Conversations About Complex Issues: The Lesson Must Be Learnt

Conversations About Complex Issues: The Lesson Must Be Learnt

"Research is to see what everybody else has seen and to think what nobody else has thought" 

(Albert Szent Gyorgyiб Hungarian biochemist, Nobel Prize Winner)

We continue our conversation with TSU Rector Eduard Galazhinskiy about the Bologna process and its role in the history of Russian higher education and why some of the founding principles of the Bologna Declaration have not yet been put into practice.

– Professor Galazhinskiy, last time you noted that the idea of ​​building one’s own individual trajectory in higher education is still far from its full implementation both here and abroad. Why is it so?

– There are a variety of reasons for that. First of all, it is a change in the general historical and political context that we are talking about. Sooner or later, the moment comes when the choice of the dominant educational model becomes an existential issue for the state. Both the West and Russia are now experiencing such a moment. The idea of ​​a united Europe capable of preventing a new world war and resisting the US in economic competition gave rise to the Bologna process in its time. However, at present, it is collapsing. In such a critical situation, the supranational leadership of the European Union is not up to the realization of the once declared ideals and goals, including the achievement of general welfare. More important are the issues of survival. That is, issues of military, energy, and food security, as well as population management, which ensures the desired results of election campaigns. Accordingly, in the system of Western education, the model of “filling a vessel” as a technology of social control is now objectively more popular. Unlike the “guiding thread” model as an individual learning trajectory, preparing, according to Noam Chomsky, “the wealth of the nation, responsible for everything that happens in the country”- those who have critical thinking and independently choose strategies for their own capitalization.

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For Russia, the choice of the dominant model of higher education is also vital today. This is due to the need to ensure technological and personnel sovereignty and quickly solve the problems of import substitution. Hence, the social or, to be more precise, the state dimension of the education issue objectively begins to prevail over the personal one, at least for some period of time. In order to withstand the most difficult conditions, the state is forced to form a completely clear order for the training of personnel for certain sectors of the economy and other spheres of society.

Thus, the education systems of all countries were, are and will be represented by both models of “filling a vessel” and of the “guiding thread”. At the same time, the real ratio between them, as a rule, is in favor of the former, although it is not customary to talk about it in the context of the Bologna process. The point is not only that any state needs obedient citizens or appropriate personnel for the economy. Even in the most wonderful and prosperous state, people are born with equal rights, but different opportunities. Not everyone is capable of serious learning and building his or her own educational trajectory. Therefore, it turns out that the model of “filling a vessel” will always be relevant especially if you fill this “vessel” with something useful and valuable for the person and society.

As for the "wealth of the nation", a well-known person said that a state that does not reproduce a quality elite is woeful. A lot of philosophical and scientific works, as well as works of art have been devoted to this issue. For example, Isaac Asimov's novel "Profession", which I have already mentioned more than once in my blogs. For centuries up to now, the mission of forming a national elite in all countries has been assigned, first of all, to the great universities that teach students in their own way, regardless of any “Bologna systems”. They manage to pass through the crucible of all educational reforms more or less unscathed due to their relative autonomy, earned by high reputation and long traditions. Russia also has its own great universities, in which the intellectual elite has always been reproduced in a natural way in personal communication and joint work of talented students with their teachers and professors. All scientific schools are based on this principle. Moreover, even in “ordinary” universities, there have always been and will be students who need the most. They ask teachers more questions, and teachers, in turn, encourage them to ask even more difficult questions, gradually forming critical and analytical thinking. The main thing to do here in order to succeed is to have a mutual desire to truly learn and teach.

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– Probably, there cannot be too much of “wealth of the nation”? Otherwise, this would no longer be the elite of society, just the average population.

– Yes, it is true. But having declared the principle of an individual learning path for each student, the Bologna process at the same time launched a global trend towards the massification of higher education, which in the last quarter of the 20th century became a mandatory minimum for virtually any professional and social career and access to meaningful public communications. Meanwhile, the implementation of the principle of an individual educational trajectory to the full and for everyone is a very expensive pleasure. Not all countries, universities and students can afford such a luxury. Imagine that some academic disciplines are chosen by a few, and not by tens or hundreds of students, which makes them completely unprofitable for ordinary universities. Only a few universities can pull this off. As a rule, those are private and very expensive universities. Of course, in some cases this approach is more than justified. As for myself, I know only one example of such super-profitability, when only two students signed up for the course of one of the private American universities for the future Nobel laureate, and they also later became Nobel laureates!

