Inspiratie aan de Oostzee

Nieuws | de redactie
1 november 2013 | Er valt een hoop te leren van het HO in Baltische ‘tijgerstaten’ als Litouwen. Jo Ritzen keek er rond en legde observaties en denklijnen vast. Er is veel mogelijk om de rest van de EU in te halen. En dat zal ook wel moeten nu. Het principe van ‘gratis onderwijs’ zou de vooruitgang echter wel kunnen remmen.

Tijdens een seminar in Vilnius over de toekomst van het HO gaf Ritzen zijn analyse, waarbij hij de vergelijkende studies van zijn organisatie Empower European Universities kon presenteren en inzetten. Nu Litouwen voor het eerst voorzitter is van de EU, zet het land zich met nog meer elan in voor een snelle ontwikkeling naar het niveau van buurlanden als Zweden en Finland. ScienceGuide sprak hierover recent nog met de huidige EU-voorzitter op onderwijsterrein, de Litouwse minister Dainius Pavalkis. Daar kwam onder meer het volgende op tafel:

You are planning to give the MOOC-debate a big boost by opening up the possibility to validate online courses through ‘informal qualification’.

“Yes, I would like to introduce that idea in the next Education Council. We will arrange a policy debate on that topic, trying to make a first step. Validating MOOCs is very convenient for employers that see young people lacking the accurate skills. The idea to recognize a MOOC as an informal skill was first presented at the Vilnius summit on higher education, last September.”

In the European Parliament this rather innovative idea was not received enthusiastically by all.

“Some MEPs in the Parliament’s education committee didn’t even know what a MOOC was, that made the discussion a little surreal”

Minister Pavalkis even went so far as to make an inventory of all bachelor’s programmes in Lithuania, asking the universities which percentage of them could be replaced by MOOCs in the next ten years. “For social sciences that might be 85%-90%, in medicine maybe 20% because you cannot do without practicum.”

On the 25th of November it will become clear if the Council of Education Ministers will join Lithuania in its progressive standpoint on MOOCs. “Of course the topic borders on issues of legislation, quality assurance and pricing”, Minister Pavalkis said. “But my aim is to engage all the European ministers regarding MOOCs”.

Jo Ritzen werkte zijn analyse en visie op de kansen voor Litouwen als kennisnatie uit in een stuk voor de ‘Lithuania Tribune’, dat u hieronder aantreft.  

Challenges for university policy in Lithuania

Following its newly won independence Lithuania first experienced a substantial decline in per capita GDP. Yet from there on Lithuania has been part of the ‘convergence’ machine of the European Union, meaning that its economic growth rates are much higher than those of the richer European countries. The average per capita growth rate over the period 2000-2012 was no less than 5.9 per cent, while that of the Netherlands, or of Norway (not in the EU), was slightly below one per cent.

However, if Lithuania, like many Central and Eastern European countries, wants the convergence to continue, then a serious overhaul of the system of higher education is required. This should focus on the employability of graduates. Universities should take responsibility for delivering graduates with twenty-first-century skills and organise their teaching and research accordingly. Universities can only engage in this overhaul if they are empowered – financially and managerially.

Recent advances, such as e-learning and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), can help to upgrade the quality of Lithuanian higher education through ‘blended learning’ (mixtures of traditional and e-learning), without high recurring costs. Differentiation is necessary for better quality, so as to match students’ potential talents and the university offerings. Differentiation and selectivity also apply to research.

Essential overhaul

At least fifty per cent of research funding should be reserved for those research lines in which Lithuania can compete internationally and generate additional funding from international competition in the European Union. Finally, Masters and PhD courses should taught be in English, because the graduates will go on to work in an international labour market. Some universities might even want to teach Bachelor students in English.

Such an overhaul is essential in order to develop a workforce that would make the modern sectors of the economy internationally competitive. This has been practised in countries like the Netherlands (where I have my personal experience as a minister and a university president). Let me briefly touch on each of the issues involved.

