, with the EU support, reaches 2 billlion litas (580 million euros). I believe that the goals that Lithuania has in the field of innovation are really ambitious. To date we have quite some [strong] achievements in the fields of laser and bio-technologies. But to further pursue the goals, it is extremely crucial to bring in a new “thinking” generation able to produce a creative approach to science and generate business ideas. That is precisely our objective at the science-and-business [centers], which in the capacity of idea-incubators will be getting scientists and students under the same roof.

Can you tell us a bit about the Ministry’s proposals to amend the Science and Study Law, that are aimed to improving the university admission process?

There are two main issues we are seeking to enact. First, having signed agreements with universities which would define the schools’ programs and student admission requirements, this would allow the state to [influence] what specialists that state [turns out]. Second, we want to set minimal requirements for those seeking higher education. It is like setting a level of quality at a certain height, which would allow us ensure that only the best of applicants are admitted. Alas, now, many of the universities admit too many young people who are not ready to study at [this level].

What is the vision, speaking of secondary education reform?

Again, I’d not call it a reform. Rather an improvement; the quality of education, first of all. Research carried out to appraise the national secondary education achievements show that in Lithuanian schools, they are very different. Also, schools lack proper means to reliably estimate and compare schoolchildren’s academic achievements with their peers. Therefore, the Ministry is currently working on an academic achievement evaluation system, both for the schoolchildren and educational establishments. One of the suggested measures is standardized tests, enabling for objectively revealing the weak and strong sides of a school. Now only fourth and eighth-graders can take these kinds of tests, but in the future we intend to test the knowledge every two years. The other important field is increasing the attraction of vocational training. Currently, we are carrying out an essential renewal of the vocational training infrastructure, which includes opening new crafts training centers, and enhancement of collaboration with business and social partners. Until now, vocational training has been pretty neglected and considered as non-prestigious. It is not surprising that all secondary school graduates sought to study at university. I tend to say that over the years we have prepared many lawyers and managers, but we don’t have anyone left to build houses or bake bread. However, the trend during the recent years has been changing as more schoolchildren opt for vocational education. For example, this year we have admitted 10 percent more students to vocational establishments than planned. Taking into account that we had growth amid the decrease in the student numbers, it is a very good result. We have opened, or are about to open a total of 40 modern crafts training centers across the country. Some 400 million litas has been funneled into their launch. Some of them boast facilities that even some business entities can envy. But, alas, there’s still a good deal of stigma and stereotyping surrounding vocational training. That needs to be changed, and the higher numbers of students at the schools do the job.

Your former counterpart would underscore the necessity of secondary education liberalization. Meanwhile, you tend to stress the issue of accountability - of pupils, teachers and principals - and a stronger control of the academic process on the whole. Why do you believe this is important? Aren’t you defying the more liberal Lithuanian public?

There has to be balance between freedom and responsibility. Those states that gave their schools absolute freedom and haven’t foreseen mechanisms of control now are re-considering the decisions. Some of the international student achievement research does reveal that Lithuania needs to perform better in the educational field. Some of [our] neighbors’ children score considerably higher in reading and mathematics. So I think it makes sense to seek better control of the performance of a school, as well as the schoolchildren’s accountability for their academic results.

What is the number this year for secondary school graduates?

Around 38,000. For comparison, there were some 40,000 graduates last year.

What is your message to them?

I’d say this to every graduate out there: listen to the experts. Do not give in to the fads and temporary fashionable trends. Submitting [an application] to a university just because the majority of your peers do so is not the best motivation or decision. One should give thought to what he or she will do with the education after graduation, and how the prospects of finding a proper job look after leaving university or college. Sure, it is very important to turn an ear to the voice of your heart: what does it say?