On 13 May 2014, Latvia’s largest newspaper “Diena” published an interview with RSU rector Jānis Gardovskis.
Warnings on the reduction of the number of prospective students in Latvia have been topical for the past years (due to demographic aspects, possibilities to study abroad etc.). Another year has passed and soon the admission will start. What are your views on the present situation and possible solutions?
According to the forecasts for the next few years, the number of students will continue to decline. Besides, results of market researches carried out by our university show that the number or high school graduates planning to study abroad is constantly growing. This year we’ll see which universities have the potential. Currently, we cannot prevent consequences caused by demographic gap to higher education as this situation had to be faced a long time ago by striving for the improvement of study quality – development of study content in line with labour market needs and world trends, high-end technologies, international cooperation, attraction of visiting lecturers, up-to-date premises for studies. Besides, institutions of higher education have to establish closer cooperation and communication and develop joint interdisciplinary study programmes and focus on specialisation. I consider it the most efficient solution taking into account the limited amount of financial resources allocated from the state budget. I am confident that the demand for study places at RSU will be high, as opposed to other universities we have managed to attract students for study palaces financed from the state budget. Moreover, the demand for the programmes of social sciences is high, though, there are no study places financed from the state budget. No doubts, attracting international students would solve the problems arising from demographic decline. Here are the keywords of success: quality, cooperation and international dimension.
Education export that would serve as a compensation for the decline in local market has been a topical issue. What are our advantages? What about Russian as a language of instruction for attracting prospective students from certain regions? What about the west?
RSU has been focusing on attracting students from the West for already over 20 years. After Latvia's accession to the European Union, the number of international students attracted from the countries of Western Europe skyrocketed. Initially RSU had several students from Sri Lanka and Lebanon. The number continued to grow reaching 1100 international students. Nearly 95 % of them are from European countries. In total there are students from 25 countries. In general, the field of higher education in Latvia is among the greatest beneficiaries from Latvia’s joining the EU, and RSU is among the most remarkable success stories. Our advantages are well-developed and contemporary study programmes, competitive tuition fees at the European level, geographical location and command of several foreign languages. Languages of instruction at RSU are Latvian and English. We have not considered offering studies in Russian, as, first, that would contradict the law, and, second, remarkable investments would be required to purchase study literature and recruit teachers capable of working in Russian. Besides, there is no demand for study programmes with Russian as a language of instruction, as prospective students from former CIS and Asian countries (e.g. Kazakhs, Azerbaijani) prefer studying in English. For those wishing to obtain diploma of the EU, Russian language is not an option, as English is the language for labour market in the EU, USA or even Asia.
Please name obstacles for the development of export of higher education.
Demand for study programmes offered by RSU is high, whereas, our capacity is limited. To foster the development we have to attract young teachers holding a PhD. We also need to attract European funding for the development of infrastructure and building of new student dormitories. We also consider the issue on RSU hospital crucially important. RSU aims at establishing closer integration with Pauls Stradins Clinical University Hospital and Children’s Clinical University Hospital as such cooperation would develop into a centre of excellence in the fields of medicine and health care. Currently, RSU’s international students spend around 30 million euros per year for their daily expenses (150–200 million euros per 5 years), thus contributing the growth of Latvia’s national economy. Still, the government does not provide universities with support at a sufficient level to foster export of higher education. No doubts, higher education as a field of export should be developed to be able to receive support from the side of government. Universities should focus on demand analysis and offer study programmes that are appealing at international level, in our case – medical studies.
Duplication of study programmes has been an acute problem in Latvia. Some people find it positive, as it promotes competition among universities, whereas, others have an opposite views. What is your opinion?
In general competition in higher education is a positive aspect. However, in small countries like Latvia, it is essential to evaluate if such competition fosters maintaining of quality in higher education. There are fields of studies, such as engineering medicine and dentistry that require significant investments in study infrastructure amounting in several ten millions euros. I am of the opinion that the state should not support duplication of such programmes requiring significant resources. For example, currently, another dentistry programme has been established. Currently, there is a shortage of funding, therefore, available funds should be allocated to universities specialised in particular fields. Though private funding might also be spent for the establishment of the study programme, still later funds from the state budget will be required to make the programme competitive in Western Europe. It took twenty years and investment of own funds in the amount of ten million euros to establish the Faculty of Dentistry that is the most up-to-date faculty of its kind in North Europe. Besides, dentist’s profession is strictly regulated by the EU. As opposed to the field of dentistry, in social sciences the duplication of study programmes is permissible, as the availability of study premises, lecturers and study literature is enough to run a programme. I assume that duplication is also admissible in those fields with shortage of specialists, such as IT.
With regard to higher education in general, there is an opinion that demand does not match supply and universities have to establish closer cooperation with entrepreneurs. It seems right, however, are there any suggestions to facilitate the integration of young specialists into the labour market.
We have already established cooperation with entrepreneurs of various fields, such as pharmacy and health care. This function should lie within the competence of the Convent of Councillors of the institutions of higher education. At least this is the case in our university – prominent experts of various fields assist the university in making strategic decisions on adaptability of study programmes to the labour market. Besides, the head of the study programme should be enthusiastic about cooperation with the entrepreneurs. Surely, some fields are not directly related to the labour with regard to the fields of national economy. In this case government should assume the responsibility, as some youngsters aim at engaging into science. What will be the source of their income in future? Commercialising of their scientific discoveries? Cooperation with local government is another solution. We have just concluded cooperation contracts with Latvia’s largest cities Riga and Daugavpils with an aim to attract young professionals to regions and particular local hospitals and foster the cooperation with the fields that are in need for university graduates.
Organisation of scientific work varies from country to country – it has been carried out within the institutions of higher education or independent institutes that are not linked to the universities. Due to the lack of funding allocated to the field of science from the government, the next EU funding period will be crucially important. I have a feeling that there is some sort of fuss made of it in Latvia. What is your opinion on this?
Over the next years a huge amount of EU funding will be distributed, and the competition is high. Besides, some sort of squabble can be observed due to “non-transparent” criteria or negative previous experience. Nevertheless, it is essential to maintain succession - to continue to support commenced infrastructure and human resources projects, including support to doctoral students. Upon planning of future investments in science, entrepreneurs’ views should be taken into account, however, attention should be also drawn to public sector related fields with huge impact on national economy and export, such as health care, education. Within the next funding period, greater emphasis should be put on the relation between science and education by avoiding drawing strict borders between them, but rather establishing an infrastructure for research and training, thus, providing students with an opportunity to adapt to the requirements of the labour market in a more efficient way.