This refers to the course in astrophysics by professor Subramanyan Chandrasekhar in the University of Chicago.

– Having signed the Bologna Declaration in 2003, Russia committed itself to implement all the basic principles of the Bologna system by 2010, which, among other things, required students to develop those very individual educational trajectories. It turns out that our country has assumed obviously impossible obligations?

– The question is not quite accurate. Essentially, all the basic principles of the Bologna system are ideas that should be strived for, but which can never be fully implemented due to various reasons. That is why the Bologna Declaration, called by its creators a “moving target”, is not a document that implies strict legal obligations on the part of the signatory countries. Rather, it outlines certain horizons and the desired image of higher education. Nevertheless, it was assumed that by 2010 the Russian system of higher education would clearly mark the transition from a flow-group organization of the educational process to an individual-oriented one.

–        Why by 2010 in particular?

– Russia had no choice: 2010 was the year when, according to the Bologna Declaration, a single educational space was supposed to be formed in Europe. All countries that voluntarily entered the Bologna process had to transform their educational systems by this very date.

– What prompted our country to such a voluntary declaration of will - joining the Bologna process, which many now speak of as an undeniable mistake?

– It is easy to judge 20 years later. In the early 2000s, we all lived with the hope that after the change in our economic system, normal partnership relations would gradually be established between Russia and the Western world. That is why in 2003 Russian President Vladimir Putin personally promoted our country's entry into the Bologna process, considering it a very serious and significant step towards Russia's integration into the world community. Moreover, at that time, the neoliberal media constantly supported the topic of Russia's lagging behind the entire "civilized" world and its inability to influence the processes of globalization.

At that time, the competency-based approach was recognized as the most advanced in the world. The American education system corresponded to it best of all. In many ways, it became an example for the experts who developed the Bologna Declaration, despite the fact that this declaration was originally aimed at the competitive struggle of Western Europe with the United States. The American format of higher education was not strictly focused on specialties, as our system did, but assumed the independence of students in choosing curricula as the main way to acquire the desired competencies. The degree of such freedom in the universities could be different. I must admit that all this sounded very attractive and quite convincing, along with other basic principles of the Bologna Declaration. For example, the academic mobility of students and teachers, which made it possible not only to study and work, but also to travel and get acquainted with other cultures; the unification of all educational levels (bachelor's + master's + doctoral studies) and a credit system that has simplified the transition from one university to another; the autonomy of universities; the lifelong learning concept (upskilling and retraining according to labor market demand). It is not surprising that, following many countries that supported the Bologna process, Russia also decided to join in 2003, wishing to live in peace with the whole world and not be an “educational province”. The possible risks of the Bologna system were not yet so obvious to us, it took time to see them. I think it makes little sense to talk here about how difficult it was for our country to integrate into this system. A huge number of scientific and journalistic articles are devoted to this theme.

– Considering all that happened, the real “embedding” did not take place. What do you think prevented this?

As always, there are many reasons. I'll mention the main ones. First, the traditions and value bases of domestic higher education turned out to be too strong. Therefore, many things related to the Bologna system were perceived by our teachers "with the mind, but not with the heart." For example, the idea of ​​education as a service did not correspond to the Russian mentality at all. Secondly, in an unfortunate way, the “Bologna reform” in Russia coincided with the introduction of the unified state exam (USE) for high school students, which was ambiguously assessed by some public figures, parents, teachers, and students themselves. Many still believe that the USE is one of the “must have things” for the "Bologna reform". In fact, these are completely different processes, although they coincided in time. But the negative perception of the USE by a part of the public was automatically transferred to the Bologna system one way or another. 5.jpeg

Thirdly, the external political situation began to change rapidly and the same cultural and civilizational rift between the West and Russia was outlined. The “color revolutions” around the perimeter of our country and the advance of NATO to the East have shown that the Western world does not want to live in peace with our country and that we have different ideas about human values ​​that form the foundation of any educational system, including the Bologna system.

