Areas of Growth in Russian Master’s Studies: Transformation of Programs and Ecosystem-Building

Is there a future for the established Master’s programs created dozens of years ago? What is a university ecosystem and how is it formed? How to measure the institutional environment? And what are the potential areas of growth for regional universities? These questions were discussed as part of the third and last day of the “Master’s Degree ++” conference that has recently concluded in St. Petersburg. The conference was organized by ITMO University together with the Vladimir Potanin Foundation and brought together experts from leading Russian and international universities and winners of the 2018-2019 Potanin scholarship contest for educators. 

The conference "Master’s Degree ++: Coding the Education of the Future"

One of the main events of the concluding day of the conference was the discussion “Searching for areas of growth in Master’s studies”. Sharing their expert opinions were ITMO University’s Sergey Kolyubin, head of Master’s Programs Department, Aliya Bagautdinova, head of Department of Academic Affairs, and Anton Gopka, dean of the Faculty of Technological Management and Innovations, as well as Natalya Shulgina, program director at the Vladimir Potanin Foundation. Irina Arzhanova, executive director at the National Training Foundation (NTF), moderated the discussion.

Areas of growth: Master’s programs and their transformation

As noted by Irina Arzhanova at the opening of the discussion, almost 15 years after the Russian higher education system shifted to the two-tier model represented by Bachelor’s and Master’s studies, education experts worked out a systemic approach to the evaluation of the directions of the development of Russian Master’s. What’s more, this period of time already provided the experts and practitioners with some positive experience which can be analyzed and promoted, including at the international level.

But saying that, the expert called the participants to think about whether it is really possible to make the case that there is a significant amount of effective programs offered by Russian universities. Are there problems that haven’t yet been solved? And which areas of growth should Russian Master’s program providers should focus on?

Expanding on the latter, Irina Arzhanova highlighted the importance of focusing on the content and transformation of Master’s programs. Today, there are more and more new, interesting and practice-oriented programs, including those at the intersection of several disciplines, that keep emerging. Faced by this process, how should educators go about developing classical programs that provide fundamental knowledge? Which format should they choose to keep these programs’ appeal for prospective students?

Aliya Bagautdinova and Sergey Kolyubin
Aliya Bagautdinova and Sergey Kolyubin

According to Aliya Bagautdinova, this transformation is a pressing concern for all educational programs out there. Enriching fundamental knowledge training with practice, cooperation with industry stakeholders and project work is the preferable approach that will ensure further development of Russian Master’s education, believes the expert.

“The conference participants reached the conclusion that looking  like the most promising is the modular approach to the development of educational programs. These modules should be interdisciplinary and unite fundamental knowledge with practical training. Another important aspect is ensuring employer feedback and involving students in specific projects to improve their motivation. Such an integrative approach will allow any program to thrive,” commented Aliya Bagautdinova.

Apart from that, in conditions of all-embracing digitalization and common access to big amounts of data it is principally important that universities aim to provide either competencies that are unique and the most in-demand both now and in the future, or knowledge that can’t be formalized and thus should be acquired in practice with support from experienced mentors, added Sergey Kolyubin.

Areas of growth: people

Another moot point was the question of attracting specialists and supporting talented educators and their initiatives. As noted by Irina Arzhanova, it is clear that leading Russian universities have the resources to bring in professors from abroad, support the best local specialists, and cooperate with a wide range of major-league partners, be it companies or cultural and social institutions. But what’s the way forward for the universities lacking resources of this scale?

According to Sergey Kolyubin, the most successful programs will be more active in development at leading universities which will continue to attract the strongest teachers. The question is, does “leading university” always imply that from Moscow or St. Petersburg? The regions can too boast a large group of both forward-looking educational practices and strong higher education institutions, one of the main areas of growth for which are the specialists who work there. And the results of the Potanin scholarship contest for educators attest to that, says the expert.

