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Rector throws life-buoy to the minister

Marcis Auzins. Photo: LETA.
 Despite the differences with the Minister of education and science on reforms in higher education system the Rector of Latvian University (LU) Marcis Auzins was the first to throw a life-buoy to Roberts Kilis.

Latvian University was the first higher educational establishment to sign the memorandum offered by Roberts Kilis who has fallen in disgrace in scholastic environs. What made you to oblige to the minister?
I don’t know to what extend we obliged to the minister, whether it should be interpreted like this. You see, the ministry and the university both are aware of the fact that our higher education system needs reforms; even if the very word “reforms” seems slanted in Latvia. We need serious changes, and in the memorandum we have stated the fact. When the ministry has specific proposals on implementation of such changes we will be the first higher educational establishment to discuss them with.
I would like to stress one thing: I have a feeling that the general public tends to believe that in Latvia is going on something extraordinary, some revolution in higher education. It is not the case. Similar processes have long ago sprung up in Europe, in the Baltic States. Unless we want to fall behind, we have to mend our pace.

Why the very same processes in Europe do not entail demands for the minister to resign?
I don’t know about resignations, but in case of changes hot and even heated discussions are all right.
However, we should not think that there has appeared some revolutionary minister who wants to change something in an empty room. In 2009 the LU sent a letter to the Prime Minister saying that the higher education needs changes. It was signed by many people, including two former presidents, i.e. Vaira Vike-Freiberga and Guntis Ulmanis. It was also signed by the former head of the Commission of Strategic Analysis under the President’s Office Roberts Kilis. If we compare that letter with the current proposals of the ministry, you will notice many similarities.
Back then our letter caught attention, was established working group. At the beginning it was very efficient, yet later on many authorities wanted to participate, and the group became too extensive. As the result it turned out that making of decisions entailing serious changes is impossible. Too many people, everybody acting in their own interests, and the document we received as the result was of zero quality. Serious changes did not ensue, yet the process was initiated.
Of course, it raises a question: do we really need reforms; is everything as bad as it seems? We in the Baltics have always had good higher education: according to ratings, the LU is close to Tartu and Vilnius, the difference being that they take the last places in classification, while we are just behind the line. However, without changes we may start to fall behind seriously.

You are called either the sole advocate of Roberts Kilis, or his first opponent. How would you assess your dialogue with the minister?
We established collegiate relationship with Kilis since his holding the office of the head of the Commission of Strategic Analysis under the President’s Office. And, as to the need of changes in higher education our opinions concurred back then as they concur now.
As to implementation of such changes, there are no identical opinions at all. Our major differences relate to the funding model of higher education. If two thirds of all students in our country pay for education from their own pocket it is less than normal. Yes, in Europe students also pay, yet there is such thing as shared participation: the major share is covered by the state, while the student has to pay less.
Sure, other areas also receive insufficient funding. However, our government spends on higher education 0.5% of the GDP, while European governments spend 1.2% on average, the Swedish 2%. Long-term European practice has proved that this is the best scenario, and we agree with the ministry on this.

If that is the case, why your colleagues fail to establish a dialogue with Kilis, whose resignation they have demanded more than once?
I wouldn’t say that absolutely all disagree with him. On one matter the LU has held different opinion from the majority of higher educational establishments, and it is the following. We are aware of the fact that higher education needs changes - in quality, management model and funding. We see that the ministry shares our position, and all the problems are due to implementation. There are two options. First: to say that the minister is bad and demand his resignation. The second option is to give a hand to the ministry, try to help it out. I believe that the LU has clearly stated its dissatisfaction with particular things that proceed from the ministry, for example, quality assessment of educational programs that was conducted by the latter. It was poor quality unprofessional performance. Yet, let us help the minister!
Why I consider this position more efficient? Because all of us can see that higher education is in dire need of changes. As to the precedent ministers, they issued declarations, without any actual actions or even actual wish to change something. This is why I have no illusions that there might turn up another minister to do better than Kilis.

Do you see a wish to carry out actual reforms in Kilis?
Of course, it is obvious. I have no doubts whatsoever that the intentions are good...

Oksana Antonenko, latviannews.lv

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