The labour market has drastically changed over recent decades in all countries. Technology has clearly won the race over education. I use the terminology of the Nobel Prize winner Jan Tinbergen who, in 1975, developed the hypothesis of a race between the supply of graduates and the demand from the labour market. The supply increased markedly with the huge expansion of the higher education capacity leading to mass higher education; yet demand increased faster, with the result that in most countries graduates have had a larger wage increase and lower relative unemployment than those with less education.

An upward spiral

We recognise now that it is not a race but an upward spiral: the supply of education has driven technological change, which in turn has led to a greater demand for well-trained graduates. Under the cloak of increased demand for graduates there is also a shift in the types of traits graduates need in order to function well in society. There is an emerging agreement among economists of both labour and education that graduates need not only to have knowledge to function well in society but also the capacity to solve problems – to actually use their knowledge, in addition to communication skills, cross-cultural attitudes, integrity and the ability to work well in a team.

This is not to say that each graduate should have exactly the same embodiment of each of these skills. There may be graduates with different sets of skills who are highly productive in goal-oriented organisations whether in the public or private sector.

Very few universities worldwide have taken the new insight on board as a guide for their learning processes and in taking responsibility for producing employable graduates beyond the sheer knowledge domain. This means a serious loss in the effectiveness of university education.

So how best to reinvent universities, to take on board the principle of graduates with the twenty-first-century skills as their prime output? Lithuania should have its own strategy. It will not be easy to get it implemented, as educational change is perhaps among the most difficult to achieve.

Empowered, financially and managerially

Continental European higher education is for the most part publicly provided and financed. This makes for a strong impact or, perhaps better, determination of the higher education structure by government policy. The development of a public education system with an overriding government role has been highly beneficial for our societies but has also allowed these systems to become ‘conservative’ and less able to adapt to changing external conditions than they would be if privately controlled.

The role of government in determining the organisation and performance of universities has been the focus of the NGO Empower European Universities, which has compared thirty-two European countries. For universities especially it is clear that ‘empowerment’ is important in realising the goals of education.

This implies that the teachers and staff give the maximum of their talents in realising student learning and in setting a goal-oriented organisational structure. In the NGO’s country rankings, Lithuania emerges as a country which can still make great strides in empowering its universities, in particular in becoming stronger in academic research.

The study found that in 2008, in comparison to the other countries, Lithuanian universities had much less financial autonomy, a slightly lower level of policy autonomy and higher than average organisational autonomy. The Lithuanian government has since amended the management of universities.

The 2009 law on Higher Education and Research redistributed the power between the Senate and the University Board. External members of the board are selected by the Lithuanian Higher Education Council and appointed by the Minister of Education and Science. The board comprises between nine and eleven members: four or five academics and four or five external members, with one student representative.

Smaller boards?

The responsibilities of appointing the Rector, strategic planning and budgeting, structural changes and other important decisions were granted to the board, while the Senate concentrates on solving only academic matters. However, in 2011, the Constitutional Court ruled that the changes contradicted the principles of academic autonomy and that amendments to the law were needed. Subsequently the powers of the university Senate were restored.

We suggest that the government might appoint smaller boards of only outside supervisors for the universities with a maximum of five to seven members. In the Danish, Dutch or Finnish structure of higher education this has been highly successful. The board members are drawn from all sectors of life outside politics and academia and have an eminent standing in society – industrialists, judges, hospital directors etc. The supervisory board appoints the university leadership, while the university is fully independent – organisationally, financially and in terms of the content of the curriculum.

Funding in Lithuanian higher education is currently insufficient to retain qualified teachers and to provide sufficient room for student-teacher interaction. The Lithuanian Constitution demands that public education remain free. However, tuition fees, in combination with a student loan system, might alleviate the funding squeeze without affecting the participation of students from less privileged backgrounds.

In a social loan scheme, the interest rate is low, the graduate never pays back more than five to ten per cent of income and the debt is written off after fifteen years. Cases such as that of Australia and, more recently, the UK have shown that tuition fees combined with a social loan scheme do not reduce the levels of intake of students from poorer backgrounds.

