"Education and Global Cities" Conference: Mission Possible

The third international conference “Education and Global Cities: Horizons for a Contemporary University” challenged its participants to consider the role of universities in modern cities. How do universities balance between the various missions assigned to them by the state, business, and international academic community? How do they impact regional development? How to measure their effectiveness beyond the rankings? And finally, how to engage students in their improvement?

The conference was organized by ITMO University, Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, and Ural Federal University. The Deputy Chairman of the Committee on Science and Higher Education, Irina Hanus, during the opening ceremony explained that the St. Petersburg authorities will take into consideration decisions made by the participants.

"The city government attaches great importance to education development in the Northern Capital. More than 1.5 thousand students receive financial support from the city budget. Talented students are awarded special scholarships. There are also a number of scholarships for promising areas of research: mathematics, information technology, chemistry, and the Russian language," – she explained

Saint Petersburg was a natural place to have this gathering, with over 300 scientific organizations in the city, about 400 thousand students, and since 2005 the number of foreign students has doubled to 24 thousand people.

The Chairman of the Council of Rectors of the city and the rector of ITMO University, Vladimir Vasilyev explained how the university faculty play a decisive role in the mission and strategy of a University: some staff are focused on the promotion of the University on the world stage, others characterize themselves as a leading educational and research institution in the region, and others strive to be leaders in a specific industry.

"At the conference, university representatives will be able to develop a plan for implementing their strategies, to establish a network between universities, to understand how undergraduate and graduate students can become engaged in this process, which will determine the development of global cities in the future,"  said ITMO University’s rector.

The conference speakers repeatedly expressed the idea that the quality of education is the most important part of the work of any University. Today, this effectiveness indicator is often assessed on the basis of the University’s position in various world rankings. Is it reasonable to define a university by reducing it to one figure that reflects its rank? What influences students’ decisions when choosing a university? These are the questions that participants of the plenary session tried to answer, organized by ITMO University.

"We all know what criteria is used for the rankings, but when we see the results of these evaluations, often they are, to put it mildly, unexpected. A ranking is like a weather forecast. We are all looking at it but we can’t do anything about it. Is there an understanding of who are the clients in world rankings: the employer, the student, government representatives? Is there any alternative to international rankings?"  some points identified by the moderator of the discussion, Vice Rector for International Relations at ITMO University, Daria Kozlova.

Most speakers noted that rankings are an important tool for transforming universities. The evaluation system allows universities to build a new development strategy, corresponding to modern requirements of society. But this system has many disadvantages. Often the desire to be in the top of the lists leads to a formal "race for numbers", which does not always lead to practical results, said the Manager of Corporate Relations at the European University at St.-Petersburg Alla Samoletova. This leads to short-term measures for improving the effectiveness of universities, such as inviting foreign professors, promotion of scientific staff to increase publication activity and similar steps. But in the long run, they did not affect the progressive development of the University.

In addition, in Russia it is difficult to gather the necessary information for compiling rankings correctly. Universities do not track the employment of graduates, and salaries of experts do not always correspond to the actual value of their work, for example, a brilliant Professor may receive a small salary.

However, in the methodologies of rankings there are many indicators that do not reflect the real value of certain universities. Many of the “top” universities are unable to reflect how the work of the University is integrated into the economic environment of the region or the development of science around the world.

"We can’t forget about the local context and consider how the economic goals of the region influence the work of universities. In such circumstances the University's team must not only solve the strategic objectives of the region, but also to strive for globalization. How does it all come together?" – asked George Tovstiga, Professor of Strategy at the EDHEC business school.

Gero Federkeil, manager in charge of International Rankings at CHE-Centre for Educational Development in Germany, agreed with his colleagues by stating that rankings can not replace providing quality teaching at universities. Those who put together rankings can guarantee that the transparency of data they use is very important. But quite often those who create the methodology of rankings do not take into account that thousands of universities around the world that have different scientific and education profiles, different missions, and different numbers of students and professors. According to Gero Federkeil, it is necessary to compare the universities according to specific groups, consisting of similar universities. The expert suggested the following parameters for comparison: the quality of teaching and research, international relations, and the level of influence of the University on the development of the region.

At the same time, students and applicants themselves do not pay much attention to the place of the university in international rankings. When choosing where they want to study, school students inquire about teaching methods, ask about opportunities for scientific research, and whether the university can provide them a dormitory. This information was presented by the Manager of Student Office “5-100s” Azaliya Saitgalina, in accordance with the results of a student’s survey.

In 2015 ITMO University students were the first in Russia to create a Student Office “5-100s”. The participating students facilitate implementation of the students’ scientific projects and increase the number of international students, and help international guests to adapt to the Russian environment, organize summer schools and other events, aimed at increasing international competitiveness at the university. In 2016 other universities participating in Project 5-100 presented their “Road maps”. The effectiveness of a university depends on the level of students’ participation in transformation processes of their university. During another round table discussion during the “Education and Global Cities” Conference, the representatives of the student community considered how they can and should influence further development of the university.

“While speaking to students, you can begin to understand their view on the role of students’ self-government in the universities. For example, if you show them the Head of Student Council and ask them who he is, they will answer “It’s Igor”, “a classmate”, “my dorm-mate” or “a student”. Sometimes the students simply don’t know about the existence of a student’s self-government, or just don’t identify it with some influential body. Often Student Councils, trade unions became a place to «hangout» at. One possible way to change the situation might be by arranging elections for the Head of the Student Council. Then the students would get interested in working within in this structure, and a staff reserve might be formed”, explained Vitaly Skomorokhov, the Chairman of the All-Russian Social Youth Movement “Association of Students and Student Unions in Russia”.

Besides, there are many unsettled problems within student groups at the universities themselves,  added Maxim Pasholikov, the Chairman of Labor Union of Students and Graduate students of Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University. Even within one university different student groups are often in conflict with each other. Moreover, he claimed that young people are often not ready to take responsibility for some decisions.

In many regions there are serious problems in cooperation between students’ organizations and representatives of governmental authorities. In St. Petersburg this issue is almost settled though, as mentioned Aleksandr Nizov, the Chairman of St. Petersburg Student Council. According to him, nowadays almost every governmental decision concerning Youth Policy is taken with the concurrence of the Council. As a matter of fact, such kind of policy should be adopted not only in every city or town, but also within every single university: none of the normative acts concerning students should be approved without their agreement.

The examples of successful collaboration between students and universities’ management were presented by Shamil Musin, the Head of the Student Youth Committee, and Lucas Rimolo, a Student of Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo, Brazil. In their universities the students managed to create a scheme for effective cooperation with administrative personnel. These cooperation enhance, for instance, matters of laboratories’ equipment, to carry our scientific work, to renovate dormitories, and other issues.

During the first day of the conference “Education & Global Cities” a plenary session concerning the search for a strategy in the face of multiple missions took place as well. The speakers noted that universities have to develop under the conditions of the state financing reductions. At the same time multiple social institutes expect of the universities not only fulfillment of educational and R&D functions, but also active participation in development of the city environment. The experts discussed the role of the universities in forming the image of modern cities in more detail during the respective round table discussion. Nowadays in many countries, including Russia, there is the transition from resource-based and production economy to economy based on knowledge and innovative technologies. According to the participants of the Conference, universities should become drivers for this process.

Also, on May 19 round table discussion “In Search of Interdisciplinary Balance: Crisis and New Relevance of Social Sciences and Humanities in the University of the 21st Century” took place. Experts discussed the role of these sciences in the development of research competences of the university. They also shared their successful experience in scientific collaboration within cultural, societal and historical studies.

You can look through the second day’s program here.

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