Weakened universities need help to overcome their difficult situation. To do so, it’s necessary to detect the ‘focuses of disease by symptoms’, such as the level of students’ knowledge, the quality of equipment, and the share of international students, and then elaborate the cure for a university. Reorganizational ‘surgeries’, such as university mergers and acquisitions, are by no means always effective, and precautions against further decline are much more preferable.
Those were the key notes of the paper by Isak Froumin and Mikhail Lisyutkin. The paper considers those universities that show negative dynamics in terms of student and staff quality, research and international activities, to be ‘degrading’. The authors considered only public educational institutions.
The paper was presented by Mikhail Lisyutkin at the 5th International Conference on Managing Differentiation in Rapidly Changing Higher Education Systems: Challenges and opportunities at HSE.
The study included an analysis of the results of the annual university efficiency monitoring 2012-2014, carried out by the Ministry of Education and science, as well as case studies from five universities of various profiles, including in-depth interviews and surveys among university top management, lecturers and students.
The researchers detected some external incentives for the weakening of universities. These include, firstly, broader access to higher education, its vastly increased scope, which is happening in many countries, including Russia, USA, China, India, and Brazil. Higher education is becoming a social norm; more and more people get it and more and more organizations offer it.
This trend is positive for society, since it increases the level of education in a country and supplies people with new economic opportunities. But it also has side effects, which universities are already starting to experience: devaluation of higher education and excessive heterogeneity of students. Among others, very weak students are also able to claims a degree.
The second external incentive for weakening universities is the implementation of a ‘quasi-market’ approach. This can lead to harsh competition between universities, which inevitably brings losers. Many state universities in Russia are not prepared for competition; they have trouble adjusting to changes and external challenges.
‘About one quarter of universities today show negative dynamics in terms of various objective indicators as compared to 2012’, Lisyutkin noticed.
Sometimes the situation is more difficult, the expert says: formally a university isn’t one of ‘the losers’, but its administration and stakeholders see that it ‘worsens’ every year.
In such a context the key question is why, under almost equal conditions, some universities are developing, while others are stagnating and degrading.
The second, but equally important question is how to help universities from the risk group steer to a safer path. Here it is important to elaborate precaution measures, not carry out ‘surgery’ – mergers and acquisition of certain ineffective institutions, the speaker said.
Five universities of various profiles (social sciences and humanities; technical; pedagogical etc) were selected from those demonstrating negative changes. The case studies analyzed their educational policies, achievements, failures and problems. As a result of interviews with university representatives it turned out that an overwhelming majority of respondents – about 90% – explain the worsening situation of their universities primarily through external conditions.
Out of these, the respondents highlighted four factors.
First, decreased funding, which narrows the universities’ opportunities.
Second, the evolving share of private universities and fee-paying places in state universities. As a result of growing access to higher education, as mentioned above, the universities have to work with a very varied student body.
The third factor is poor participation of the professional community in university life.
The fourth factor of university degradation is brain drain. The scholars who could have ‘saved’ the university by supporting its competitive ability have left it.
These processes happened in all the universities studied, but some of them managed to ‘rehabilitate’, while others didn’t, Lisyutkin noticed. It means that there were also internal reasons, which prevented the universities from recovering or developing normally.
According to the respondents, these reasons include problems of university management and conservatism among lecturers and researchers.
Speaking about management problems, the respondents mainly meant the quality of the top management’s work. In all the analyzed universities which were degrading, the top management are unable to see any opportunities for university development, which means they have no development strategy, no road map.
The second reason which forces universities to go downhill is related to conservatism among older scholars and lecturers, their opposition to change. ‘There is an age gap in may Russian universities: there are a lot of staff under 30, and a lot over 50, while there are almost no middle-aged employees’, the researcher comments, ‘the elderly faculty see the changes that are happening in the university as a threat to the stability of their work and jobs’.
According to the researchers, the internal factors of a university’ degradation are the most important ones. These are what indicate how ready a university is to develop and improve.