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When Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš' government took office it outlined an ambitious goal in the government declaration in January 2019: to ensure that at least one Latvian university ranks among the world’s top 500.

The government pledged to ensure adequate funding for this purpose in the state budget. Along with increased funding, universities need their own law in order to be able to develop faster on an international level. A special university law would allow public funds to be economised to quickly bring about changes that are acceptable to everyone.

Setting the top 500 as a goal has, at times, been criticised. It must be said, however, that striving to reach the world's top 500 universities is a positive goal for Latvian higher education in general. After some initial confusion we have become determined and are now trying to answer two main questions: what are the obstacles we are facing and what resources do we need to reach our goal? 

There has been a lot of discussion regarding resources and the topic will inevitably have to be raised again. Briefly, the two main components of how the global university rankings are measured are reputation and research excellence (internationally cited publications, their number and quality). The latter indicator directly correlates to the amount of funding available for research, while reputation is “measured” using a survey by experts in the field (a survey of academics and employers accounts for 50% in the QS rankings methodology).

According to the government, the main obstacle to universities developing faster is the current governance model for higher education institutions. This is why the Ministry of Education and Science was tasked with drafting a report on changing the internal governance model as early as in August 2019. The report was adopted by the government in February 2020. As the report became longer, the number of institutions and organisations dissatisfied with the report also grew because they saw it as a threat to their future existence.

Similar discussions might arise regarding the drafted amendments to the law on higher education institutions that the Ministry of Education and Science submitted to be announced at the state secretary meeting on 12 March 2020. To draft major amendments to a law created 25 years ago while ensuring that the new regulations are compatible with existing legislation is no mean feat. It is unlikely that discussions regarding the draft law will only last a few weeks. Moreover, adopting the law will not in itself provide universities with a new governance model.

Establishing councils in all state higher education institutions will require significant time and effort provided that all the legislation is drafted, coordinated and adopted in time; the plan is to set up councils of 11 members each in 16 state higher education institutions. As outlined in a report by the Ministry of Education and Science a committee for the introduction of an independent strategic governance model will supervise the establishment of these councils. The committee will be financed by European Structural Fund resources; several million euros have been mentioned at unofficial talks. As can be inferred from the report, these millions are not to be spent on the council's functions, but rather on consultations for their establishment.

The process has an alternative: to create a new university law setting out a new governance model for the major Latvian universities. This is the model agreed upon by representatives of the universities in the working group created by Arvils Ašeradens, Chair of the Saeima Education, Culture and Science Committee. The model has also largely been accepted by the Ministry of Education and Science, which has included a part of the working group's proposals in its report.

Advantages of the new university law

  1. The law can be drafted very concisely, reducing the broad scope laid out in the ministry's report, the draft law, and the forthcoming cabinet regulations.
  2. Representatives from Latvia's major universities have come to an agreement about a new model, so the changes could be introduced swiftly with the involvement of the universities themselves.
  3. The governance model introduced at the major state universities would serve as a pilot project for governance changes at other higher education institutions.
  4. We encourage advisers to channel the intended resources into research where they are vitally needed. In the option we're proposing the cost of developing a regulatory and governance model would be incomparably lower by attracting management, financial and legal experts from the universities themselves.

It has to be noted that the same gradual approach was used in Estonia with the new governance model first being implemented at the University of Tartu, then at the Tallinn University of Technology and only later at the remaining four universities.

It is time to shift from islands of excellence, which we undoubtedly have in Latvia, towards institutional and systemic excellence. A new governance model would help larger universities in Latvia, but it needs to be implemented wisely and with a specific goal in mind. The largest Latvian universities need to improve their ranking among the best universities in the world and this requires an appropriate instrument - the new university law. I am sure that the universities are ready!