The Road Test: Part I

Tomsk State University has confirmed its leading position in the 5-100 Project, aimed at improving the competitiveness of Russian universities in the global market of educational services and research programmes. It has been 5 years since the Project was launched, in spite of this, the annual procedure of reporting the results has not turned into some kind of routine for the participants - universities - and the members of the International Board. Each time this procedure becomes an exciting event for everyone, because it is never possible to predict the outcomes for each of the universities included in the Project or the questions from the Board members.


This time, the meeting of the International Board was held on October 26-27 at the Science and Technology Park Fabrika at Baltic Federal University (Kaliningrad). Tatyana Golikova, the new Chairwoman of the Board and a Deputy Chairperson of the Government of the Russian Federation, conducted the meeting. There were some other new members on the Board: Mikhail Kotyukov, Minister of Science and Higher Education and Deputy Chairman of the 5-100 International Board; Alexander Sergeyev, President of the Russian Academy of Science; and Stanislav Smirnov, prominent mathematician and a winner of numerous international awards. Each university team had 10 minutes for a presentation in English and 30 minutes for questions. 


This time the meeting was very different from all the previous ones due to the straight and very specific questions that were asked by the members of the Board. Perhaps, it could be explained by the fact that we had gone half the way and the Board members knew the universities very well. They knew their teams, the current conditions, and so on. We had to answer very different questions. For example, the experts were interested in the number of international students, the majors they choose, and where they come from; the number of people working at the university part time and why they do not work there full time; what the university’s policy towards its employees is, and so on. Such a great attention to the details showed that the members of the Board were very well prepared for the procedure, for which they had studied the internal documents of the university. It also became clear that experts had to propose concrete recommendations for the universities on their further development. 

An individual integrated assessment of each university consisted of three parts. The first part referred to the performance according to the Roadmap; the second part referred to the results in the international institutional and subject rankings; and the third part referred to the evaluation of the members of the Board. Apparently, in the process of carrying out the 5-100 Project, the universities that participate in it have divided into certain clusters. Because of a fierce competition, the group of leaders has been clearly defined, and this group of leaders has not changed for the second year in a row. Along with TSU, it includes seven other universities. It is quite natural that the Board members have certain expectations for the top universities, regarding the universities' vision of the future and their contributions to the development of the regions. These expectations fully apply to Tomsk State University too.


One of the most memorable moments during the meeting was an unexpected and very vivid discussion on the correlation between the positions universities occupy in the rankings and their budgets. Many Board members believed that all the universities, participating in the Project, have a lot of money to spend. Therefore, there are always questions about the effectiveness of spending. We had a slide in our presentation that showed the budgets of the universities on the left and their positions in the rankings on the right. There was a small red dot that represented the budget of TSU, barely reaching 4.5 billion rubles, and the budgets of our peer universities on the global scale. The latter started from 38 billion rubles (Taiwan University) and went up to 198 billion rubles (University of Texas at Austin, USA). At the same time, it was clearly seen that with some key indicators we were really catching up with these universities.


In particular, the share of post-graduates and graduate students at our university is higher than that at University of Taxes. In terms of the proportion of international students, only Lund University (Sweden) is ahead of us. In terms of the number of papers per one academic teaching position, we have almost caught up with Fudan University (China) and have come very close to the rest of the peer universities. At the same time, in particular cases their budgets are ten times larger than ours are! This circumstance caused a heated discussion. Professor Philip Altbach, Founding Director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, said that he had no idea of HOW we achieve such results with such a budget! That was the general context of the last meeting of the 5-100 Project Board in 2018. 

Now let’s talk about our Roadmap. It was based on two key ideas, which I have already spoken about and written about more than once. The first idea is that our university development strategy is a strategy of its non-linear growth. The figures presented in the TSU report confirmed the exponential growth of its main indicators. However, working on a modest budget causes certain limitations. Hence, the main problem that we have to solve can be described as a lack of resources, which may interrupt our non-linear development in the future. Regarding this problem, last year we declared the logic of the ecosystem approach to the development of TSU. In our opinion, today it is not universities that compete, but university ecosystems. And only combining resources with partners can we grow further. The Roadmap was developed as a strategy for the development of the TSU ecosystem. 


The second key idea is a combination of three modes in each development management block of the university. Those modes are “run”, “change”, and “disrupt”. “Run” is the basic mode of the current activity. For example, in the “science” block it is the preservation and successful functioning of laboratories, departments, and established scientific schools. In other words, we do not break or destroy what still works well. “Change” is a change mode. In education it helped us to establish the Institute of Advanced Learning Technologies and the “Bachelor’s core”; to use computer learning technologies to create responsive content; to implement the big data analysis to improve the quality of education, etc. “Change” refers to those technologies and projects that change our educational process today. “Disrupt” (a term coined by Klaus Schwab in Davos) is a mode that has a potential for “creative destruction”. Disruptive processes and technologies destroy previous models and standards and bring something new (like the Uber-taxi project).

We hope that we will be able to reach the level of such technologies and processes in the near future. What may refer to the disruptive mode in our case? For example, educational technologies that use elements of artificial intelligence. When such technologies go beyond the scope of experiments and pilot projects and become embedded in everyday learning, they will allow to truly personalize and make learning much more efficient and cost-effective. For example, there will be digital tutors to communicate with students and help them to eliminate debts, while real professors will be engaged in creative work with students, developing their personality. We used this logic in our Roadmap to show prospects up to the year of 2028, which will be the year of our 150th anniversary. 

And now we already know for sure that this logic has justified itself, since Tomsk State University is still in the group of leaders. As a rector, I fully realize that this is the result of the hardest and most dedicated work of the whole team. Each employee did and does something very important for the university. Our people do not work, but serve their Alma Mater. Yes, it was not easy for everyone and everyone was very tired. But you must see that this fatigue is connected with real achievements. These results bring completely new opportunities for the development of each employee. Today we have as many opportunities as we never had before. The system of internal grants allows each person to show what he or she can do. Every year we spend up to 60 million rubles on academic mobility. Scientific teams and individual researchers can go for short-term internship or business trips to any university in the world.


Our people are engaged not only in science and teaching. The culture of everyday improvement in quality of life is a natural thing for them, since Tomsk State University is their home. They propose many ideas to improve the place. Some ideas have already been implemented in educational buildings, the Scientific Library, and the campus. The dedication of our people allows the university to move forward very quickly. Sometimes it is so intense that we do not even have time to celebrate our achievements. In this regard, the recent news from the U.S. News Best Global Universities ranking was unexpected. This ranking has a very high reputation around the world. TSU has gone up by 129 points over the last year. When I started receiving phone calls and congratulations from my American colleagues, at first I did not even understand what was the reason for those congratulations. We had not submitted any data for this ranking and did not know that someone there “counted” us. And suddenly - such a positive surprise! It turned out that the U.S. News Best Global Universities ranking is highly appreciated by the Americans as an objective and independent system. Although the very progress of our university is the most important for us, it is still nice to know that TSU, according to this ranking, has the 5th position among 14 Russian universities.

I want to thank once again every staff member for the service that helps us to achieve so much!

(to be continued)