Why Latvian universities do not hire foreign professors

Latvia has begun a political fight to open the doors of universities to foreign teaching staff, but the universities themselves object to it. Why don't Latvian smartest minds want to compete with foreign professors? The Latvian Radio broadcast “Open Files” studied the issue December 9.

Latvian scientist, biologist Indriķis Krams has worked at Tartu University in Estonia for 20 years. He is one of the most cited Latvian scientists in international scientific journals.

“I go to Tartu, go to a restaurant in the evening, to a coffee shop, it is full of foreigners, full of foreign students, full of distinguished professors. I don't think two weeks can pass without a Nobel Prize nominee walking by. You can always get a lecture. Going into Latvian universities, it feels like all those airplanes that fly those Nobel nominees to Estonia are passing by,” he said.

Krams said that he and his Finnish colleague are currently working on something at the level of theory that could be a candidate for the next Nobel Prize in medicine. These studies concern bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia, eating disorders. 

However, the international recognition of Krams is carried not by the names of Latvian universities but other countries. Besides Tartu University, he has also worked in Finland, the United States.

“If I was only in Latvia, nobody would ever be interested in it,” he said.

Krams also has experience in Latvian universities. He is a researcher at Daugavpils University and an associate professor at the University of Latvia (LU). This extensive experience has made him a sharp critic of the Latvian tertiary education system.

Although we have many universities, according to Krams, Latvia is not distinguished in the science field.

He said: “Latvia is so exotic, everybody has heard about Estonia – also in Boston and California, and elsewhere, but about Latvia... They know the country [..] but to have met a scientist from Latvia who would have been active here? No, no.”

Tartu University is around 200-300 in world university tops and has gone higher than any of the Latvian institutions, which at best hang around the 500th place.

Judging why the University of Tartu is superior to the universities of Latvia, Krams starts with history – the University of Tartu was already there in Tsar Russia. But even more importantly, after regaining independence 30 years ago, Estonians clearly defined education and science as one of the cornerstones of their country. And that means Tartu University is open to competition.

Krams said that many educators in Latvian universities work in good faith but they do not have international experience. Scientists from other countries don't know them and don't invite them to defend their dissertations abroad. And what matters, according to Krams, is that the professors have no idea why this international experience is needed.

In Estonia and Scandinavia, every other professor is a foreigner. In contrast, Latvian universities are locked.

“The principle that we only hire locals – in the world it has been proven to be the most inefficient way. You pay a small salary and you get little added value,” he said.

In Latvia, there are two barriers to the recruitment of foreign teaching staff. The first is the law, which states that a foreigner can only be recruited as a guest lecturer. And only for a while.

Krams explained: “So legislation prevents us from joining the international field of science. The second barrier is financial. If I tell you the salaries of Latvian scientists, university professors – well, I'm trying not to tell you about it – then who's going to come? Which Nobel laureate will fly here?”

Krams praised the University of Latvia, Riga Stradiņš University (RSU) and Riga Technical University (RTU), which are stepping up in international rankings. But according to him, it is the merits of individuals.

“A big proportion [of teaching staff]... I just look at them and don't see how this person could have become a professor. How did they get it done? [laughs] Not by any international standards would they be able to get it done,“ he said.

There are different standards in the world for measuring excellence. Everything in Latvia is based on a doctorate. The law of higher education states that without a PhD, neither the position of professor nor the requirement for administrative posts of higher education can be obtained, for example, to become a rector. And this is another barrier that Latvian universities have built. They become inaccessible to specialists from almost all Anglo-Saxon countries, where there are other requirements. 

Doctor Gruntmanis's Experience

Doctor Uģis Gruntmanis, who is a professor in the United States, was confronted with the different standards when returning to Latvia, as he could not get a university job without a PhD.

Gruntmanis like most American medical teachers, is a doctor who has a professional doctorate, or “Medical doctor” (MD). A science degree in the U.S. is only for a few medics. In Latvia, however, in order to run for jobs in higher education, it is not enough to have a professional doctorate.

In foreign universities, another quality criterion – the Hirsch Index – plays a much bigger role. It shows how many publications a scientist has and how often they are quoted by other researchers.

In Latvia, the Hirsch Index needs to be at least 3 for the position of professor. The U.S. minimum requirement is 12 for a professor and 6 for an associate professor. As Gruntmanis pointed out in one of his publications this summer, it is proof that becoming a professor in the Anglo-Saxon countries is much more difficult than in Latvia.

