15 June 2019
Article

Rectors working towards systemic transformation

Most tectonic shifts in higher education have started with a conversation. Someone shared an idea, the moment was right and it took hold.
Rectors working towards systemic transformation
Content source: Unsplash

Now, more than ever, higher education institutions around the world are experiencing the pressure to change. The expectations from various stakeholders – federal and regional governments, students, industry and society at large – are growing.

International and inter-institutional competition has turned running a university into chasing funding, talent and prestige. A strategic impetus for transformation also comes from universities themselves and they have become considerably more ambitious.

Russia is no exception to this trend. The transformation discourse has been around for the past decade in the country. But university leaders, as a rule, are not generally the ones behind it. The approach to change has mostly been top-down from the government.

One of the reasons is that first Soviet, then Russian higher education institutions have had very limited autonomy for many years. Institutions have only just begun to think strategically.

Another, more human reason is that being a solitary change agent is never a particularly attractive role and formulating a joint position requires a comfortable and safe space for peer discussion.

Existing forms of communication in academia or policy circles fall short. Conferences are usually constructed as a series of presentations with little possibility for a broad discussion. Formalistic, almost ceremonial annual roundtables do not offer much room for careful deliberation or bold ideas.

And, perhaps, that is to be expected – imagine a university leader telling a tale of the difficulties and hurdles they have encountered on the road of change. The audience would listen in bewilderment, as if they were sharing an experience of climbing the Matterhorn with an audience of listeners who had never left the plains.

The Tomsk Rectors’ Symposium was conceived in 2015 as an alternative space for a small group of change-oriented university leaders to discuss burning matters in a straightforward way. And it seems to be the biggest step towards building a community of practice for institution-wide university transformation in Russia to date.

Tomsk Rectors' Symposium

Every May about a dozen rectors gather in the city of Tomsk in the heart of Siberia. I have come to call the universities they run ‘T-universities’, ‘transforming universities’. These institutions are diverse: they are comprehensive and narrowly specialised, influential and growing in importance, based in big and small cities. Their only shared characteristic is change.

Tomsk Symposia are organised in the format of thematic colloquia followed by a discussion. Every participant must actively contribute. The Chatham House Rule system is enforced: it is possible to mention, critique and use the ideas and statements from the symposium post factum, but not to reveal who said them, so that anonymity is guaranteed.

Normally, the issues of university transformation and capacity building are discussed. Prior to the event, the participants select a colloquium to contribute to and structure their presentations around not only achievements and victories but also problems and possible ways of solving them.

The symposium, hosted by Tomsk State University, is normally a cosy, almost intimate affair. The room is small and very few external audience members are allowed. The participants are rectors and, occasionally, visionary policy-makers. My role at the symposium is to summarise and interpret the discussions, observe without interfering. The press and media are excluded.

This offers space for constructive scepticism, jokes and, most importantly, insights and ideas that have not yet been tried out in other contexts. “What if we try X?”, someone might say and have their idea supported and developed or, alternatively, be persuaded to never think of such folly again.

The technology of governance

The added value of the event is the focus on systemic change as opposed to situational change that is dependent on a particular person. The approaches discussed must have the capacity to become concrete solutions. They must work even after their originator leaves their university.

Similarly, the end goal of the symposium is to influence policy via definitive proposals with long-term effects. Thus, symposia develop ‘the technology of governance’: principles, models, policies and protocols to replace ‘manned governance’ with a system.

This is a difficult standard to uphold because it forces the rectors to think beyond their tenure period. For a long time, the centrally planned higher education system has limited the role of rectors, meaning they became little more than passengers on the ships they were formally captaining. Even now, the position still has more of an administrative than strategic meaning.

Today, Russia’s harsh quality assurance climate pushes university leaders to focus on institutional survival and everyday issues. This makes the Tomsk Symposium’s ethos of focusing on the long term and on legacy all the more precious.

The fourth Tomsk Rectors’ Symposium

Since the second year of the symposia, they have had an umbrella theme. The second was called ‘Universities as the Centres of Innovation and Education and Educational Processes’; the third ‘The Development Programme for Higher Education’; and the fourth, this year’s symposium, which took place on 17-18 May, was called ‘The University and Technologies’.

This year, two major topics were discussed: ‘digital universities’ (the term denotes a type of higher education institution that has undergone a digital transformation) and engineering education and R&D.

The symposium demonstrated that Russian higher education is still at the ‘technological utopian’ stage with regard to digital transformation. Russian universities are spending only a fraction of what their Western counterparts spend on IT. Practically all technological innovations are perceived as favourable for university development.

It was agreed that the most prudent way to proceed is to design desired processes and social norms first and bring technological solutions in afterwards, as digital transformation can alter organisational life beyond the innovators’ intent.

Regarding engineering and R&D, the discussion mostly focused on possible applications of the principles of engineering education to other disciplines and the need for more collaboration among universities.

Throughout the discussions there were calls for more institutional autonomy. Universities are too tightly regulated to keep growing. If nothing is done to drastically improve the regulatory environment, ‘T-universities’ will soon hit a ceiling and will be forced to slow down.

Joint positions

The idea for the symposium initially belonged to Andrei Volkov, the vice-chairman of the 5-100 Project (Russian academic excellence initiative) Council, whose frustration with the state of play in discussion platforms resulted in the design of the symposium format and primary goals.

He borrowed the idea from the Emerging Markets Symposium, created at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom in 2008. According to its website, the Emerging Markets Symposium “emphasises conversations rather than presentations”, “encourages candour by enforcing the Chatham House Rule and excluding the press and media from all sessions”, and, reportedly, has similar rules around post-event attribution of ideas to the Tomsk Rectors’ Symposium.

The first symposia were more about communication than about arriving at a joint position or developing policy proposals. This year, however, there was a shift in the mood and proceedings. The participants decided that it was time to formalise the conclusions they reached, especially regarding autonomy: to come up with a name for their group of university transformers, create working groups for drafting policy proposals and present their position at upcoming national gatherings.

The future of the rectorate

Only rectors, with very few exceptions, are invited to take part in the symposia. Unlike other university administrators, they bear personal responsibility for the whole institution. This responsibility is also quite public in the sense that every managerial mistake becomes known and judged rather quickly.

Perhaps, the very idea of having a ‘top figure’, which comes from past military organisational structures, is obsolete in the modern world. Universities are already run by teams so why should the responsibility for development and accountability for failures lie on the shoulders of one person?

Also, transformative leaders often prefer not to run for top positions and to act from a comfortable place where they are not subject to exhausting public scrutiny. Would it not make sense to widen the pool of participants in the future to underscore the value of all change leaders, not only change leaders at the top?

For now, the fate of Russian universities depends on the decisions of rectors. Talk of splitting power into two columns – academic and strategic – to be divided between a rector and a president keeps surfacing, but it is just talk. The archetype of a sole patriarchal figure is too strong (this is also the primary reason for the gender imbalance of the Russian rectorate – only 20% rectors are female).

I hope that in the future power and responsibility will become more evenly distributed and the rectorate more diverse. I also hope that ‘T-universities’ will increase in number and that the Tomsk Rectors’ Symposium will be forced to outgrow its low-key beginnings. In any case, for me, being present at the symposia has been a rewarding intellectual experience for it is always exciting to witness the meeting of like-minded thinkers.

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