It must be said that in the Western countries, since the early 2000s, the process of reevaluating the basic “Bologna” principles has begun. Their criticism has intensified from all groups of the European educational community, including students.

It is worth mentioning that despite the existence of a huge number of scientific publications devoted to various aspects of the Bologna process, many of the most important things have remained outside the attention of foreign experts over the years. More precisely, various empirical data were collected, but serious analysis was not carried out. Alternatively, maybe it was, but it was not in the public domain, possibly so as not to disappoint members of the “Bologna club” who were not ready for this. It is only very recently that studies have begun to appear on relevant international platforms confirming that not everything is in order with the goals and actual results of the Bologna process. For example, if the transition to a two-stage system of higher education is carried out too slowly, then it increases social inequality; that is, undergraduate studies are initially weakly linked to the labor market, and so on.

– Does it mean that not only Russian employers, but also employers in other countries, are not ready to hire bachelors?

– Quite right! This is how it works. Either highly skilled workers is most in demand — graduates of technical schools and colleges, or highly qualified employees who have graduated from master's or specialist programs. And if the relevant studies were initially carried out in all countries participating in the Bologna Process, then it would have become clear to everyone long ago that the main point of a bachelor's degree is not to give a person a ready-made profession. The point is to form independent critical thinking and a range of soft and hard skills required in most professions, as well as help to decide on the choice of a professional career and prepare for the next stage of education — a master's degree. By failing to correct and clarify in due time the goals of each of the levels of education the "managers" of the Bologna process gave the general public reason to doubt the expediency of such a two-stage system of higher education.

And the disadvantages of the Bologna process are not limited to this. Soon, it became obvious to the Russian academic community as well. Among the consistent critics of the Bologna process, one can name, for example, Viktor Sadovnichy, Rector of Moscow State University, who more than once said that the “Bologna reform” dealt a serious blow to the training of specialists in the field of natural sciences and engineering, and that “competencies have replaced fundamental education”. He called on the rectors of domestic and foreign universities to seriously discuss which Bologna principles should be preserved and which ones should be revised.

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According to the Russian physicist, sociologist and publicist Sergei Pereslegin, "Bolognization" turned education from a sociosystem process as a basic type of activity necessary for society into a socioform or simulacrum — as something harmless, but also useless. In addition, education as a service for a fee obliges it to be not only useful for students, but also enjoyable for them. To this end, it was significantly "lightened", a lot of knowledge was removed, because one could easily find it on the Internet. But we all know that education itself is a very difficult thing. In order to get the right answer even from the Internet, one needs to put the right questions to the search engine. And to do that, one must already have 75% of the relevant knowledge! The question, in fact, concerns only the remaining 25 percent.

Pereslegin believes that the ability to collect credits to your taste, bypassing the most difficult or “uninteresting” disciplines, has led to a tremendous drop in the level of education. In Russia, a 2010 candidate of science often corresponded to a fifth-year student of the 1980s in terms of the amount of knowledge. Not everywhere, but in many universities. The knowledge of the children of the domestic elite was much better than the knowledge of the children of "mere mortals", but this "much better" was not much better in fact. Parents suddenly discovered with horror that they could not pass on positions and business to their children, as they are not ready for that.

– Why did the deep sanitation of the Bologna process in the West and in Russia not take place?

– A radical revision of the basic principles of this process would be contrary to the true interests of its initiators - the four major European powers (Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy). It would also not correspond to the very ideology of neoliberalism, with its priority given to private interest, a market approach to everything, fierce competition and the predominance of property rights over the principles of social justice. The European academic community turned out to be powerless in the face of the European political and business elite. It could only mourn over the "slow death of the University" in the context of the "Americanization" of higher education and the victory of global capitalism, while in words the Bologna Declaration called for the full autonomy of the University and the expansion of the "European dimension" in education. 8.png

