It was with great fascination that we read “Distance Learning: The Pandemic’s Effects on Russian Education” from Деловой Петербург, a newspaper based in St. Petersburg, Russia. We immediately inquired with the publisher if we could translate it quickly and share it broadly. Over the past weeks, we, as an organization, have been thinking more and more about the growing opportunities appearing in education and there it was, an article already written that captured much of the essence of the ideas we had been sharing with each other. It also helped us formulate what we would like to add on how American and international education might evolve.
Russian Higher Ed: Expansion to Consolidation
Since the early 90s, Russian higher education has been changing significantly. Higher birth rates starting in the 70s meant a larger college-age demographic in the early 90s. As a result, smaller institutes, originally designed to support specific industries, expanded into “full” universities and were joined by new private universities, many focusing on courses to meet the new demand for business and foreign languages that boomed after the fall of the USSR.
Approximately 20 years later, the demographic shifted dramatically again. The economic and social disruption of the fall resulted, not unexpectedly, in a much lower birth rate and mass emigration. As such, there were then too many institutions of higher learning. Moreover, many were offering the same courses of study, with little to differentiate them in an environment that was suddenly quite competitive for student numbers.
These institutions of higher learning were audited by the educational authorities and reviewed for viability. What we then saw was major consolidation over the next few years and the government sought to make the system, and its spending on it, more efficient. In larger cities across Russia, many local universities would merge, often on a city level, to form one local “federal university” or in some cases became branches of major Moscow institutions.
A few years ago, a colleague in Irkutsk was taking a distance learning continuing education course from the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow. She mentioned that HSE appeared to have a goal of dominating online education in Russia. We had long noticed that HSE was also attracting some of the very best and brightest instructors to its ranks by offering significantly higher salaries than most Russian institutions and working to rapidly expand its partner networks.
With the geography of Russia, its vast geography and different socioeconomic regions, online education makes a lot of sense in terms of providing greater access to the best educational resources.
The Pressure to Reform Higher Education
The US has faced changing demographics for decades. Birth rates began declining in the 1960s and are now at historical lows. College enrollment continued to grow steadily, peaking in 2010, with an increasing percentage of the population attending and with greatly increased numbers of international students. Numbers since 2010 have since stagnated. Like in Russia, students have moved toward 4-year university degrees and away from trade schools. Also like in Russia, most universities offer similar models of general education. Since 2010, the number of degree granting institutions has fallen in the US by about 5.5%, as institutions have merged or as less competitive institutions have closed.
The structure of change in the US and Russia, however, has differed strongly due to the two countries very different financial and organizational models.
Russia’s higher education is overwhelmingly state-financed and vertically integrated. Thus, there is a clear mandate for efficiency and rational distribution of resources. With the financial crisis of 2008, the push to reform Russian education came at the same time as hospitals, the tax system, general government services, and more were all drastically reformed, with the end result being that the Russian budget now balances with oil at $45, rather than $110.
While any form of consolidation is painful, the barriers in Russia are fewer. Removing what were still largely Soviet-era organizational models was, in many cases, popular. Reforms to healthcare and education were more controversial, but, with education there were no donors to contend with, no expensive sports teams to factor in, and nearly all administrations were (and are still) directly accountable to Russia’s Federal Ministry of Education, meaning that reforms could be enacted relatively swiftly from the top down.
In the US, even well before the pandemic, pressure on higher education has been applied not by the state, but by the consumer. For many reasons, the costs have been spiraling to the point that many have even begun to question the value of a 4-year college education, given the debt load it typically entails. Individual students and, to an extent, the state have borne the cost of this, but reform has been slow as the structure and regulation of higher education is much more decentralized in the US. While states and federal authorities might give specific mandates, curriculums and intuitional structure are generally left to the individual institutions themselves. Thus, a path to systemic reforms has remained elusive.
Now, with the pandemic ramping up economic pressure significantly and a generally successful large-scale test of online education, it would seem that market forces may move US higher education toward a viable vision of reform.
Doubts about online education have typically revolved around the value of place and in-person interaction. There are still some questions that have not been fully discussed. For example, just how much of the college price tag is attributable to place and in-person interaction? How much place and in-person interaction are we willing to give up to save on cost?
Polls show that most believe that the campus experience and the university environment should be maintained in some way. However, after the initial scramble to get online, accepting and even becoming proficient with the technology, we are now able to evaluate its plusses and minuses, its potential, and its pitfalls. We can see that it holds considerable promise to opening new doors, providing more flexible opportunities, and potentially lowering the cost of education. If even a handful of institutions can figure out how to appropriately harness the power of this moment, market forces will almost certainly push forward broader reforms in education.
Changing the System: How It Might Look
In the article referred to above, Distance Learning: The Pandemic’s Effects on Russian Education”, the statement that really resonates is this:
“The entire system could eventually change. Small regional institutions will need only to supply mentors (in choosing a program and managing it), organization (for online scientific experiments and to provide students an academic environment to work in), and bureaucracy (issuing diplomas). However, the actual process of education could move to leading providers of online education.”
In this model, small regional institutions provide for a base of study at that location, and yet students can take classes from many other, notably larger and more prestigious, institutions. One major difference in how this could play out in the US, however, is that regional institutions will likely be able to retain a greater part of the educational process itself. In the US, quality of life is more evenly spread, and not so concentrated in a small handful of cities, as it currently is in Russia (although this too has been changing in recent years, with increasing migration back to regional centers). In short, top experts are distributed across the US much more evenly than in Russia, allowing for stronger individual regional institutions.
