Master’s Degree ++: Experts, Organizers and Participants on the Formula for an Ideal Master’s Program

On April 25-27, ITMO University hosted the Master’s Degree ++ conference, which it organized together with the Vladimir Potanin Foundation. The event brought together winners of the Potanin scholarship contest for educators, experts from leading Russian and international universities, representatives of federal and regional agencies, business and nonprofit organizations. Over the course of three days, the specialists participated in discussions and practical sessions aimed at the identification of best practices of implementation of modern Master’s studies. ITMO.NEWS met the organizers and participants to find out what ideas the conference helped to establish, and what are the areas of growth Russian Master’s programs could benefit from exploring.

Natalya Shulgina, program director at the Vladimir Potanin Foundation, coordinator of the conference

Each year, the conference, which the Vladimir Potanin Foundation organized with Russia’s leading universities, creates meaningful discussions around the issues concerning the development of Master’s studies in Russia. Despite the fact that the main themes of the conference change as time passes, all of them are united with one common feature: topicality and urgency of the questions raised. Among the topics discussed over the years were various technologies for the development and design of viable Master’s programs, the role of universities as the driving forces of innovative regional development, models of network cooperation between Russian higher education institutions, and many others.

Our fifth conference, which this year took place at ITMO University, was also dedicated to such important issues as digitalization of education, interdisciplinarity, creation of new programs at the intersection of science and art, balanced development of the whole spectrum of skills and competencies (soft, hard and digital) in students, and training of specialists that will be in-demand on the labor market of tomorrow. In other words, what we aimed to do as part of this year’s conference was to not only analyze the current state of affairs but also look into the future, trying to code it along the way.

As the co-organizers of the conference, we deemed it very important that the conference’s agenda met the needs of the teaching community. It’s important to note that this event was initially envisaged as a networking forum for the winners of the Potanin scholarship. That’s why the program of the first day of the conference comprised practical sessions for educators where they had the opportunity to familiarize themselves with each other’s projects as part of an interactive game with AI and other events.

Natalya Shulgina
Natalya Shulgina

We were also curious to try new formats of sessions. Our partners from ITMO University suggested many unconventional and innovative formats such as pitching sessions, interactive games, and role games. An interesting format presented itself in the form laboratories such as Fail Lab, during which the participants were asked to collectively reflect on the topic of difficulties and challenges facing the higher education community, and a no less reflective discussion by Master’s students about the difficulties of choosing a professional trajectory during and after their Master’s studies. The latter was carried out as a reversed expert discussion, where students took to the stage and it was the lecturers that asked them questions. It produced great results, and understandably so: a wholesome discussion about Master’s studies is impossible without the participation of the audience to which it directly pertains to: the students themselves.

We’re glad that the educators and other participants of the conference appreciated these experimental formats, though more traditional formats such as plenary sessions, expert discussions and round tables were also filled with new twists and innovative vision. But even the early feedback we got gives us reasons to believe that we managed to achieve the main goals of the conference.

Irina Arzhanova, executive director at the National Training Foundation (NTF), expert and moderator of the conference’s final discussion

As any other educational program, a Master’s program should be relevant, in-demand, high-quality, modern both in its form and its content, and effective in terms of the cost and management, though the conference allowed us to establish that universities all have different approaches to implementing these objectives. The effectiveness of these approaches was evaluated by research that was presented at the conference, and we hope that this will give rise to a more uniform definition of a good Master’s program.

Irina Arzhanova
Irina Arzhanova

Today, Master’s programs are a major component of defining a university’s reputation. That is why we have to assume a serious approach to all stages of their development, from what these programs should be to how they should be promoted. And this is a major concern not only, and perhaps not so much, for program developers but also for the university environment as a whole.

