Building an International Master’s Programme: Design of Curriculum and Role of Partnerships

Dirk Meissner, Professor at the Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge and the Academic supervisor of the Master’s Programme ‘Governance of Science, Technology and Innovation’, told The HSE Look about its development and achievements.

What are the unique features of the Master’s Programme ‘Governance of Science, Technology and Innovation’?

We have two different types of students: first are the HSE students and second are the students of a double degree programme with Technische Universität Berlin in Germany.  Not all applicants can get into the double degree track: both we and Berlin have a rigorous selection process and choose the best, and students are required to spend 1 year at the partner university. Currently 3 HSE students are in Berlin and 4 TU Berlin students are in Moscow.

For a long time we saw many double degrees at HSE which were rather one-sided: there was no reciprocal student mobility, and sometimes the lecturers from the partner university were coming to HSE. Surviving the immersion into a different language, culture and all the bureaucratic issues is good for students, their personal development and it broadens their experience and horizon.  We see that other programmes are also choosing to have double degree programmes which require student mobility in both directions.

When originally the design of the programme was agreed on, was double degree a part of it? If not, how did it come to be?

In November 2013 we decided to develop the Master programme, with first students to be enrolled in September 2014. In February 2014 I met a German colleague in Berlin, and we decided to make a double degree track for the programme. Personal networks play a big role in finding partners for such initiatives.

Double degrees are a major source of attraction for international students, and they are a good instrument for overcoming the usual perception and questionable image that students might have about Russia and its universities. Firstly, it’s just one year, not two. Secondly, you will get two diplomas: from a Russian university and its foreign partner. Already from the first cohort of students I can say that we achieved more than we expected originally.

What about regular exchange agreements – how active is the student mobility?

We have exchange agreements with several universities: Seoul National University in Republic of Korea, University of Bremen in Germany, Middle East Technical University in Turkey and Maastricht University in The Netherlands.  These agreements are not institutional; they are specifically between our programme and another university.

When our students go for an exchange on a university-wide agreement, it is always a struggle to match the courses they take with the curriculum at home. It concerns both the content and the administrative side: we need to know not only that the course was 3 ECTS worth, but how many lecture and self-study hours there were, what’s their ratio.

With our partner universities we first look through the list of courses, find out what they teach, and then we can establish the good matches for exchange. After that, it does not matter for us where the student took the course: at HSE or abroad, we can be sure about the quality of what they learned.

Do you plan to expand the number of programme-specific agreements?

At the moment we have four exchange agreements and two double-degrees. We are planning to get two more of each kind over the next 2-3 years. As we know from previous experience, we have to go through a rather bureaucratic process to get the agreement formally approved and signed by the partner university and HSE. In order to develop effectively the programmes need one-stop service in such matters as double degree agreements. It would also help to have more flexibility in regulations concerning enrollment, especially of self-financed students, and curriculum.

We are a strong programme that has international students, and we could attract even more of them with double degree opportunities. It would also bring more international faculty and scholars here, since the curriculum of double degree or exchange programme will be very well matched.

What do students prefer: to spend a semester abroad or to try and enroll in a double degree? What do they find valuable in this experience?

There are two perspectives to consider. The first aspect is that for Russian students going abroad one of the main motivations is to get a second degree from TU Berlin, which allows them to apply for PhD positions in Europe without worrying that they will need to certify or legalize their HSE diploma.

The second aspect to consider is career branding, and it is relevant for both Russian and international students. They get experience of living and studying abroad, in a different cultural and linguistic environment. Furthermore, it is most useful when their destination is not the most mainstream, like Seoul and Russia instead of Anglo-Saxon universities. We have a unique advantage here, which should also be used for marketing HSE to international students. 

What about the alumni: do you know where they went to study and work?

Once per year we send out a small survey, asking how they are doing, how they are developing professionally, whether they want to learn something new, etc. We are in touch with the first cohort of graduates; some of them work at the Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge at HSE, several went to get their PhD abroad. When we designed the programmes, we thought of the following career paths: academic career, industry and public policy. So far the distribution is as we planned, about a third each.

One of the good things we achieved for students is internship opportunities. We are the only programme globally that offers two students an internship at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). We have a strong competition; the pre-selection of candidates is done by the programme, and the final choice is made by the OECD. As a first step, two students go for a 10-week internship in summer to Paris; as a second step, OECD staff act as co-supervisors of these students’ research papers. It’s a unique opportunity, and we tell about it on the programme’s website.

Are there any other special internship opportunities, besides OECD? What about internships for international students from partner universities?

We have two more partners in Vienna (Austria), one in Seville (Spain), one in Netherlands. We are planning to have several internship opportunities in Korea. Locally, we have students taking internships in the Ministries for Economic Development, Education, and so on. A few students went to Skolkovo Foundation.

As far as international students are concerned, when German students come here for the double degree, they need to take an internship here in Moscow. It is very challenging because of migration regulation: usually the visa allows them to have internships only at HSE. Some also go to foreign companies or organisations.

How much are the students involved in research? What are the topics and the formats?

Several students at the moment are employed at ISSEK and its laboratories; they help with gathering and analyzing data. The classes are held only during the evening hours, so it allows students to engage in research. HSE has several working papers series under its Basic Research Programme, and our students published three papers in ‘Science, Technology and Innovation’. One more has prepared a book chapter which will come out soon, and there is more in the works.

What would you recommend to other international faculty who want to launch a Master’s programme?

Setting up the admissions process is crucial. In 2016 we had around 90 Russian and 60 international applications for 40 places, so it was rather competitive. It is quite a challenge to review them all in a short period of time, but it gives us a good understanding of who the student is, what they want from the programme and whether they can meet our academic criteria.

HSE requires a portfolio to be submitted, but that alone is not enough for us to get to know the candidate. First of all, we want to learn about the motivation and expectations; second, we check their level of English and how well they are able to communicate in an academic setting. Examining the portfolio is only the first stage, after which we schedule interviews in person or via Skype, in case of international applicants. There are three people interviewing the prospective students, so that the assessment is not subjective; the examiners’ decision has to be unanimous. We also make sure that these small commissions are always mixed in terms of gender, so that there is no bias.

Read more in The HSE Look issue for February 2017