RUSSIA: Pay staff more to get top teachers

Isak Froumin has a simple formula for fast-tracking progress at Moscow's Higher School of Economics: pay staff better salaries and help them to work at world standards. Seconded from the World Bank - where he has spent the last eight years as senior education specialist - Froumin, 50, is senior advisor to rector Yaroslavl Kuzminov, a position that ranks him vice-rector.

In charge of supervising university strategic development and building international relations, Froumin - who cut his teeth in educational innovation at Krasnoyarsk State University in Siberia in the 1990s - knows creating change is more than a matter of thicker pay packets.

But quality counts and for that you must pay: "We think it is strategically important to have globally competitive salaries if you want to keep and attract people on an international scale."

Salaries for locally recruited staff are already some 70% higher than average for the university sector in Russia, with tenured professors making around $3,000 a month and associate professors between $1,500 and $2,000.

Although Froumin welcomes Russian government plans to create new, better-funded high status 'federal' universities with a stronger research focus (see UWN story 26 October), he believes that merely spending more money on equipment is not enough.

University structures have to change if Russia's current outmoded division between teaching universities, academy of science research institutes and industry is to be reformed.

Already Bologna compliant, the Higher School of Economics has four-year undergraduate programmes, two-year masters and a full credit transfer system.

But Froumin believes that the 14% of its 12,000 Moscow-based students who are in graduate studies is not enough for it to count as a research university and he and the institution's leaders are determined to push this figure up to 35%.

"More money is not the only answer; one must change structures to reform a university. Research and innovation must become central to a university's mission."

This is where the university's strategy differs from that of Russian government reforms - enthusiastically advocated by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Education Secretary Andrei Fursenko - which aim to create high status 'federal' universities by spending more money but not necessarily changing internal cultures.

The university, founded 16 years ago in one of the last decrees made by liberal economist Yegor Gaidar when he was Prime Minister in Boris Yeltsin's first administration, has always enjoyed a reputation for innovation and adventurous thinking.

"The Higher School of Economics has always been an adventure; when it was founded the average age of its leaders was just 35. Now they are in their 50s but it remains a dynamic place. The university has good relations with the government and is regarded as a think tank on economic reform," says Froumin.

The contract with the World Bank that brought Froumin to the university gives the university and (including satellite campuses) its near 17,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students unparalleled access to the some of the world's top movers and shakers in economics.

"Jamil Salmi (the World Bank's tertiary education network coordinator) is among those commenting on the university's strategic development plan. Other specialists from the bank collaborate with HSE research teams and participate at academic conferences and seminars," Froumin, a slim and self-assured man, says.

The university's effective status as an economic think-tank that finds itself courted by the powerful and influential makes it a highly popular destination for students. In many Russian universities that would mean most students came from well-heeled and influential families who were prepared to pay to secure places - or even bribe their way to better entrance examination results.

Not so at HSE. Rather than set its own entrance exams, it relies on the recently introduced state unified entrance test and anti-corruption measures that include posting applicant's results on a website and putting all essays through strict plagiarism checks. This means that students enter strictly on merit.

"We have actually seen a drop of 10% in the number of fee-paying students this year but we did not want to increase their number by lowering the quality at entry requirements," Froumin says. "We are also proud of the fact that we take more students from outside of Moscow than any other university in the city; some 52% of our students are from the regions."

Once at HSE, students have some of the best opportunities for world-class study that exist in Russia. Joint degrees with the London School of Economics, Berlin's Humboldt University, the Sorbonne and a new agreement with Cologne University offer a diversity rarely found here and negotiations are under way with the Education Ministry for more resources and greater autonomy.

Research partnerships where funding is guaranteed for the Russian side offer strong possibilities for greater international cooperation. Plans are also afoot to open a research centre on the economics of climate change and demographics, two issues of key significance in Russia.

Recruiting international staff speeds up soon: two deans were due to be sent next month to the American Economic Association's annual meeting, which includes a jobs fair in San Francisco, briefed to advertise positions paying between $40,000 and $50,000 a year.

Plans to build two new university housing blocks, with units for Russian graduate research staff and internationally recruited staff, also figure in the university strategy, acknowledging the expense of renting suitable housing in Moscow.

It is all part of a strategy that sees the HSE playing its part in global higher education and economic research, Froumin says.

"Russia is increasingly integrated into the world economy, social and political systems. Universities should be no different."