Streetwise Professor

November 27, 2010

Is There a 12 Step Program for University Administrators–In Russian?

Filed under: Economics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:15 pm

This article about the failure of Russian universities to place in the top 200 of a well-respected ranking seems to epitomize much of what happens in Russia.  Poor placement in the rankings?  Either (a) trash the ranking system and advocate the creation of a Russian one, or (b) trash the ranking system and say “we don’t need no steenking rankings.”  Stubbornly refuse to reflect the realities of the internationalization of research in the modern age.  Cling to the glory days of a system that thrived, after a fashion, in the Soviet times:

Dismayed with Moscow State University’s lackluster ranking, its rector, Viktor Sadovnichy, said Russia needed to create its own ranking because international ratings are not objective concerning Russian schools.

The idea was explicitly backed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at a meeting with Russian rectors last month.

. . . .

“Russia’s research publication output is relatively low,” Baty said.

The ranking is based on 13 elements, including research income, ratio of international and domestic staff, income from industry, teaching, and citation impact. The ranking’s editors used data provided by Thomson Reuters to make their conclusions for the first time this year.

Russia’s limited volume of research publications indexed by Thomson Reuters, as well as those publications’ limited influence as measured by citations, is reflected in the rankings, which employ both publication volume and citation counts among the 13 separate performance indicators. Also, the system of measuring was changed this year so traditional prestige no longer holds much weight in the final reckoning.

“All these factors will make it difficult for Russia to be recognized among the top 200,” Baty said.

One of the measurements that Russian scholars frequently fail to fit is the citation index because many of their articles are written in Russian and remain unknown for the majority of the global scientific community. But even the country’s top scholars don’t encourage English.

When asked about Russia’s low citation index, Russian Academy of Sciences president Yury Osipov said in an interview with that Russian scholars don’t have to learn English because if “one is a high-level specialist, he will study Russian and read articles in Russian.”

No doubt, with this attitude prevailing On High, these high level specialists will study Russian and read articles in Russian and more importantly, write articles in Russian.  And remain known only in Russia; contribute to scholarship only in Russia; be isolated from scholarly discourse outside of Russia; and, as a result, be marginal and marginalized.

It is not necessarily fair, in some cosmic sense, but it is a fact: English is the language of scholarly discourse in virtually every discipline.  A lingua franca is enormously important in advancing scholarly endeavors by facilitating the creation of a pool of knowledge that researchers around the world can add to and draw from.  The network effects are of seismic importance.  To cut off one’s nation from this deliberately and pridefully does no favors to one’s country, let alone to the cause of advancing knowledge generally.

To cut off one’s nation from this deliberately and pridefully does no favors to one’s country, let alone to the cause of advancing knowledge generally.  The biggest casualties of this stubborn pride are Russian scholars and would be scholars.  Some, who want to remain in their homeland, labor away in obscurity and do not achieve the impact that they are capable of.  Others, stifled by this parochialism, leave and seldom look back.  (Cf., the recent winners of the physics Nobel.)

This attitude is emblematic of Russia’s historically ambivalent relationship to the wider world.  That ambivalence has always had a cost, and that cost is becoming ever higher as the world becomes more interconnected.  The cost is particularly high in research scholarship.

The article quotes my friend, Sergei Guriev:

Sergei Guriev, rector of the New Economic School in Moscow and a Morgan Stanley professor of economics, said Russian universities “have been losing ground not only to their OECD counterparts but also to the universities from developing countries.” For example, China has six universities in the 200 institutions ranked by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

“Modernization and a knowledge-based economy by definition require advanced human capital. There can be no modernization of the economy — and of society — without the modernization of higher education,” Guriev told The Moscow Times.

That’s obviously correct.  If Russia hopes to advance beyond the status of the world’s largest raw material appendage, it will need to revitalize its educational system–higher education certainly, but primary and secondary education too. It is interesting to note that Sergei’s New Economic School is, as the name suggests, a new school that post-dates the Soviet collapse.  It is not a legacy institution, and is largely independent of government funding and control.  This makes it more dynamic and productive: in my fields of economics and finance, NES scholars are disproportionately represented among Russians who have had impact in mainstream, non-Russian publications.

In contrast, the dead hand of the Soviet past symbolized by fossils like Osipov, and which still looms large at the biggest Russian universities, will doom Russian traditional universities to even deeper oblivion.  Responding to scathing evaluations of university performance (which are based on relatively objective factors such as publication counts, impact factors, and citations) by calling for Russia to create its own rankings, or to disregard rankings altogether, rather than adapt to and integrate with current international norms of scholarship, is to deny a sad reality.

