ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2015 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 61, No.3 - Fall 2015
Editor of this issue:Almantas Samalavičius

Editorial: In Quest of Lithuanian Higher Education


This issue of the journal is designed to map out and hopefully to discuss as thoroughly and adequately as possible some of the most urgent problems facing Lithuania’s system of higher education and the present state of its institutions, i.e. the more than two dozen state and private universities. For a number of years these topics have been some of the “hottest” focal points in public discussions that are going on in Lithuania and that sometimes reach beyond its borders because of the globalization and internationalization of higher education and related fields, especially in recent times. One can hardly disagree with critics who suggest that the future prospects of Lithuania’s system of higher education are very closely related to questions of how the universities perform in society today: do they meet the expectations of society; what are the most urgent issues they address or need to address in the near future; and how succes</p>
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sfully are these old institutions dealing with the challenges of contemporary global developments.

Those who have been following recent developments in Lithuania have had occasion to notice that in public discussions universities are regularly under attack. One could even claim that they are the “usual suspects” and are blamed (whether with some justification or not) for a large number of society’s social and cultural flaws. Moreover, critics of universities often rightly argue that institutional changes have been either too slow or insignificant. Their opponents, however, reply that Lithuanian universities lately have become far more visible on an international scale and are quite positively represented in some of the latest global university rankings.

Needless to say, opinions about universities and about the system of higher education in general are often manipulated by the mass media. In their current shape, universities are an easy target for politicians as well as for society at large, whose views are fed by rumor and fact alike. Anyone who claims to be a taxpayer, concerned that his or her money be used for “the public good”, is prone to criticize universities or to speak on behalf of their potential “clients” by claiming that sometimes the universities are dysfunctional or at least in need of revision and restructuring. There is perhaps an urgent need to distinguish between the mythologies inherent in some of the popular criticism and political rhetoric and the real problems universities are facing in the country.

For years, I have been arguing for an open, critical discourse on higher education in Lithuania and for debates involving academics and politicians, as well as larger segments of society. Unfortunately, this kind of discourse is still in the making. Ongoing critical discussion is illusory. In reality, it is nothing more than a spectacle triggered by rival political interests rather than by a serious interest in reforming the present institutional system. Disastrous images of Lithuania’s system of higher education perhaps take over the local imagination too often. Observers from the outside usually see things as problematic, yet not so apocalyptic.

And yet, it would be a mistake to argue that Lithuanian universities as well as the county’s system of higher education are like Caesar’s wife - “beyond suspicion”, as the old Latin proverb puts it. It would be simply wrong to pretend that things are not “falling apart”. Things still do fall apart and for a number of reasons. Some of these reasons are Lithuania’s centuries-long development under conditions of colonization, and its lack of ability to rethink this legacy and to deal with it in adequate ways.

Local university reforms often call to mind the story once told by renowned physicist and public intellectual, Richard Feynman, in his essay on cargo-cult science. In this famous essay, Feynman compared real science to one that pretends to be a science. One could apply some of his insights to the current state of Lithuania’s system of higher education. Some institutions of higher education look like they are universities; however, they are not. Some higher education reform policies look like remedies; however, they not. Without any exaggeration, one could claim that some of the most widely applied remedies of higher education reform have turned out to be its poison. Some of the most popular themes in recent political rhetoric are the urgent need to reduce the number of the universities, to “optimize” their structure, to assure a high level of “quality of studies” (as a matter of fact this is done just by introducing a more burdensome bureaucracy into each university), to work out ways to “meet the demands of the market” (as if the market were some sort of eternal and almost God-provided entity), to establish bonds between business structures and universities (without seriously estimating the profits as well as the dangers coming out of this liaison, as was recently critically discussed by such internationally renowned voices in higher education as Derek Bok)...

The number of poisons offered as remedies is growing. Meanwhile the authors of the articles presented in this issue argue for critical assessment of the state of affairs not only within the system of higher education but also in state policy that still allows “cargo-cult science” to be a metaphor applicable to the Lithuanian university system. The authors of this issue are not eager to offer remedies. However, what they offer is sound and thoughtful reflection that may help the country to rethink its quarter-of-a-century-long policies of higher education, and to have the courage to face challenges that are real and not imaginary.