President Evans for BG ON AIR: We Need to Remind Ourselves that Education Is a Public Good

September 04, 2022 Konstantin Tomov
President Evans for BG ON AIR: We Need to Remind Ourselves that Education Is a Public Good

For the May issue of The Inflight Magazine, President Dr. David R. Evans talked to Bulgaria on Air about the effects of the pandemic, 30 years of AUBG, and the state of higher education in Bulgaria and the U.S.

Dr. Evans, the last one year was probably the most challenging in the recent history of higher education in Bulgaria. How did AUBG cope with the constraints of the pandemic?

I think our largest challenge was uncertainty. The government was rightly trying to be cautious and was constantly changing the protocols. Last year was really difficult – we took the decision to switch to online education even before the government order to do so because we wanted to ensure the safety of our community and give our international students the chance to decide whether they want to go home or stay on campus. It ended up working – we were able to successfully send our students home and finish the semester without interruptions. But in the fall, we had a careful plan for hybrid instruction, where we were rotating half of the class into the classroom and the other half was attending by video conference. That was actually working really well and we got through about two thirds of the semester until in November the government ordered the suspension of in-person classes. Fortunately, because of the way we set it up, we were able to move everybody to online instantly.

The bigger challenge was in the spring because we were kind of betting on the idea that the restrictions would be lifted. But the government kept changing the date, kept pushing it back. In the middle of February, we decided that it just wasn’t going to be worth it, given that our semester ends in May. So we declared that the rest of the semester was going to be online.

But it was certainly not what anybody wanted. The thing that’s really the best about the university is this fabulous community that we have, with lots and lots of activities, lots of interaction between the faculty and the students. And we couldn’t have that now.

Will there be more lasting changes in your methods after this year?We certainly learned a lot. We did a lot of our first year orientation online during the summer instead of having it all be here on campus in the few days before the semester. That worked really well, so we’re going to do that again.
We’ve always had challenges with students who struggle to get their student visas in time. Now we can offer hybrid or virtual instruction for them, for a couple of weeks while they’re still waiting to get cleared to come to Bulgaria.
I think also the university has been always quite traditional in its approach to instruction. And as a result of that, our faculty were behind on new techniques of using technology for their classes. There was some resistance to online, some resistance to teleconferencing. I think that’s probably pretty much gone now.

In the long run, that will result in some interesting mixes of classes that are partly in-person and partly remote. For example, our political science students go to Brussels. And they can keep up with their other classes while they’re in Brussels for two weeks.

I don’t think we’re ever going to be massively involved in online education. It’s not really who we are, and I’m not absolutely sure the market in this region supports it. But we will take advantage of the things that we’ve learned this year.

This year AUBG turns 30. Looking back, did the university succeed in fulfilling the goals of its founders? Which achievements do you value the most?

I think we have. Certainly the course of Bulgarian and Southeastern European history has not been exactly what people were hoping for in 1989 or 1991. But the thing that everybody here is most proud of is the success of our graduates. A lot of them went on to do really important things in business, politics and service. What our founders were motivated by was providing well-educated people to support the economy, support the culture, develop a business community that understood how a capitalist economy worked. And I think we’ve been tremendously successful in that. We have a lot of alumni who have done really good work in that area.

The other thing that’s good and probably exceeds the expectations of the founders is the diversity of the student body. We have students from between 33 and 38 countries: form Mongolia, Georgia, from the Central Asian republics… In the early 90s, when the University was founded, the former Yugoslavia was in the middle of a really terrible breakup. And we have students from all those countries and they come together, and they study, and they form this community together. So in terms of building intercultural understanding, I think the University has probably exceeded the founders’ expectations.

What our founders were motivated by was providing well-educated people to support the economy, support the culture, develop a business community

According to the Ministry of Education’s rating system for 2020, AUBG ranks first in the field of public communications and information sciences. You have headed the Department of English and Journalism in the state of Georgia yourself in the past. How do you see the current state and future of the media? Many people claim that it is the change in the media alongside the information revolution that is the root of the problems of society today.

That’s a great question. I’ve been reading a lot about democracy lately, and every discussion about democracy always have something to say about media. There are two things. First, it’s these kind of segregated media ecosystems that have developed lately. When I was a kid in the 60s, and 70s, there were three major networks and basically everybody in my country watched those. And everybody got their news together. Now it is completely different. If you never want to hear a conservative viewpoint, or if you never want to hear a liberal viewpoint, you can set up your reading and viewing habits in such a way that that will just happen. And I think that’s bad. It is surely easier for people to self segregate and not have their assumptions challenged. We see it in education, we see it in the media, it’s all over the place…

Everyone is creating his own bubble.