With increased competition and sinking funding, more institutions will be driven to specialize, to draw more of an individual target market and to draw it using fewer resources. Programs in physical subjects such as science and medicine might have more intensive on-campus experiences. Subjects like art history or international relations can rely slightly more on online learning – and study abroad.
To get an idea of what this new type of program might look like, let’s use international relations as theoretical case study. Having worked with multiple international relations programs over the years, we can hypothesize that it might look something like the following:
Year 1: Students start on camps with a strong, intensive preparatory program. Initial courses are taken in foreign language, academic writing, and subjects like political geography or history of international relations. Small classes and personal interaction is emphasized to ensure that writing skills and critical thinking are developed and can be applied. The student works with an advisor to thoroughly explore options and map out an educational plan to guide the following years of study.
Years 2 and 3: The plan is set in motion. It has taken into account travel and technology costs, which are included in the budget much as books and lab fees have been before. Some plans might be completely individual. Most are likely formed from a series of templates the school has already vetted and approved to provide a very wide range of options with seamless integration with university requirements and tuition packages. The geography of education no longer matters and much responsibility is placed directly on the student and mentor to continually and regularly review outcomes and make changes as necessary. The full degree plan might consist of any combination of:
- On-campus courses
- Online courses
- Study away at another US university
- Study abroad
- Work experience
- Conference attendance
- Labs and workshops – at home or away
- Independent/directed study or research – at home or away, possibly using foreign archives, etc.
Year 4: Depending on the university and program, this last year could resemble years 2 and 3. It could also take on a whole other dimension that pulls those years together under a combination of much more active mentorship/advising and on-campus or online higher level, ideally unique, courses. This would pull things back to a highly intensive, focused study period. Specialization that would start to evolve during years 2 and 3 would come into sharp focus, perhaps under the structure of a senior thesis or capstone project, maybe even designed around collaboration with online peer groups.
The educator would thus play three roles in this process: teaching or overseeing foundational courses, acting as a mentor and coach throughout the flexible degree program, and teaching or overseeing more specialized courses. All of these functions might be performed online or offline or both.
The balance within any one institution between teaching and mentoring will vary between those that become primarily teaching institutions, primarily research institutions, or primarily mentoring institutions. This is not to say that one might be more or less prestigious or expensive than others. The services and innovation that each provide could vary widely, and this may ultimately determine value. It all depends on how it is handled. There is value in all roles and ideally an increased efficiency for all in a way that lowers cost overall to the consumer.
Study Abroad Offices Can Lead The Way
The basics of this system, radical as it might sound, are already in place at most US institutions. Credit is routinely transferred between US institutions or from abroad, meaning that students needn’t be tied to a geographic location for all four (or more) years. There are currently limitations, however, on what and how much credit can be transferred in, and the process is far from seamless.
In developing greater integration within and among universities, we propose the study abroad office be considered as a viable model. Study abroad professionals are tasked with vetting external opportunities from multiple perspectives. With an eye to the requirements of the registrar, they evaluate quality and equivalencies; they also provide pre-departure information, monitor support and safety, and conduct follow up/debriefing. Study abroad offices also consider what a related travel experience can teach or what doors an experience can open for the student.
This new, highly integrated educational system will require cross-department organization operating much as the integration of study abroad does today, pulling together cooperative work on applying various standards and metrics to evaluate the many parts of an educational plan. Much as study abroad professionals already do, evaluation, development, and cataloguing of will need to be done for a range of study away or abroad, work, or internship experiences as well for conferences, networks, and online courses worldwide. As these opportunities will change often, transparent guidelines for evaluating new experiences proposed by students and advisors will be paramount. All of this will need to be done with a spirit of open doors.
At present, parts of this model exist to varying degrees, in universities across the US. Some are very successful with study abroad and have large offices to support it. Other universities are well known for their coop/internship programs. Others are leading the way with online education. Now, it needs to be pulled together, with shared experiences and best practices, and likely with formal alliances and conventions on sharing standards and resources, to form truly integrated, highly flexible education.
COVID is not likely to stop globalization; it is especially not likely to stop the world from becoming exponentially more interconnected. In fact, by pushing more activity online, it is more likely to accelerate growing interconnectivity and make physical borders and distance even less of a barrier to the free flow of ideas and relationships. To prepare students to truly succeed in this world, education needs to keep up. As an added benefit, this model is likely to be more efficient, affordable, and accessible by allowing students a broader choice of resources from more universities who, in turn, gain efficiency from offering specialized resources to a global student body. The 200+ person lecture hall will become a thing of the past. And good riddance. Anybody who is really able to engage a room with 200 students can engage an online audience of 10,000. This is exactly what drives greater efficiency in markets.
Can It Really Happen?
We have many motivations for observing the evolution of education at home and abroad. Professionally, it is what we do here at SRAS. Personally, we have kids of our own whose education is very important to us. We have global perspectives on education and a fascination with technology and social change. We are always thinking about what is possible. More often than not, however, we’ve felt frustrated by the limitations on those possibilities.
The pandemic has moved discussion of the many ways in which education can be delivered from a small and theoretical one that broad sections of society are taking part in and even experimenting with. It is clearer now how current challenges in education can be overcome. Personal connections and the experiential have moved front and center and we will make better use of it. This will be post-pandemic life in general, but will have measurable benefits in academia.