The Russian educational establishment seems in desperate need of a 12 step program of some sort.  The first step of which is to recognize the existence of a problem.  No ranking system is perfect, but most ranking systems will not relegate a truly great, or even very good, university to the NR category.  By denying that, and refusing to take the first step of recognizing a problem, Russia risks losing yet more ground.  Forget Skolkovo, and move to integrating Russia in the realm of global scholarship, so its researchers can benefit from and contribute to the knowledge commons.  To do otherwise is to condemn Russian universities to become even more isolated academic backwaters.

* This brings to mind a conversation with my seat-mate on a flight from Moscow to the US in 2005.  My now friend was flying to the US to study on a Fulbright.   I remember telling her that I was well aware of the great fortune of being a native English speaker in the world of scholarship.  It is arbitrary, but it is reality.

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  1. I’d be interested in knowing what they think should be measured in their own ranking system. Seriously, I call their bluff. I’m genuinely interested. I’d also be interested in what is, I’m sure, groundbreaking work the Russian NGO’s are doing in the U.S. Maybe all their brilliant conclusions are reported in Russian, though. Oh well, I guess it’s our loss.

    Secondly, I think you’re point about adding to the common knowledge of the world is important. Isn’t that what the spirit of research is all about? Why don’t they want to contribute to that?

    Next, a German friend of mine, whose father is a doctor, said that there is NO possible way to be a good doctor without knowing English. There is just too much new information available that any serious, responsible doctor could ignore.

    Lastly, there ARE extremely talented people in Russia. I asked a high-level engineer (from India) at my company what he thought of Russian software development talent compared to India. He said that Russians are 10 times better, but you always have to dig it out of them. In India, they’re not as good, but they are constantly selling themselves, writing white papers, seeking feedback, and getting their contributions out in the public so that they can be recognized for their good work. As a result, they get more work, better projects, etc. Russians simply don’t do that. I experienced this same thing amongst my own co-workers while in Russia. It was a shame since they did have a lot to offer.

    Comment by Howard Roark — November 27, 2010 @ 11:09 pm

  2. Russians are aloof and laden with inertia. BTW, at the rate the Chinese are pumping out papers, we’ll soon have to learn their language.

    Comment by So? — November 27, 2010 @ 11:55 pm

  3. On the 2009 rankings, which still fully apply to these ones:

    Let’s look at the Times list. UC Berkeley or the Ecole Polytechnique, known throughout the world, are both superseded by the University of Bristol in Britain, which is a respectable institution but not world-class. It gets stupider as one goes down. Lomonosov Moscow State University, full of world-famous scientists and Russia’s best students, is apparently comparable with British universities like Newcastle or Aberdeen, or Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which famously offers a major in Intimate Apparel. Part of the explanation is that far too much emphasis is placed on the staff/student ratio (UC Berkeley totally flunks this) and the International Student Score (whatever the hell that is), whereas the citation/staff score is not the best measure given the academic tendency to form their own mafia-like cliques (i.e. incessantly cite each other’s work).

    The Chinese ARWU estimates are somewhat more accurate, but still lacking.

    It would be great if some organization could conduct a real study, which instead of relying so much on subjective weighting of statistics, would test the skills and knowledge of graduates from each university on their subject. (After all, to applicants, that is the thing that matters most). I would suspect that a lot of universities that coast only on their reputations, or on their country’s reputation, will slip a lot. (One really annoying thing is that so many Third Worlders in a position of cultural dependency on the West have an irrational respect for a Western education, no matter how poor it is in practice – how much money they throw away into the wind sending off their students to British polytechs-renamed-as-universities!). I remember reading about a limited study which tested the math knowledge of math graduates from some of the world’s best institutions, the top three were all Japanese universities, fourth was Moscow State University, fifth was either MIT or Caltech.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — November 28, 2010 @ 1:41 am

  4. This ranking is a joke and a disgrace, as is the organization that created it. In their top 200 there are 2 Turkish and 1 Egyptian university – and not a single Russian school. The adult literacy rate in Egypt now is somewhere around ~70%. And we are supposed to believe that this country produces better universities than Russia? Oh really, Piwrong? I mean, seriously, is this supposed to be believable, even to you?