Yes, this is a real challenge. And there’s one more thing: big media companies vetted their sources. So, most of what you’ve got on NBC, you could pretty much count on it having been evaluated for credibility and proper sourcing. A lot of the so-called news sources don’t do that now, and there’s a lot of misinformation that creates mythology and drives people apart.

In the early days of the internet – mid- to late 90s – people were really hopeful that information would be democratized. Which has been. But I don’t think that education has caught up to this avalanche of information and how to help people sort it out. Our role at the university is first of all to educate responsible journalists who will not succumb to the desire to, you know, write for clicks. But the other thing that we have to do more broadly is try to help our students develop some information literacy, so they can be skeptical consumers.

Mentioning the rating system, the role of such rankings – both public and private – seems to be constantly growing. According to some observers, this also has negative effects – universities are forced to make changes in their work, just to meet the criteria of one or another ranking. Do you agree with that? Is it possible at all to objectively evaluate and compare different universities, beyond perhaps the only really measurable criterion – for the subsequent professional realization of students?

It is very hard to have an honest rating system for universities. The problem is that institutions of higher education are tremendously different. Look at Sofia University versus us, for example. Sofia University is in the middle of the city, it’s huge, it has been around a long time, it is the center of research in a lot of fields here in Bulgaria. We are primarily an undergraduate teaching-oriented university. Many in our faculty are very good researchers but their primary job is teaching undergraduate students. So how do you compare these things, when the missions are that different? Probably the best way is alumni success. You can do some graduate tests, of course, but even that leads to teaching to the test, which is bad. You know, where everybody just designs their whole curriculum so their students do the best on the standardized test.

It’s really hard to figure out the right way to do this. And you’re right, and the critics are right. In the U.S., for example, selectivity is one of the major drivers of the rankings. So some of these schools encourage people to apply – even people with absolutely no chance of getting in. Because they can increase their selectivity rating by rejecting more. Which is really unethical.

At the same time, people do want to know if they’re sending their kids to good schools. And so how do we figure that out? If I knew the answer, I’d be rich.

The demographic crisis and the “brain drain” are increasingly emerging as the primary problem of today’s Bulgaria. Several governments expected to correct this by “importing brains” from non-EU countries, but this policy did not work much – probably because, as your predecessor, Dr. Stephen Sullivan, told us some time ago, foreigners with Bulgarian passports are looking for opportunities everywhere within the EU, just as the Bulgarians do. How do you see the way out of this situation?

I’ve worked also in New England in the United States, which has exactly the same problem, and to certain extent for the same reason: a lot of industries that used to be very good employers but have left.

One thing that Bulgaria should do is to make it easier for talented young international college graduates to stay in the country. We have a lot of graduates from countries outside EU who we’d like to hire ourselves. But it ends up taking six or eight months for them to go through all of the processes.

People come to Bulgaria, and they like it here and want to stay. I don’t think you need to give them a passport – give them a long-term resident permit and work permission, and let them do it. That’s one thing.

The other thing is making sure that the country does have good economic opportunities for people. That has to do with corporate relations and with rule of law. To be sure that you can get ahead if you work hard and conduct yourself properly.

Speaking of native Bulgarians, we’re working with the America for Bulgaria Foundation. They are very concerned about the demographic issue as well and we’ve been partners for a long time. They have created this really nice loan fund, where our Bulgarian students can borrow to finance their education here at AUBG, and at couple of other institutions. And for each year they stay in Bulgaria working after they graduate, 20% of the principal of the loan will be forgiven. So it’s not quite free but it’s pretty close.

People come to Bulgaria, and they like it here and want to stay. I don’t think you need to give them a passport – give them a long-term resident permit and work permission, and let them do it

Speaking of which, AUBG is the university with the highest fees in Bulgaria – albeit they’re only a fraction of those in the United States, where university fees have tripled since 1976. At the same time, the number of universities around the world has increased from about 500 in the 1950s to over 10,000 today. Is higher education becoming more accessible, or inaccessible?

That also is a very interesting question. I think in some ways it’s easier because there are more access points. The challenge is, as you point out, money. With public higher education in the US, what happened is that public funding has gone way down.

Why is that?

It seems like an easy place to cut when you have a budget problem. And you don’t see the cuts for a while, because so much of the effect of higher education is far down the stream of when students do it. I also think that in the United States higher education is unpopular with a fairly significant portion of the population, so that makes it not so politically difficult to cut support. They’re mad when they have to pay to send their kids to college. But other than that, they’re perfectly fine seeing that cuts.