The discussion “Searching for areas of growth in Master’s studies” as part of the conference "Master’s Degree ++: Coding the Education of the Future"
The discussion “Searching for areas of growth in Master’s studies” as part of the conference "Master’s Degree ++: Coding the Education of the Future"

“What also has to be mentioned in this context are the network educational programs. This is a model as per which the country’s leading universities, while serving as the powerhouses of the educational system’s development, provide guidance to the smaller universities. This is all the more relevant given that innovative educational formats such as blended and online learning are becoming more and more popular. Large universities have to recognize and assume their responsibility to society and lead the way in the process of development,” underlined Sergey Kolyubin.

Areas of growth: university environment and ecosystem

Also prominent at the conference was the point that the success of Master’s studies in general and specific programs, in particular, depends not only on lecturers and creators of these programs but also on the environment at large. This environment, which exists both within a university and outside of it as an ecosystem, is made up of not only current students and staff, but also prospective students, graduates, business partners of the university and other participants engaging with the system.

As highlighted by Irina Arzhanova, much depends on whether this system is active and offers opportunities for autonomous implementation of programs, and whether educators are free to fulfill their vision when implementing these programs, among other factors.

Areas of growth: recognizability and promotion of Master’s programs

Another aspect the experts want universities to focus on is informing the wider public of their programs, as well as upping the recognizability of Master’s studies in general, believes Irina Arzhanova. But what’s the best way for promoting Master’s programs and what can become a university’s biggest competitive advantage: its brand, the credentials of program developers, or other factors?

“The brand is undoubtedly very important, but what’s more effective in my opinion is convincing the public that this specific university has educators that are truly capable of training a highly skilled specialist, and being able to offer real success stories that confirm that,” noted Sergey Kolyubin.

The discussion “Searching for areas of growth in Master’s studies” as part of the conference "Master’s Degree ++: Coding the Education of the Future"
The discussion “Searching for areas of growth in Master’s studies” as part of the conference "Master’s Degree ++: Coding the Education of the Future"

He also made the point that despite the differing methodologies of international rankings, they are a fairly efficient tool that allows to evaluate a university’s activities. Aliya Bagautdinova concurred, adding that above all else, it’s important to distinguish between the students applying for this or that program, on the basis of their preferences and plans for the future.

“There are students that have a clear vision of and ambition for their specialization, and if they’re so sure about their later career, it’s hardly a good idea to advise them to change this decision. It would be strange to recommend a person who wants to become a doctor to apply for an engineering university,” said the expert. “But if a student is in the place of choosing between two universities, we can recommend them to use a ranking for reference. The second recommendation, given the current conditions, is to choose the university which offers the most opportunities for students to fulfill their potential and pursue an individual educational trajectory. Having these opportunities means that a student can participate in international exchanges, choose the subjects they deem important for their professional development, and enrich their educational program.”

Anton Gopka
Anton Gopka

Anton Gopka noted that from his experience, today’s Bachelor’s studies graduates that are looking in to pursue a Master’s program have a very high level of self-awareness. That’s why they need to be given concrete examples of the opportunities and experience they’d obtain in their Master’s.

“Young people who are now choosing their future Master’s programs usually ask a lot of questions. They don’t approach this matter lightly, but rather are set on understanding the opportunities this or that program can give them and what kind of experience they can obtain. Our faculty has an engineering center, and it’s very important for me that students have an opportunity to work with technologies and try to make their first product. Apart from that, we’ll have a lot of experienced practitioners coming to our faculty to teach and mentor students in their individual projects. We tell prospective students about these opportunities, and it seems to me that this format of interaction really works,” shared the dean of ITMO University’s Faculty of Technological Management and Innovations.

Natalya Shulgina
Natalya Shulgina

Concluding the discussion, Natalya Shulgina, the program director of the Vladimir Potanin Foundation, talked about the timelines and format of the Foundation’s 2019 School. This is an education and discussion platform for the transmission of best educational practices and the solution of socially significant tasks. This year, the School will be implemented in a new format that will offer participants to boost their organizational skills for the advancement of positive social transformations in the context of sustainable development. Applications for participation are accepted until May 15, 2019. You can learn more about the School and requirements for participation on the Foundation’s website.

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