    Could it be that there might be something wrong with the methodology of this ranking? In fact, there clearly is, as indicated by the fact that the results of this ranking constrast notably with those of another prominent university ranking, put out by QS, the former partner of Times Higher Education in their joint rankings:

    Here, MGU is at #93. The highest ranked Turkish university is at #332. No Egyptian universities in the top 500. That’s quite a significant difference between these two rankings. Certainly they both can’t be correct. At least of them is wrong, Piwrong.

    What’s also amusing to me here is that not one university from Poland managed to crack the THS top 200 or the QS top 300. I mean, Poland has been zealously servicing Murca’s private parts for the last 20 years and still can’t get any love in these rankings. What do you have to say about it, Piwrong? It can’t be due to the population size – Austria, Finland, Norway all spank Poland in the university rankings despite having smaller populations. Poland is in NATO and the EU, does everything Murca says. So why are their schools such “isolated academic backwaters”, Piwrong? Why are they in such “deep oblivion”?

    Comment by rusak — November 28, 2010 @ 1:55 am

  5. @So? Except the Chinese seem to be pumping out those papers in English….

    Comment by Andrew — November 28, 2010 @ 7:34 am

  6. TYPO: At the end of the second paragraph after the first quote and the beginning of the next one, there is same sentence.

    “Dismayed with Moscow State University’s lackluster ranking, its rector, Viktor Sadovnichy, said Russia needed to create its own ranking because international ratings are not objective concerning Russian schools.”

    Yeah, whole world cooperates to push Russia back to its knees.

    “one is a high-level specialist, he will study Russian and read articles in Russian.”

    Interesting mindset. Guess it partially roots from Russians living at the time of Cold War when Russia wasn’t the most popular of countries but it mattered. It is like Russians had some national egoism – they do not care what others think about Russia but they hate being ignored. We can actually see that in smaller scale here – SO obviously doesn’t care what others think about him – he would hardly sign under things like “…whereas the citation/staff score is not the best measure given the academic tendency to form their own mafia-like cliques…” otherwise – as long as they react to him.

    Comment by deith — November 28, 2010 @ 8:56 am

  7. Thanks, Deith. Wrote the post in the Asheville airport, and the connection dropped when I posted so only a portion of it was saved on WordPress. Fortunately I had saved the post to a .doc file, and when I got to the Atlanta airport I pasted the portion that had been dropped, but apparently included the extra sentence in the paste. Haste in pasting makes waste, I guess 🙂

    @So? But the Chinese are pumping out most papers in English, not Chinese. Whoops–I just saw @Andrew said the same.

    @Rusak. You are so effing clever, and apparently think so yourself. You are so proud of your “Piwrong” that you use it 3 times. You cut me to the quick. Not.

    Re Poland: obviously you have some sort of OCD regarding that country. Seek help.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 28, 2010 @ 11:03 am

  8. When the Chinese end up producing more than 2/3 of the world’s hard science papers (the rest are irrelevant), why would they stick to English?

    Comment by So? — November 28, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

  9. Quite probably given that the Chinese consider English to be the language of international communication.

    Interesting to see the Chinese Premier on his overseas visits speaking English, as opposed to Putin.

    And also remember the Chinese have a large number of languages in a multi-ethnic country, with two main languages, Madarin and Cantonese. English is a useful way to make sure no one local language dominates and causes resentment.

    Pity the Russians did not think of that, Russification is one of the reasons why Moscow is so hated in the Caucasus.

    Comment by Andrew — November 29, 2010 @ 12:43 am

  10. Yeah right, all that they dream of is to have a squintillion dialects and English to mediate. Sure. Ever wondered why they resist adopting a phonetic alphabet? You are willing to make up all sorts of furphies as an excuse for yet another anti-Russian diatribe. Seems like your reason d’etre. Russia is not your problem. Your problems are largely of your own making. To hate another nation is not to love your own.

    BTW, in China, it’s Han ubber alles.

    Comment by So? — November 29, 2010 @ 1:07 am

  11. So?, you really are an inferior form of life old boy.

    The Chinese would rather not have a series of internal rebellions and secessionist movements like that which destroyed the USSR, they are quite good at learning from Russian stupidity in that regard.

    And as for BTW, in China, it’s Han ubber alles more hypocrisy as usual, given the language policy of fascist Russians like yourself.

    Comment by Andrew — November 29, 2010 @ 4:23 am

  12. University of Sussex above Durham and Manchester? Hmmm…

    Comment by Tim Newman — November 29, 2010 @ 4:31 am

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