As for the possible areas of growth for today’s Master’s studies, I would like to draw on the results of a very interesting and professional discussion that took place over all three days of the conference. The first major area of growth is program content. The second is interdisciplinarity: programs may and should include three or more subject areas from both technical and humanities kinds. Oftentimes, it leads to very interesting and in-demand products. Then comes the detalization, which is a crucial area of growth that implies the development of custom-made programs focusing on niche subjects. Digitalization also is a source of a wide range of opportunities for growth, both in terms of specific subject areas and program delivery and management.

Expanding on the latter, management is a yet another area of growth that needs to be considered. For fundamental academic programs in a wide range of scientific fields, which de facto are no more and no less than a step in the implementation of a real and long-term research project, measured introduction of new elements can be very important. They can also be coupled with interconnected PhD programs as a uniform academic track. Client-oriented programs tend to change very quickly, being altered or even canceled if the demand shifts to another field. In light of this, it is very important that universities offer structurally autonomous Master’s programs, and this can become another area of growth for Master’s studies.

It was mentioned at the conference that people, understood as students and lecturers as a whole, is the main asset in the development of Master’s studies. Without a doubt, when we’re talking about ensuring the quality of programs, it would be better if both students and teachers were talented and creative. But the way I see it, teachers’ role is much more significant, because it is a talented educator that has the opportunity to develop a unique program that would draw in talented students. This wouldn’t work another way. So educators are an integral area of growth for Master’s studies. At the conference, we heard about different approaches to attracting, helping and motivating educators. This is an unconventional line of work that is paramount for achieving our common goal.

Another potential area of growth is the “packaging” of Master’s programs, seen as a special set of measures for promotion of programs, improving their recognizability, and ensuring effective marketing. We need specialists that are capable of all that, but with that, we also have to offer program developers and coordinators opportunities to acquire relevant competencies. This is, too, a question of management, and a systemic one at that.

Russian universities are working to deliver on these points, be it comprehensively or in a more targeted way. But even the leaders in the field probably couldn’t say that they solved all of the issues in fulfilling this growth potential. This implies permanent and long-term work.

Anton Fortunov, professor at the Institute of International Relations and World History at the N. I. Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novgorod, developer of the Master’s program “Media management in Politics and Business”, expert at the conference  

One of the somewhat unexpected results of the discussion for me was the realization that Master’s education is not just some separate stage or stage in the educational system but a very nuanced communication system that is very hard to adjust. For one, we reached the conclusion that unlike Bachelor’s programs, Master’s programs attract prospective students not with the brand of the university, but with the educators’ credentials. People look for specific mentoring styles and idiosyncratic research approaches.

In that sense, Master’s studies of the future are rooted in the interaction between teachers and students, implying a much greater sense of mutual responsibility, trust and openness than what we have today. All this is instrumental if we want to ascend to new, interdisciplinary levels of research, because it is in this learning ambience that the intentions of both sides of communication create a special synergy that allows them to find unique narratives and meanings within the framework of a pre-set, conventional strategy.

What this means for us, the developers of Master’s programs, is that we need to develop the ability to anticipate the future areas of congruence between tradition and innovation, academia and applied research, fashion and timelessness. In other words, Master’s programs are some sort of a “convention on the future”, in which every participant feels comfortable participating.

It is not only we, lecturers and researchers, who determine the way that Master’s education in Russia will follow, but the society and the state with its educational system as well. It is crucially important to ensure that the people working in this field are interested in what they do, but this interest doesn’t emerge out of nowhere and needs some “fuel” to grow. By this, however, I don’t mean that we should just do nothing and wait for the state to solve all our problems.

To my mind, it’s time for us to analyze what European countries have achieved in this field and find our own strategy, which would allow us to overcome the existing methodological and intellectual gaps. The solution, I believe, lies in the development of a wide range of disciplines and programs, in which the researcher will have to have a good reflection and excellent prognostic skills, allowing them to bypass rigid regulations and restrictions (semantic, ethical, methodical) imposed by artificial intelligence, digital reality, and the system of strict specialization that is sometimes prone to running to extremes.

