By Tigran Keryan and Tamara Mitrofanenko
What characterized the Soviet academic system and what is its legacy in two post-Soviet countries, Armenia and Georgia? What would it take for transdisciplinarity to flourish in those countries?
The Soviet academic system
During the Soviet era, the natural and technical sciences were prioritized, while the social sciences and humanities were marginalized. In addition, research functions were removed from the responsibilities of academic institutions and placed under the authority of the Academies of Sciences, which are central state-governed research institutes. Thus, the role of the universities was reduced to teaching, undermining the research capacity of higher educational institutions up to this day. The curriculum was centralized, focusing on Soviet propaganda and leaving little space for innovation. On the upside, this system ensured the absence of tuition fees in all universities and guaranteed employment for all graduates.
How can transdisciplinarity be implemented in the post-Soviet era?
We suggest that four key changes are needed to implement transdisciplinary teaching and research in Armenia and Georgia.
1. Encourage universities to play a societal role
There are different perceptions of the societal role of universities among different societal actors, including university teachers and students, local community members, practitioners and policymakers. Armenian and Georgian societies are ready for collaboration with universities, but the initiative is expected to come from academia. There is particular potential for university teachers from the younger generation to become key agents for change.
2. Adapt the academic system
Despite innovative efforts, a top-down approach to decision-making still prevails in the academic systems of Armenia and Georgia. Strict hierarchical relationships among university leaders and teachers as well as among teachers and students are still common. Students, in particular, are accustomed to following predefined tasks and not arguing with professors or questioning what they are being taught.
In general, the approach underpinning transdisciplinarity is perceived positively by academic and societal actors, and there exist traditions of action research. Thus, there is a foundation for cooperation within and outside academia that leads to mutual learning, cooperation and partnership. However, many challenges persist, as described next.
3. Make transdisciplinarity achievable practically
Although there are no formal obstacles to implementing transdisciplinarity in Armenian and Georgian universities, there are practical challenges, especially:
- lack of time, because of high teaching loads
- lack of experience in research
- lack of awareness and understanding about the benefits of collaborating with non-academic partners
- lack of supporting mechanisms, as well as administrative and financial resources.
Some organizational challenges can be addressed through collaboration with experienced academics and transdisciplinary teams. Applying for and receiving external funds has also proved useful for addressing existing barriers. For example, the project CaucaSusT (Transdisciplinarity for Sustainable Tourism Development in the Caucasus Region) supported collaboration between Austrian, Armenian and Georgian researchers, lecturers and students, and facilitated adaptation of transdisciplinary approaches, used by Austrian colleagues, to the teaching and research practice at the Armenian and Georgian universities (Muhar 2020). The project budget provided resources for field studies and training opportunities, and the project cooperation agreement helped address some of the institutional barriers.
4. Improve governance
Political instability in Armenia and Georgia has often led to changes in governments. Rapid shifts in political power and styles of decision-making at national and sub-national levels bring new agendas and governance strategies without sufficient discussion with, and agreement from, the relevant stakeholders, including academia, businesses and the general public. This instability poses a big challenge to participatory governance, as well as long-term cooperation between universities and decision-making bodies. Further, a better understanding of power relations and participatory governance is crucial to rendering university graduates more active members of civil society.
Integrating transdisciplinary approaches into the academic cultures of Armenia and Georgia will be facilitated by bringing together international experience and local knowledge, considering institutional settings and cultural aspects. Furthermore, local needs and interests always need to be acknowledged. In Armenian and Georgian state universities, transdisciplinarity is most likely to be successful if it is first implemented at a project or a course level, then it could be shaped into a broader discourse, for example at department and eventually university levels. This can be assisted by external interventions, for example, by faculty and students from European universities where transdisciplinarity is established partnering with local academics and students to undertake transdisciplinary research and teaching.
Do any of these ideas resonate with your experience? Do you have additional suggestions or practical experiences to share? If you are from a post-Soviet country, what do you think? Would these suggestions work in your university?
To find out more:
Keryan, T., Muhar, A., Mitrofanenko, T., Khoetsyan, A. and Radinger-Peer, V. (2020). Towards Implementing Transdisciplinarity in Post-Soviet Academic Systems: An Investigation of the Societal Role of Universities in Armenia. Sustainability, 12, 20: 8721. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.3390/su12208721
Keryan, T., Mitrofanenko, T., Muhar, A. and Khartishvili, L. (2020). UNESCO’s Education for Sustainable Development Framework and the Reality of University-Community Cooperation in the Caucasus Mountain Region. Mountain Research and Development, 40, 4: 01-09. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1659/MRD-JOURNAL-D-20-00023.1
Mitrofanenko, T. and Zitnanova, A. (Eds). (2020). Developing and Implementing a Transdisciplinary Field Case Study Course: Manual for University Lecturers. Transdisciplinarity for Sustainable Tourism Development in the Caucasus Region (CaucaSusT), University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) and Institute of Landscape Development, Recreation and Conservation Planning (ILEN): Vienna, Austria. (Online): https://caucasust.boku.ac.at/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/CaucaSusT-Manual-for-Lecturers_Implementing-a-TD-Case-Study-Course_final_web.pdf (PDF 27MB)
Muhar, A. (2020). Transdisciplinarity for Sustainable Tourism Development in the Caucasus Region – CaucaSusT. Austrian Partnership Programme in Higher Education and Research for Development (APPEAR), Austrian Development Cooperation. Website viewed 8 December 2021. (Online): https://typo3.oead.at/?id=691. (Also at: https://caucasust.boku.ac.at/en/home/).
Biography: Tigran Keryan PhD is a postdoctoral researcher in the Centre for Transdisciplinary Development Studies at the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro, Portugal. His current research aims to develop an innovative framework for creating place-based territorial intelligence in low-density areas of Portugal.
Biography: Tamara Mitrofanenko PhD is engaged at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (BOKU), Austria and the United Nations Environment Programme, Vienna Office, Secretariat of the Carpathian Convention. She facilitates strengthening the science-policy-practice interface and integration of transdisciplinary approaches for sustainable development of mountainous regions.