Member spotlight: Creating the next-generation society in Latvia | MIT J-WEL

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Member spotlight: Creating the next-generation society in Latvia

Collaborating with government and industry to transform higher education

In September 2021, Riga Technical University (RTU), joined the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab to futher efforts to overhaul the nation's higher education system. Dr. Claudio Rivera, deputy dean and associate professor in leadership at Riga Technical University Business School, has spent much of the past five years working with the Latvian government and industrial sector to implement the nation’s new strategy. He sees these efforts as a continuation of the focus on social service projects that originally brought him to Latvia, from his native country of Argentina, in 2004. He quickly grew to love Latvia, learn the language, and become engaged in making meaningful changes to the country’s higher education system.

“Education is really a way to serve other people,” says Rivera. “I have been honored to be a part of a process that is very interesting and very challenging—with the goal of bringing higher education to the level that the country deserves.”

Latvia, which had been part of the Soviet Union for 50 years, joined the European Union in 2004. Although the country has gone through some smaller education reforms in the past, its ambitions are now greater than what its higher education system can support. The current government aims to put Latvia on par with the level of wealth of nearby Scandinavian countries, such as Sweden, Finland, and Norway—thereby incentivizing young people to stay in Latvia rather than move to these countries.

Rivera says that although there are also some reforms happening in the finance system and health sector, it is critical to focus on higher education.

“This is the primary area,” says Rivera. “This is where everything, every profession starts. The strengthening of higher education will be key for building the resilience of Latvia in front of so many challenges that the country is facing. A more educated young generation will have more capacity to lead the country to the next level and deal with the region's economic, social, and political transformations.”

The business community requested that the government undertake this substantial overhaul of higher education, which is the biggest reform to take place in Latvia in the last 25 years. Businesses expressed a strong interest in investing money in the country—and identified a strong need for an educational system that can provide both quality education and space for innovation.

“What we are creating is a movement that started with the industrial sector, and now we have the government and the universities on board,” says Rivera.

When this work started three years ago, there were 58 higher education institutions in Latvia (which has a population of approximately 2 million people)—the highest number of institutions per inhabitants in a country in all of Europe. Rivera says this level of fragmentation of resources can make things difficult, especially in terms of the interaction between universities and the industrial sector. Latvian companies have expressed an interest in having more open communication and interactions with universities—in shifting from a closed system to much more of an open system.

“We wanted both the industrial sector and the government to invest much more money in higher education,” says Rivera. “To do that, we needed more transparency and accountability on how the financial resources were used.”

Rivera says that J-WEL has been very helpful and supportive throughout this process, helping to inspire all involved and encouraging them to pursue their goals.

A council of investors was assembled, and in February 2018, they requested that the Latvian government revisit the law of higher education—essentially repealing it and writing it anew. By March 2020, the government embraced the idea, and since then, Parliament has spent hundreds of hours in discussions with industry members and educators about this new law of higher education.

“This has been a fantastic exercise in democracy,” says Rivera.

The new law is being implemented now. A key element is the new higher education governance model. Each university in Latvia now has a board of trustees—with the majority of the members being of the highest authority at the universities. The new law also calls for substantial changes to the accreditation process and to the structure of academic careers. Rivera says that even though the change in the higher education governing structure may look small, it sends a new value system to universities.

“Now the universities will not just self-impose their objectives—there is dialogue between the universities and society,” says Rivera. “If the objectives are discussed and agreed-upon, society is more likely to support and invest in them.”

Photo: (from left to right): Delegation from Riga Technical University at the J-WEL offices for the signing of the RTU J-WEL membership agreement. Dr. Anjali Sastry, Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Senior Strategist, J-WEL; Lauma Muižniece, Deputy Director, Latvian Investment and Development Agency; Dr. Dmitrijs Stepanovs, Deputy Secretary of State on Higher Education and Research, Ministry of Education and Research; Dr. George Westerman, J-WEL Principal Research Scientist and Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan; Jānis Grēviņš, Director, RTU Riga Business School; Dr. Vijay Kumar, J-WEL Executive Director and Associate Dean for MIT Open Learning; Dr. Leonīds Ribickis, RTU Rector; Arturs Zeps, Vice-Rector, Development at Riga Technical University; Julia Reynolds-Cuéllar, J-WEL Associate Director for Higher Education.