Yulia Romanenko, assistant at the Institute of International Development and Partnership, the winner of the Potanin Foundation’s grant competition for Master’s-level educators 2018-2019

The main idea that the developers of Master’s programs in Russia have to come to grips with is that it’s not single-subject specialists that these programs should train, but rather all-round professionals who can work efficiently in the changing world. Therefore, to develop and improve Master’s programs, we have to master the latest analysis and forecasting tools, as well as learn from the experience of our international colleagues. The development of educational programs requires, on the one hand, deep internationalization of all types of activities and, on the other hand, the attraction of leading companies working in particular fields to the integration of Master’s students into their line of work.

Among the most important areas of growth for today’s Master’s education is the need for practice-oriented approach (regarding both fundamental and applied educational programs), internationalization of educational programs, development of academic exchange programs, and improvement of quality of publication activity among Master’s students, as well as introduction of project activities and development of flexible skills. All the above-mentioned measures are applied at Russia’s leading universities to a greater or lesser extent, and I think that we can expect a significant qualitative improvement on all these counts.

Yulia Ryabukhina, professor at Foreign Language Training Center and member of staff at ITMO University’s Digital Humanities Research Lab, conference’s expert

While some 10-15 years it was impossible to get a starter position and nail a good job without a university diploma, today, higher education is no longer sine qua non. There is a whole range of prestigious and well-paid positions, for which you don’t need a university degree, at least in the beginning. The understanding that you require some extra knowledge and skills may come later, which will allow you to make a more informed choice.

Aliya Bagautdinova, head of ITMO University’s Department of Academic Affairs, conference’s expert

Aliya Bagautdinova
Aliya Bagautdinova

First and foremost, the developers of Master’s programs at Russian universities have to understand that the transformation of Master’s studies is inevitable. The main goal of this transformation is the creation of competitive Master’s programs, which can be used to train highly-qualified specialists who will be in demand in the future.

Master’s studies are not only about universities but also about the technological sector and businesses. To ensure a high level of training, universities have to collaborate with their industrial partners, thus allowing each student to choose their own educational trajectory. Many companies that determine technological trends in the industry are ready to take part not only in the implementation of the Master’s programs, but also in their creation, which will allow for a new level of professional training. At the same time, when developing a Master’s program, it is very important to preserve the fundamental nature of the training, supported by practice. Maintaining a balance between the fundamental and applied aspects is the main condition for a program’s competitiveness.

Interdisciplinarity is yet another important pillar on which Master’s education rests. Interdisciplinarity basically means that Master’s programs are developed by specialists in different fields, as it is at the intersection of different interests where innovation happens.

Attracting the best students is a top priority for the developers of Master’s programs. That’s why the programs they offer have to be interesting, respond to the global challenges and use cutting-edge digital technologies. Students who are now choosing a Master’s program to pursue want to know not only about the disciplines included in the curriculum, but also about exchange programs, technological facilities, online learning opportunities, the fields the research is done in, and lecturers’ expertise. Today, universities have to attract students by giving them educational opportunities and additional bonuses, such as internships at Russian and international companies, opportunities for participation in real-life projects, and individual educational trajectories.

Areas of growth for Russian Master’s studies include educational programs that unite several subject areas, thus expanding the range of professional fields of graduates-to-be, as well as educational programs that use different formats of offline, online and blended learning oriented at increasing and adding to professional competencies in the fields of scientific and technological innovations and management. Also promising are network programs based on trilateral cooperation between universities, research centers and specialized industry partners.

Master’s studies of the future will come in the form of digital education that takes into consideration the existing abilities of students, helps them fulfil their creative and innovative potential, and allows them to only deepen their knowledge in familiar fields but also apply their knowledge to the solution of topical tasks in new fields of knowledge or with new approaches drawing on digital technologies and AI, thus ensuring their success on the dynamically developing labor market.

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