Brighter futures

When a student at the EIB Institute meeting was asked whether he would prefer an expensive Harvard course (with a student loan scheme) or a zero-fee public university education in Lithuania, he chose against Harvard. My own experience is that Maastricht University, like many foreign universities, receives quite a few Lithuanian students, even though they are unable to borrow the fees (almost 2000 euro), and that the future of these graduates is brighter than those trained in Lithuania. Unfortunately for Lithuania, some of these students decide to remain outside Lithuania, often contributing to a brain drain, whereas brain circulation would be highly beneficial for all involved.

Research funding is guided by the Law on Higher Education and Research of 2009. The law aims to allocate fifty per cent of research funding through competition between researchers (while in 2010 twenty-six per cent was allocated on the basis of competition). Research funding as a percentage of GDP is low when compared internationally. As far as I know, research is not concentrated in specific fields in which Lithuania could build up competitive power on a reasonable scale, like perhaps biotechnology or marine sciences.

Lithuanian rates of participation in higher education, and of graduation, are above the European average. Yet the percentage of foreign students was low (1.3 per cent with a European average of 5.9 per cent). This includes the international students who came to Lithuania with the move of the Humanitarian University from Belarus to Vilnius in 2003.

Research not strong enough

Some 84.8 per cent of graduates were employed within three years of graduation in 2010. This is above the European average of 82.9 per cent. 22.4 per cent of enrolled students graduated in 2010 (above the European average of 21.2 per cent). On these measures Lithuania does well. This is in marked contrast to its academic research, which is far below the European average according to all the parameters we introduced. These include the presence of Lithuanian universities among the top five hundred in the Jiao Tong ranking, the number of publications in top journals, the number of Marie Curie fellows, cooperation with the private sector and ERC awards.

Lithuania has – in comparison with other countries in Europe – a low level of labour productivity (a little more than half the average level), a low percentage of knowledge workers and a corresponding low GDP per capita (one third of the average). This is likely to be in part due to the low level of university research.

Our policy recommendation is that the ties between the ministries of education and science and that of economic affairs should be strengthened. A serious attempt should be made to bring Lithuanian research up to world standards. The latter may require a considerable increase in investment. We also suggest that the EU should earmark part of the cohesion and structural funds for such investment.

The challenge for Lithuanian higher education is to be more focused not only on what society needs in terms of graduate skills and in research but also on how this can be done with the limited resources available. MOOCs may prove to be great assets in increasing efficiency in learning. However, it is clear that it is a revolution not only to restructure university education according to a focus on the development of twenty-first-century skills but to incorporate MOOCs within the curriculum as blended learning or otherwise.

The system is diversified

The Lithuanian system of higher education should be diversified so as to match students’ potential talents with the university offerings. In continental Europe the massification of higher education has taken place more or less as a one size fits all. This has allowed the upward aspirations of community colleges to water down the overall quality, while traditional universities have benefited from the growth in the number of students by lowering their standards. Lithuania has in this respect a major challenge, as differentiating is not easily achieved in a political environment where many constituencies feel they may lose out from differentiation.

Europe is proud of its diversity of nations, each with its distinctive culture and often its own language. This diversity is an essential part of Europe’s foundations and must be preserved. At the same time we are part of one world in which we need to communicate with each other in Europe seamlessly and interact in the international world effectively.

We know from surveys that in Europe almost eighty per cent of graduates feel that they work in an international environment, in the sense that at least once a day they have to communicate with someone from another country and language background.

This calls for English to be used (as the new lingua franca) at least in Masters programmes, as well as for some internationally oriented Bachelor studies, of course building upon the preparation of students in secondary school. Rather than spend money in political and economic cooperation on translators we need to produce graduates who are fluent in English next to their mother tongue.

In conclusion, an outsider, like myself, who studies the developments in higher education in Lithuania is impressed by the tremendous strides the country has taken, building upon its historic legacy, like that of the graduate of the Imperial University of Vilnius, Adam Mickiewicz, whose poem Ode to Youth could be an inspiration all over Europe.

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