Indriķis Krams also agrees with this.

“With 4 you can become a professor? With 4 you can't even become an assistant in the US,” he said, adding that his index is currently 34. 

“And when you look at the Hirsch Index of some people, you understand that they are not scientists and have never been, [..] they are merely good chatterboxes.”

Krams believes that if you are not quoted, you must step away from science. “You can publish all sorts of articles, but if you aren't quoted, your science is not needed, it's the most embarrassing thing,” says Krams.

Barriers and closed circles

“Development/For!” faction in the Saeima this summer encouraged the adoption of amendments to the law, which would open up to professors and scientists from all over the world of Latvia. The Ministry of Education and Science has said that it supported the changes in principle but would not start viewing them earlier than 2024. 

Rīga Stradiņš University delegated Professor Agrita Kiopa to the conversation with Latvian Radio. She defends the teachers of Latvian universities.

“In our systems, H [Hirsch] indexes are certainly lower than in those countries, in those systems where there is much higher science funding. People have more opportunities to intensively practice science and publishing and to break into these world journals,[..] which already have their own community established. But look, our professors have very solid number of publications, scientific activities, and solid Hirsch indexes. I think it is very disrespectful if we try to say that someone has done something inadequately because we have to be very careful about assessing the lifelong work of a person,” she said.

But Kiopa agrees that there is a special category in teaching areas where a large part of the experience consists of practice. These are doctors, lawyers, engineers. Kiopa said: “It is normal that there are these professors, lecturers of practical matters, and they have different names in different countries. For these people, surely a PhD is not the primary requirement."

Commenting on the claim that Latvian universities are currently unable to produce winners of the Nobel Prize, Kiopa laughed that she does not know any winners of this Prize who did not have a [PhD] degree. “We can also look at it differently, each profession has its own entry rules. And these entry rules in academic positions that are purely academic, not practical, everywhere in the world they are PhDs,” Kiopa said.

However, in Latvia, even conforming to the entry rules and having a PhD does not automatically open the doors.

“Friends are let through. They are allowed in [the position], allowed to earn,” said Indriķis Krams.

He mentioned the university councils that had emerged with the education reform. 

“Every institution of higher education could establish the rules by which they would elect their council. Let's say, Daugavpils University. [..]  I don't even remember whether there was [an opportunity] or whether it was possible to apply from the sidelines at all, I think the whole thing was put forward by some sort of structure already run by people close to the rector. And you couldn't get there in any way. As far as I know, in LU [they] could apply individually,” he said.

He continued: “You can make those councils, they will be one huge fiction, another demonstration of democracy that is not really a democracy. If you're a young person who's got a PhD at Lund University, or America, or elsewhere. Where are they going to come back? They see what happens to the leader [institution]. They realize that the 90s of the last century are continuing [laughs].”

Krams said that there is no demand from universities at the government level. Money is allocated and academic freedom continues. “Like it was in that Russian anecdote that they pretend to be paying, we pretend we're working,” he said.

Member of the Saeima, Professor Aigars Bikše also agrees that there is a closed circle in higher education.

“You can't blame those people, if you have to choose between your colleague or someone else [..] and the system allows, why not do it? If that person has already been your doctorate student, they have been here, they are your person,” Bikše said.

Arvils Ašeradens, head of the Education, Culture and Science committee of the Saeima, also sees a pay problem.

He said: “Teacher hours are very underpaid at universities, there are often people at universities who... let us say, it is difficult for universities to attract the best. Often they are not the strongest. They create a group that tries to protect each other. Because there are not many of them, we have few doctoral candidates. We don't have contests in that system. The best often choose to go away. At the end of the day, those people try to defend each other. At the moment, if we start to move forward quickly, if we find a solution to how we can attract better professionals, such as from other countries' universities, well, it is often seen as a threat to the existing system.”

The wages are only low for lecturers. In higher positions they grow significantly. The rectors of Latvian universities are among the most well-paid positions in the public sector. For example, the Rector of Stradiņš University Aigars Pētersons received 143 thousand euros last year at the university – twice as much as the Prime Minister of Latvia. 

Indriķis Krams does not believe that the political leadership at this moment will be able to change the university system significantly.

“Latvia has already been transformed into a country, as I already said 5-6 years ago, this is a good country to grow old,” said Krams.

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