Vladimir Mau: "You can't force a student to study, but you can create an environment that makes them want to."

25 April 2022
Vladimir Mau: "You can't force a student to study, but you can create an environment that makes them want to."

Rector of the Presidential Academy discusses how and what to study in the 21st century and answers questions about how higher education exists in a rapidly changing world.

- For many years it was assumed that higher education was the only possible social elevator. In recent years this trend has gradually changed. What do you think about it? Is higher education as important as is commonly believed?

- I don't think that higher education has ever been seen as the only social elevator: in the Soviet Union, about 25% of high school graduates received it, but they were not the only successful people. However, this social elevator was important end effective, and it remains that way: if you look at the average salaries of university graduated and people without any degrees, you can see that higher education gives a significant income increase.

It is important to correct and clarify a bit. Is it possible to be successful or super-successful without higher education? Of course it is. But what is the cause-and-effect relationship here? Are you successful because you don't have a college degree-or because you are smart and hard-working?

On average, people with higher education tend to achieve more. And another caveat: when higher education becomes universal, the average success rate naturally decreases. For example, when the top 20 percent of high school graduates enter a university through a competition, and they are already the best on the way in, they are the best on the way out. But when almost everyone goes to college, this narrow funnel ceases to work. On average, this relative success rate becomes lower simply because the education is more widely spread.

Another important thing is the quality of the university. There is no higher education "per se". The top universities and the second- and third-tier universities have very different level of education.

Finally, the very model of getting involved into higher education is changing – for instance, over the past 10 years, secondary vocational education has become drastically more attractive. This is rational and makes perfect sense: almost half of high school students choose vocational school after 9th grade. But that doesn't mean they give up on higher education: many proceed to enroll into university after they graduate from vocational school. It doesn't have to be full-time: it can be part-time or extramural. But higher education is sought after.

The number of educational opportunities and options is growing. You can get an online education, combine different modules and programs from different universities. Education is becoming very diversified, and the key question is not a choice between higher education and something else, but at what point in life and in what form you get it; how long you are able to keep on learning at all. The peculiarity of the modern world and technology is that you have to learn and retrain all the time. Under these conditions, it’s hard to say that higher education is a guarantee of success. Of course it’s not. The guarantee of success is the ability to learn throughout one's professional career and make decisions to change it, rather than being stuck in one place and being proud of a single entry in one's employment record.

The question about higher education is outdated per se: it comes from the second half of the twentieth century. The question today is not whether it is needed or not needed, but what the student is able to take from education, how he or she will build the educational trajectory. More and more multidisciplinary programs are appearing at the Presidential Academy with the opportunity to choose an individual trajectory of study. And that's what the main challenges are, not whether to go to college or not.

Also, just going to college is not enough. Your ability will constantly be tested, so you have to educate yourself indefinitely. All of this goes far beyond a particular university.

- At what age do you think today's school students should start thinking about where to study further and which profession to pursue? Can they - and should they - make these choices in elementary or high school?

- This is a very individual question. There are brilliant mathematicians who know nothing but mathematics, and there are people who want to be the jack of all trades.

You can start thinking about your future profession at any age: you may want to be like Mom or Dad, like an astronaut or a billionaire. But I'm skeptical about early specialization: culturally, it makes a person lopsided. In terms of technological trends, the time of narrow specializations ended in the twentieth century.

A person should change areas of activity throughout his life. For this, the person’s basic education must be broad enough. It is necessary to have the fundamental knowledge to be able to adapt to a wide variety of fields. Therefore, it seems to me, the school should introduce narrow specialization as late as possible. The situation in which, while in the seventh grade, a person decides that he or she is a humanitarian is, in my opinion, not quite right, because the person thus rejects a whole layer of technical disciplines and mathematics, which probably will later become necessary.

This, by the way, is an appropriate point to mention the USE (Russian Unified State Exam). USE is a very effective mechanism for, say, a talented applicant from the province to get into a good university. But in its current form, USE has a problem with the fact that you can enter a limited number of universities, depending on the set of USE disciplines passed. The more freedom of choice for the applicant, the better; we need more flexibility, more opportunities.

In my opinion, current technological trends do not correlate with early specialization as well. They are about the well-rounded man.

If you look at many of the trends of the last 10-15 years, many of their characteristics make a reference to the pre-industrial world - not the world of industry and narrow specializations, but the world of competition between different sectors, industries, people and technologies.

Today there are no advanced and backward industries; instead, there are advanced and backward technologies: it is no longer possible to say that agriculture is backward and astronautics is advanced. Both can employ both super-advanced and backward technologies.

