Monday, June 30, 2008

Funding graduate studies

The prime minister recently announced that the government will fund the education of a number of students in foreign countries. Undoubtedly this is a confirmation of the country’s dramatic need for capacity building, as well as a reflection of the slow progress in advancing the state of graduate education in the country.

In a world of unlimited resources, one would applaud the visionary outlook of the PM. But given the funding constraints that are undoubtedly at play, and the urgency of catching up with the rest of the world, one wonders if this is the best strategy for the government to pursue. Consider the following:

1. The strategy would provide training for a limited number of students, as dictated by funding limits. It may cost anywhere from $30,000 per year to cover the tuition and living expenses.
2. It takes a number of years to complete graduate degrees; 2 years for masters and an average of 5-6 years for the doctoral degrees.
3. Add to the above the time it takes to gain experience and develop the professional maturity for independent work.
4. Considerable effort is needed to build conditions (and institutions) on the ground to make it attractive for prospective grantees to return to the home country.

I would very much hope the government reconsiders its options. The limited resources should instead be employed in attracting educators to the country. Here, a much larger pool of students would get training. More importantly, current faculty would also get training, and upgrade their academic skills. Add to this the prospect of having private/public sector personnel also attending these courses, and this alternative strategy could be a win-win all around. Of course, familiarizing these professionals with local conditions may have positive spillovers in terms of shaping curricula, research and study focus, among others.

For the doctoral program in economics, Yerevan State University, for instance, could host visiting economists to provide training in advanced economic theory, and econometrics, among others. [Note that YSU training in economic theory is superior to that received by Muskie students studying in the US, where the latter government spends some $40,000 annually on their training.] This is important as advanced training, say the equivalent to that of at least second year graduate PhD programs in the US, does not exist in the country. Similarly, the American University may host visiting professors in finance. Other institutions of higher learning could play similar roles.

At the end of the day, it is the academic institutions in the country that need to be shored up. Otherwise, capacity building will continue to be a long slow process.