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Dr. Irina Abankina: ‘The Institute of Education Has Achieved a Lot in Recent Years’

Dr. Irina Abankina, Director of the Institute for Education Development, Tenured Professor and Member of the HSE Academic Council, spoke about her life in academia and work at HSE, for the project ‘Research at HSE: For School and for Life’.

On Choosing Profession

A key event in my life was getting into the Economics and Mathematics School, which is part of Lomonosov Moscow State University’s Faculty of Economics. I started in 1971 alongside my twin sister Tatiana. Our mother pushed us to go there. It was a school organised by undergraduate and graduate students of Moscow State, and this interesting project continues on today. Our children, who are now directors, also studied there. The school is unique in that it motivates its students to achieve real academic results. It has a uniquely creative atmosphere (a theatre, a newspaper, student parties), and it offers economic disciplines that you don’t get in an ordinary school. Also, the relationship between students and teachers is very democratic. I can say the same, though, about Moscow State University’s Economics Faculty, which has always supported students’ academic interests. This was especially apparent in the economic cybernetics division. The head of the economic cybernetics department is Stanislav Shatalin, Academician of the Russian USSR Academy of Sciences. He always made a point to shake students’ hands and address them with the informal pronoun 'ty.'

“ VNIISI was a workplace that created around itself a professional community of engaged individuals.

Apart from economics, my sister and I were interested in the study of art. We went to an art history circle at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. We even thought about which school to apply to – art history or economics. We chose the latter; our interest in mathematics is probably stronger.

As a student I quickly learned that I wanted to stay in academia. My sister and I went to post-graduate school and then went on to work at the All-Union Scientific Research Institute of System Research (VNIISI), where Stanislav Shatalin was the deputy director. At the time, I started adhering to academic traditions. Since my department focused on regional research, we often worked with the Institute of Geography of the USSR Academy of Sciences and with Moscow State University’s Faculty of Geography, going with our colleagues on expeditions around the country. I remember that at the university the geography students often surpassed the economics students in their artistic endeavours. The first group loved opera, while the economics students liked English theatre.

VNIISI was a workplace that created around itself a professional community of engaged individuals. There were few platforms like this during Soviet times. The creative atmosphere that reigned at our institute, as well as the support of young researchers, the research ideas that were discussed at seminars, and approaches towards organising work – this all contributed to the formation of an entire group of people joined together by common values and ambitions. When I speak with colleagues from HSE, the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy, and the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), I often think about how we once graduated from the same faculties together and started working at the same institutes and participating in the same expeditions together. We will stay close friends forever.

Science and Ideology in the Soviet Union

It goes without saying that the above does not mean that we were free from Soviet dogmatism. There was a real problem with ideology, but as strange as it is, despite all dogmatism, Moscow State University – and the economics faculty in particular – still remained an island of free thought. Like everyone else, we had to put quotations from Lenin and Marx at the beginning of our articles or dissertations, and we also had to note that our entire methodology was built on Marxist–Leninist ideas, but this didn’t completely close off our ability to conduct empirical research.

“ When in the early 2000s Lev Jakobson invited my sister and me to HSE, it was assumed that we would focus on projects in urban socioeconomic life.

The same can be said about academic institutions as well. Concrete problem-oriented research was being conducted everywhere – at VNIISI and the Institute of Economics and Forecasting of Scientific and Technical Progress of the USSR Academy of Sciences, and by the colleagues we worked with from the Institute of Sociology, such as Yuri Levada and Boris Grushin, the latter of which later joined VNIISI. It was sometimes necessary to coordinate on certain research documentation, but this process never stood in the way of our research. I remember that we once worked with the Institute of Geography of the USSR Academy of Sciences on a project based on the methodology of famous Swedish geographer Torsten Hägerstrand. So the Academy of Sciences also had the opportunity to get a taste of freedom, unlike, say, many sectorial institutions that encountered ideological pressure and drowned in dogmatism.

On Research Interests

I was always drawn to regional urban research. At VNIISI I worked under Oleg Pchelintsev in the regional laboratory. In my PhD dissertation I used mathematical calculations and models to analyse how people use space in certain territories. Oleg taught us that the region should be looked at as a space for people to carry out their life’s plans. It’s not such a trivial viewpoint actually. Formally, my dissertation was on mathematical methods, but it was really closely connected to the development of cities and regions.

“ Thanks to Isak Froumin the Institute of Education became similar to graduate schools in the West that rely on their own developments and achievements when it comes to instructing students.

In the 1980s-1990s we started working intensely with the regions. There were a lot of assignments coming from regional companies. When in the early 2000s Lev Jakobson invited my sister and me to HSE, it was assumed that we would focus on projects in the sphere of urban socioeconomic life. When we started working, we quickly realised that the urban socioeconomic landscape is intricately connected to education. This is how I began professionally studying the Russian education system. But even before HSE I understood perfectly well that education is a key resource in developing people, particularly during the period of transformation that our country underwent in the 1990s. Spending on education was never the most notable point in city budgets at that time, and the businesses that had rapidly developed in cities were in need of trained staff.