So, in terms of cost relative to income, the cost has risen quite a lot and that reduces access. In the longer run we need to figure out how to reduce costs, which is very hard. AUBG for example does not waste a lot of money, I can tell you that. So, reducing our price or increasing our scholarship aid would be significantly challenging.

Most of all, we need to have a conversation that higher education really is a public good. It is an investment. Educated, skilled population is a good thing for any country.

In the US in the 1940s and 1950s that was definitely the way the states approached that. Another such period was in the 1860s and 1870s, when the land grant universities were founded. The government at that time thought: we need to train people to be good farmers and good engineers. These were the two great periods of investment in higher education in the US, about a hundred years apart. And I think they made a big difference for us.

Higher education was almost free in the 50s and 60s. I mean, you had to buy your books and things like that, but tuition and fees were a couple of hundred dollars a year. This created a great surge of people with good skills and nice, broad perspective.

And then Ronald Reagan, as the governor of California, was the one who started cutting the funding for the state universities. And California has always been kind of the bellwether for a lot of things that happen in the US.

In Bulgaria, we have a record number of universities, compared to the size of the population. In some of them there are more vacancies than candidates. Do you consider such a situation normal? Can we rely solely on the free market to weed out the unnecessary ones?

The market alone won’t do it, I think, because there are regulatory regimes and political constituencies that prop up a lot of Institutions that maybe shouldn’t necessarily be propped up.

What you see in Bulgaria is that a lot of the universities are very, very highly specialized. Just as an example, in Sofia there’s the University of Mining and Geology. There are only a couple of schools in the United States that are primarily teaching mining and geology. For the most part mining and geology are taught in engineering schools alongside civil engineering and others things. So you’re paying for one administration, one set of buildings, one set of infrastructure.

I have a theory that during the Communist times it was convenient for the government to separate domains of knowledge, and to keep the literature people away from the engineers. And so Bulgaria has the hangover from that with these very specialized institutions that probably ought to be combined into a smaller number of larger institutions. But it’s very hard to do that politically. The market will strangle those institutions eventually, but they’ll be dead a long time before they’re buried. This is too bad because there are a lot of people there who have devoted their entire lives to these institutions and their students.

It is a bit like having the University of piano and the University of harpsichord…

And they never meet…

And they never meet. This reduces the intellectual output of the country because people from different disciplines aren’t getting together and exchanging ideas.

We need to have a conversation that higher education really is a public good. It is an investment. Educated, skilled population is a good thing for any country.

Bulgaria’s educational system from the socialism era was criticized for giving too encyclopedic and theoretical knowledge. Recently, however, more than 400 world-renowned scientists wrote to the organizers of the PISA study to object to the other extreme – the emphasis on too narrow a specialization. They insist that this may create good workers, but it also creates bad citizens. What do you think? Is there a third way?

I think AUBG does this pretty well because a lot of our programs are very practical: business, computer science, and at the same time we do our general education curriculum.

The major issue with really applied education is that it becomes obsolete very quickly. There can be very quick changes in industry, so people need to be flexible and agile. They need to have the imagination to imagine themselves in a different position.

It is not that education itself has turned so much to these practical things, but that a lot of consumers of education make their decisions based too much on the practical application they think they’re going to get. So people who really don’t want to be engineers are studying engineering, or people who don’t want to be lawyers are going to law school. In the United States there’s huge oversupply of lawyers. And now, if you haven’t graduated from one of the top schools, you can’t get a job.

At AUBG we are fortunate that our graduates generally have very little trouble getting decent jobs after they graduate. But it’s more than ‘how do I get a job?’ It’s ‘how can I be prepared to be a successful adult in life?’. Which means being able to adapt to different circumstances.

More and more analysts are talking about the need to learn for life because of the automation and artificial intelligence. Is there a prospect of classical higher education – 4 or 5 years after graduation – becoming obsolete as a concept?

You know, a lot of critics of higher education have been predicting this for a long time: that the traditional educational system is going to die. It’s hard to say. I think it would be likelier to happen if secondary education that is high school was better. Because I think the problem in the US and very possibly here, too, is that secondary education is not sufficient to prepare people to be successful. It used to be, both because things were simpler and because secondary education used to be better.

Talented and motivated students probably can educate themselves in a different kind of way. But I think for a lot of students the traditional college age is a really critical period to become more mature at a place like AUBG. It’s kind of a formal place where you can meet people from other cultures and you’re kind of forced to interact with them. And you become more independent in a relatively safe space.

This basic model of college education is close to a thousand years old. It’s been time tested in a lot of different contexts. And while the industry needs to adapt, I think that this model is pretty strong and durable.