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Exploring New Approaches to Higher Education in Russia

Martha C. Merrill, Associate Professor of Higher Education at Kent State University (USA), will present at the upcoming XVIII April International Academic Conference on Economic and Social Development during a section entitled ‘Education in Russia and CIS countries through the prism of global trends’. She spoke with the HSE News Service ahead of the conference about her extensive research on both Russian higher education and comparative research that she has undertaken in Central Asia.

— You will be presenting a report entitled 'Communicating Quality in Higher Education: Russia, Rankings, Accreditation and Audiences'. What are your major findings? What was the basis for your research? How did globalization cause things to change, if at all?

— A summary of my findings is that higher education institutions in Russia, and the Russian government, are interested in international rankings of institutions (HSE in Rankings, 2016; Myagkov, 2016; Fedorov, 2014). Administrators of academic programme at universities in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, on the other hand, are seeking accreditation from international agencies, but their reasons for doing so vary. In Kazakhstan, international accreditation is mandated by the government (Aitzhanova et al, 2014), whereas in Kyrgyzstan, administrators at individual institutions want to promote their own programme and do not need to consult with the Ministry of Education about seeking international accreditation. The different approaches may reflect the audiences that the institutions are trying to attract, as well as their governments’ visions for the future.

I have been working on issues of university quality assessment, particularly in Kyrgyzstan, for many years, and have done trainings at EdNet, the NGO in Bishkek, for educators who will be involved in independent accreditation in Kyrgyzstan, which is replacing state attestation. EdNet, with EU funding, has also been involved in pilot international accreditations in Kyrgyzstan. In addition, colleagues of mine in Kazakhstan, at universities such as KIMEP and the Kazakh British Technical University, have coordinated international accreditations there, so for a paper I presented in Kazan in June 2016, for the regional conference of the Central Eurasian Studies Society, I researched US and European programme accreditations held by universities throughout Kazakhstan, and compared them to the more limited number and to the different processes used in Kyrgyzstan. Then, in October, I was at HSE for the Russian Association of Higher Education Researchers conference, where there was clear emphasis on universities achieving top positions in the major higher education ranking systems. I was intrigued by the three different strategies used by the three countries, which moved me to do the current research.

Although globalization is certainly a factor in the internationalization of quality assessment standards, regionalization, in the form of the Bologna Process, is also a major influence. Again, the differences are intriguing. In my estimation, Russian higher education is more influenced by globalization, Kyrgyz more by the Bologna Process, and Kazakh by both.  

— You were deeply involved in higher education reform in Kyrgyzstan from 1996 to 2001. What was your main goal, and was is achieved? What can you say about higher education in Kyrgyzstan now?

— Five years of work is difficult to summarize in a few sentences. I would refer you to one of my articles that will give you more details called ‘Kasha and Quality in Kyrgyzstan: Donors, Diversity, and Dis-Integration in Higher Education’, which was published in European Education(vol. 43, no. 4 (Winter 2011–12), pp. 5–25).

I went to Kyrgyzstan as a Fulbright scholar, and from 1996-99, I served as a consultant to a number of universities. My goal was to help them achieve their goals. After my Fulbright grant concluded in 1999, I worked at the American University in Central Asia, becoming its first Academic Vice President. The university was changing from a contact hour system to a credit hour system at the time, and was introducing elective courses. More recently, I have been a curriculum consultant for the University of Central Asia.

Higher education in Kyrgyzstan is more diverse than higher education anywhere else in Central Asia. It has public and private universities; universities founded by intergovernmental agreements, such as the Yeltsin Kyrgyz Russian Slavonic University and the Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University; private international universities, such as the Ataturk Ala-Too University and the University of Central Asia, and more. Languages of instruction include Kyrgyz, Russian, Turkish, and English. In 2012, all universities except art and music schools and medical schools shifted to the BA/MA model and to credit hours, and Kyrgyzstan is now debating whether to implement independent accreditation. So, it is a fascinating place to study and to work.

— What are your upcoming research plans?

— I have more work to do on comparing and contrasting external quality assurance mechanisms in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. I have just completed an article on faculty in Kyrgyzstan, together with co-authors Janara Baitugolova and Chynara Ryskulova. Also, together with my colleague Chris Whitsel, I am studying how North American ethics review boards influence the work of US and Canadian scholars doing research in Eurasia. 

— You have a bachelor’s degree in Russian literature. What role has Russian literature played in your life? Do you read and speak Russian? Is there anything you can recommend that international readers to read from Russian literature to understand the country and its culture better?

— I loved studying Russian literature. In addition to Tolstoy, Pasternak, and Akhmatova, as an undergraduate, I discovered Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which has remained a favorite ever since. I also met Josif Brodsky during the year that he spent at the University of Michigan. I do read and speak Russian, although I admit that I read long novels in English. What I have read in Russian recently unfortunately is limited to articles about higher education and news articles. In terms of literature, my recent reading includes some of the works of young emigres, like Gary Shteyngart and Laura Vapnyar, who write in English. Of course, given my long-term association with Kyrgyzstan, I have read many of Aitmatov’s stories and novels, although primarily in translation.  

I think that I would recommend both Akhmatova’s poetry and The Master and Margarita to US readers (I would hesitate to speak for readers from throughout the world!). As different as these writers are, both of them reveal the depth of the Russian soul and the sufferings and turbulence of the twentieth century. I also wish that more people in the US would read Dr. Zhivago and would not think that they know what the book is about if they have only seen the US movie, which, although visually gorgeous, reduces the story to a simple love triangle. And I think that Aitmatov’s The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years also would help US readers understand the complexities of the twentieth century and the diversity of what was the Soviet Union, and his Duishen,commonly called “First Teacher,” also gives insight into times and places many US readers may not be familiar with.

— Have you been to Russia and Moscow before this upcoming trip? Are there any places of interest you plan to visit?

— The first time I visited Moscow was in 1984. I have been about a dozen times in total. During this visit, I expect to spend most of my time at the conference and with colleagues, learning about higher education issues. But I love the opera and classical music. I still remember a wonderful, innovative performance of Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges that I attended in the late 1990s – all in black and white except for the oranges.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service