On Starting at HSE

My sister and I have always gone through life together. Tatiana is, however, more interested in culture and creative industries, while I’m more of an economist. For example, when we were under Shatalin, Tatiana focused on cultural sociology, though she has also done a lot in the realm of urban studies. We were invited to HSE together, which I personally see as a huge plus, and my sister and I came to the university in order to apply the research experience we had acquired. We got to work, but what’s interesting is that if it weren’t for Isak Froumin, we never would have opened the educational programmes within the Institute of Education.

“ Tatiana and I came to HSE when the Institute for Educational Studies was only being formed.

Before Isak joined, the educational component of our projects also existed, but it consisted of seminars and short courses for the regional and municipal leadership involved in our research. Closer to 2010 we started thinking about switching from the deeply applied nature of our work to more educational, e.g., by opening our own master’s programmes. And here, of course, credit should be given to Isak. He quickly saw prospects for integrating research into serious education. Thanks to him the Institute of Education became similar to graduate schools in the West that rely on their own developments and achievements when it comes to instructing students.

On the Institute of Education

Tatiana and I came to HSE when the Institute for Educational Studies was only being formed. Boris Rudnik was the head of it at the time, and the institute focused on providing legal, economic, and meaningful support for education reform. In particular, it developed and advanced innovative models in education – a topic-focused school, public administration at educational institutions, a new system for paying teacher salaries, and the introduction of the Unified State Exam. We were interested in pedagogical issues as well, but to a lesser extent. Reforming secondary education took place at the same time as Dmitry Kozak’s administrative reform. The latter directly affected the entire social sphere. Here it is worth mentioning budget reform as well. So our comprehensive approach towards education largely depended on the realities of life in the early 2000s.

“ Today in our development we have still been able to keep the interdisciplinary trend and overall view of education as a necessary resource for people.

Our institute transformed gradually. A turning point, however, was the sudden death of Anatoly Pinsky, who was one of our colleagues and a renowned pedagogue with great leadership skills. After his death in 2006, we got new staff, and the institute began expanding. We started focusing on not just reforms, but expert analytical activities as well, such as the collection and analysis of data on the performance of Russian schoolchildren. We became interested in the school administration system as well.

In short, after 2006 the institute became even more interdisciplinary than before, which means it needed a new image, including a name. It English it started being called the Graduate School of Education. There are problems when translating this phrase into Russian. We nonetheless decided to translate it as the Institute of Education. Today in our development we have still been able to keep the interdisciplinary trend and overall view of education as a necessary resource for people. At least, we try to emphasize this idea in all of our programmes and methodological recommendations for federal, regional, and municipal government bodies.

“ The dialogue we’ve built with the government over all these years has been productive. They listen to us, and our opinion is valued because it relies on research.

In a certain sense, the Institute of Education can be thought of as the ideological successor to the Soviet academic institutions that boasted the creative freedom I discussed above. But in the Soviet Union, they didn’t engage is such broad and expert-level activities as we do now. The distance between the state and us was much larger at the time. This was natural because the Soviet authorities did not rely on broader expert opinion. Things are different now. The dialogue we’ve built with the government over all these years has been productive. They listen to us, and our opinion is valued because it relies on empirical research.

On International Cooperation

I began working with foreigners back in the 1990s, and the Eurasia Foundation and the World Bank financed the projects I participated in. We worked with many international experts who came to Russia to help the government carry out its liberal reforms. I remember that George Soros supported a lot of international projects.

Our foreign colleagues play a huge role in the institute. One example is the International Laboratory for Education Policy Analysis, which is headed by Martin Carnoy. Martin studies educational programme financing and is trying to determine at which level the programmes work to fulfil the needs of students, as well as how effectively we invest in education. We also had an interesting project with China through the United Nations. Participants of the project worked on comparing the living conditions of those who live in rural areas in different countries. We needed this comparative analysis not only as a way of exchanging experiences, but also as a way of working out effective solutions.

We are actively developing our connections with international graduate schools of education. We need such cooperation in order to stay connected to other countries and avoid showing how everything is different in Russia. On the contrary, we want to solve the problems that worry people around the world. In addition, the approach taken to train specialists in the field of education has changed substantially over the last several years. Whereas before these specialists were one-offs, now it can be said that Chinese institutes can have some 500 post-graduate and PhD students (I’m emphasising that these are not master’s students). This is a fundamentally different model for training experts and giving them knowledge from one’s own experience.

On Intermediate Results

Over the last several years, the Institute of Education has managed to do a lot. First, we were able to create a system of autonomous schools that control their own budgets. Before, schools were not legal entities, and principals did not fully participate in managing financial and staffing resources. Now, schools have ceased being subordinate establishments and are more independent. This is probably where I see our main contribution towards improving Russian education of late.

The other reforms that were carried out thanks to our institute concern professional instruction that focuses on a trajectory that is right for the student, as well as supervisory councils’ more active participation in student life. Additional reforms include bringing in parents and business representatives to be members of these boards, which never happened before. We also worked to develop rural schools by doing things such as launching distance learning opportunities there. I believe that we have done quite a lot for students with disabilities as well. Above all, this concerns the introduction and support of inclusive education, though work still lies ahead in this area.