All of this must be reflected in education as well.

New promising specialties are appearing so quickly that at the time of enrollment, much of what will be in demand after six years of study does not even exist.

Under these conditions, it is not the specialty that matters, but the person; it is not the industry that matters, but the quality of education. What matters is talent, diligence, interest in own field of work, and willingness to constantly take on new challenges. What can the university do about it? First and foremost, university education should provide fundamental knowledge - the kind that doesn't get old. It's what allows you to adapt further and provides the foundation to build your competencies on, regardless of which field you end up in. Of course, it's not learning the craft. It's learning to study.

- And yet both parents and applicants need a specific answer: what is a "promising specialty" today. For a school student who, for example, is equally successful in math, history, and chemistry, what would you recommend, what majors to look at?

- The ones he or she is interested in. Being equally successful in these does not mean that they are all equally interesting to the student.

You should choose a good university (one with a high USE score threshold). Because what makes a good university good is, first of all, good students. It's a place where young people are motivated to study: it's hard to study where your peers say, "let's go hang out, forget about your studies". If the university atmosphere encourages studying, and you will be surrounded by people with a good level of knowledge there, then you should choose such a university and also the specialty that do not look off-putting to you. If you choose a specialty that everyone says is promising, but you're dislike it, it will not result in anything good. And if you choose a seemingly irrelevant major - for example, ancient languages - and at the same time you are really into that, at some point you can become a top manager of a major corporation (if you want to, of course), because when you do what you like, you train your brain. It makes no difference what you train it with, be it ancient languages or mathematics: the main thing is that it should be of interest to you.

- Let's speculate about the future of professions related to the social sciences. The future of math and programming is clear, but who could one want to become after graduating from the Academy?

- Our informal message and quite formal mission is to help the smart become successful (whether in the career sense, intellectual sense, or financial: the smart and successful should have a good income). The Academy is a school of applied socio-economic and humanitarian education. We have good undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral programs, but most people coming to us want to be practitioners. That's why the mandatory part of our programs are management competencies. Secondly, we made digital competency programs mandatory for everyone.

There is also a third extremely important feature of the Academy, the one which I consider the most important. The Presidential Academy is a full-fledged school of lifelong education. We are the only university nationwide where there are far more people retraining and receiving postgraduate education than there are students pursuing their first degree.

The fact that our students study side by side with people already amidst their career path who have achieved a lot in public administration, business, and science, and then come back to study with us again is not a part of the program, but a very important part of the training at the Academy.

- A little bit about the students. Do you think students have changed in the last 20-30 years since you graduated and started teaching?

- Sometimes they say that in Russia everything changes in two years, but nothing in 200. In general, this also applies to students, and not only in Russia. Students are always students. They are usually young and have many diverse interests. And they differ from each other. At all times it has been said that students have "become less motivated". It’s clear that in the eighteenth century, when only a handful entered universities, education consisted mainly of face-to-face interaction with professors. It was a different college life than when 25% or 80% of high school graduates go to university.

Of course, interests change, the range expands. But we're talking about those who want to study, not those who enroll because it's just a thing to be done or because their parents told them to. You can take a horse to a waterhole, but you can't force it to drink. You can't make a student study: students have to study out of their free will. Instead, you can create an environment that makes them want to study. A very important trend of the last 10-12 years, which is gradually making its way from programs for older ages (such as MBAs) to first-time students is the attitude towards education as not a service, but an investment. It's about wanting to go to university not just to have a good time, but to get some practical benefits.

In practice, this translates into an increasingly frequent "well, we made it into your university but the program is too easy" attitude. An investment is an investment of time and/or money: you spend several years at a university that you could have spent in other ways. You can find the option of laying the foundation of your career outside of university. But if you came here to learn, you have to have a hard time getting a return on your investment.

- There is a stereotype that the proliferation of the Internet and an overabundance of information is bad for today's students.

- All students are different. Sometimes there is a discussion about clip thinking, an assertion that the present-day students are able to hold their attention for 5-7 minutes and not more. But in all generations there have been people who, for example, don't like to read.

It may be observed that among those interested in science and literature, audiobooks have become more popular than reading texts. One could be old-fashioned and say that reading the text and taking notes in the process makes for a greater benefit. But if you like it this way, and it invokes thinking, creates new associations, then it works.