Although in fairness it should be noted that in recent years certain attempts have been made in the West to overcome the crisis in education, which could no longer be denied. Thus, in particular, in 2021, the so-called UNESCO global report Reimagining our futures together: a new social contract for education was introduced to the public. It, as one might expect, contains a lot of the right words about the need to strengthen education as a public common good, assure the right to quality education throughout life, increase the role of the teacher and much more. But there are also several, frankly speaking, revolutionary ideas for Western pedagogy. For example, that it should move from lessons focused on individual achievement to an emphasis on interaction, cooperation and solidarity. That is, to collectivism, which has been one of the main principles of our domestic pedagogy since the 1920s. The report also emphasized that education should be considered as the most important element of civilizational development, and not just as preparation for a career. School and university are places for a full-fledged living of a certain period of life, not for a temporary stay. This is where values ​​come into play. As they say, even a hundred years have not passed, as the West has started to realize something important! This UNESCO report was discussed for more than a year at various world and regional educational forums. By the way, this was the main goal of its authors: to intensify the global debate and the movement for a new social contract in education. Basically, in the course of the debate, praises of the report were heard. But criticism for being abstract and out of touch with reality has appeared as well.

Now about the reasons the deep sanitation of the Bologna system did not take place in our country. In the preparations for its long-awaited entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2012, which then seemed like a complete guarantee of equal participation in the global market, Russia, of course, could not openly criticize the Bologna system or withdraw from it. It would look more than strange. So political and economic interests won in our country too.

There was another factor: both the Western and domestic bureaucratic component of the Bologna process turned out to be stronger than the actual educational and scientific one. Initially, unusual schemes for calculating credits (credit units), ranking universities, indexing citations of scientific papers, and so on quickly became “indispensable” in terms of monitoring and measuring the effectiveness of educational activities. At the same time, less and less time and energy were left for the educational activity itself. Thus, for officials, the Bologna system turned out to be a very convenient system, while for teachers it was extremely formalized and labor-intensive for a long time, despite the fact that most of their time was spent not on communicating with students, but on endless reports and adjustments to curricula. But gradually they got used to it. This was also facilitated by certain advantages of the Bologna system, which, of course, cannot be denied. First of all, it is academic mobility, thanks to which both students and teachers (at least from all leading Russian universities) were able to study and work at foreign universities, from where they returned with new knowledge, skills, ideas, and plans.

– And yet, in your personal opinion, does the Bologna system have more advantages or disadvantages?

– There is no clear and simple answer to this question. Among the disadvantages are simplification and reduction of the fundamental nature of knowledge. Among the advantages are mobility, individualization of training, and change of trajectories. But this is all very conditional, since, if desired, any principle of the Bologna system can be turned into its absolute opposite, despite the fact that initially all these principles were borrowed from Aristotle, Humboldt, Dewey and other great philosophers and educators. The simplification of knowledge can be called "accessibility", and the decrease in the fundamental nature of knowledge — "the increase in applied value and proximity to practice." On the other hand, mobility increases the risk of brain drain, individualization of training increases its cost, and so on. It is very important to remember all this before deciding to completely or partially abandon any principles of this system. The Bologna lesson must be learned to the end and analyzed in every detail. Of course, this is very difficult under the conditions of the hype currently raised by opponents of calm and deliberate assessments and decisions regarding the legacy of the Bologna system, which we still are a part of. But now, more than ever, we cannot afford to be wrong. Decisions about the future of our domestic higher education must be made taking into account not only today, but also tomorrow, and even the day after tomorrow; as well as from the standpoint of all its actors and stakeholders: students, teachers, researchers, representatives of university management, employers, and the state as a whole.

- Listening to you, one comes to understand that discussions about the "correctness" or "incorrectness" of the principles of the Bologna system, by definition, cannot be very productive if these principles are so ambiguous. Meanwhile, these discussions do not stop in the relevant public and social media groups, as well as at official forums and meetings. There is a feeling that in such disputes more important and unshakable things are missed that really determine the final result, which is not only the level of preparedness for any profession, but the very way of thinking and the picture of the world in the head of a "Bologna system graduate".

– Yes, the main conversation should be about fundamental values ​​and cultural identity. They determine which sign - "plus" or "minus" - the implementation of the above principles will occur in each specific case. It is no coincidence that the events taking place in the world today are increasingly called the “clash of cultures” or the “battle of civilizations”. I propose to talk about this in more detail next time. As well as about how the future of domestic higher education is seen today by Tomsk State University.

To be continued

The conversation was transcribed by Irina Kuzheleva-Sagan

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