Of course, technology and ways of accessing information are changing. Some people raise a question: why know something when you can get it on the Internet in two clicks? The usual answer is that the information is needed not to memorize it, but to form unexpected associations. You might learn that serfdom was abolished in Russia in 1861: it's just a fact. In the same year, 1861, the plan for the London Underground was approved: this, too, is just a fact. But if you compare them, it is already quite interesting and may give you new knowledge about the dynamics of socio-political processes. In order to identify something, you have to be able to compare. In order to find something on the Internet, you need to be able to formulate a query and understand why you need this information. In this sense, memorized knowledge is still necessary: the brain is constantly processing it, and on a conscious level you do not always understand exactly in what way.

- We all know that you like to read a lot. What are you reading now or have you read recently? Maybe you can recommend something to students and applicants?

- I usually read something related to history or, more specifically, to economic history. Speaking of fiction, there are three books that I often recommend. These are "Eugene Onegin", "Woe from Wit", and "Mister Twister".

"Eugene Onegin" is really an encyclopedia of Russian life, as Belinsky correctly noted. You find new and profound observations there every time you read it. Despite the fact that Pushkin was a very young man when he wrote "Eugene Onegin", with age one can only find more new ideas and thoughts. "Mister Twister" is a profound and completely underrated work. It characterizes human relationships with immense precision. It portrays every single aspect, including environmental issues, family relations. And "Woe from Wit" is a work with fantastic aphorisms, where you can find answers to almost all situations in life.

I also enjoy reading Brodsky over and over again.

A completely underrated novel that few people have read is "Insomnia" by Aleksandr Kron. This Soviet writer is known for his plays portraying the life of the army and the navy, and at the end of his life he wrote an absolutely poignant novel called "Insomnia".

This may sound banal, but I like Shakespeare, especially his historical chronicles and tragedies.

There is an ingenious translation of Byron's Don Juan into Russian, with a stunning description of late 18th century mores, including those in Russia.

I highly recommend reading diaries: they are much more interesting than memoirs. In the memoirs, a man explains why he was right and everyone else was wrong, while in the diaries he records history as it was. Of course, we are talking about the diaries of intelligent and sharp-sighted people.

- What will be new at the Academy in the coming academic year, what would you like to tell applicants and their parents?

- In the fall of 2021, we successfully competed for a government grant under the Priority 2030 program. The Academy received the maximum amount of support, and for us, the implementation of this project translates into several very important areas of work. For example, the development of the Academy as a national school of management, an international business school, and a national consulting center.

In this project, one of the most important areas of educational policy for us is to move towards multi-discipline approach. This is a very important trend this year. We've already talked about how a fundamental education sets the stage for a promising specialty. The second part of the answer is the possibility of studying for two or three professions. One of the first to develop multidisciplinary programs at the Academy was the Institute for Social Sciences, but now we are taking a new step in that direction. We are transforming most of the programs toward what we call a "broad bachelor's degree", which allows students to take two or three majors after the first year. Right now, it is also important in terms of fulfilling the mission of President V.V. Putin, who in his 2020 Address set the task of allowing students to change their specialty after their second year of university. We try to make it so that the student could not only change but supplement it, so that he could choose two or three parallel tracks of his or her development. Today's educational legislation also makes it possible to include two specialties into a diploma.

Parents and applicants should pay attention to multidisciplinary programs: it is interesting and useful. Students, as a rule, understand all this much better: if the parents want to know "what job he/she will take", the student will choose the programs providing more opportunities, more options.

Another direction is that we are increasing the involvement of our partners from government, state corporations, and business. We are developing a practical managerial orientation to our training.

Of course, everything that relates to digital literacy is important. We have a powerful program, initiated by Prime Minister M.V. Mishustin, where we train leaders of digital transformation: deputy ministers, vice governors, vice mayors – everyone who is responsible for the digital transformation of their agencies. This is an important segment that will scale and spread to all other levels of education, moving from the top management level in numbers to bachelor's and master's programs.

- Recently it was said in the news that 66% of Russians were in favor of the return of the specialist degree and the abolition of the bachelor's and master's degrees. Would that be reasonable?

If you want to study, you will study well, but if you don't want to, you won't. When the President said that there should be a "2+2+2" scheme in education, rather than "4+2", it was exactly about being able to change the educational direction after the second year. It is unclear why four years of studies can be better than five, and five can be better than six. You are either capable or incapable of organizing a good education.

In the Soviet Union, a very large number of universities had four-year, not five-year, specialist degree. (By the way, my degree is exactly like that. This, in particular, allowed me to start working earlier and defend my thesis sooner.) The only question is whether the student will truly learn, whether it's four, five, or six years of study. The important thing is to learn throughout the entirety of your life and understand that exams never really end.



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