Jānis IKSTENS: “Interest from Georgian students in studying in Riga is very high”

25.07.2021 (Caucasian Journal). Caucasian Journal’s guest today is Dr. Jānis IKSTENS, Acting Rector and Chairman of the Board at Riga Graduate School of Law.

▶ ქართულად: 
Read the Georgian version here.

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ:  Welcome to Caucasian Journal – we are pleased to greet you as our first speaker from Latvia; it is even more symbolic that you are the first representative of higher education sphere.  You have been the head of Riga Graduate School of Law since 2017, if I’m correct. Would you like to introduce RGSL, by highlighting what you consider most important?

Jānis IKSTENS: Riga Graduate School of Law (RGSL) was founded in 1998 in cooperation between Latvia and Sweden in order to assist Latvia in preparing for work in the European institutions. RGSL was inaugurated in 2001 by President of Latvia Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga and Crown Princess of Sweden Victoria, who also awarded diplomas to the very first graduates. 

At the beginning, RGSL offered only Masters degrees, two Bachelor programmes – “Law and Business” and “Law and Diplomacy” were introduced in 2014. Since then, they have gained popularity among young people in Latvia and also abroad – we have students and faculty from more than 30 countries studying and teaching in Riga. 

Today we are a specialised law school that offers interdisciplinary bachelor and masters programmes in law, allowing students to combine their law studies with courses in business, international relations, finance and diplomacy. The only language of instruction is English. RGSL is the only higher education institution in the Baltics that offers an interdisciplinary approach to the study process in all study programmes, thus ensuring that RGSL graduates are competitive in the labour market.

RGSL offers LL.M. degrees in International and European Law, Public International Law and Human Rights, EU Law and Policy, Transborder Commercial Law, Law and Finance (1 and 2 year programme), and the novelty in the region - LL.M in Technology Law. The Technology Law programme is quite unique as it enables students to identify and understand the complicated relationships between technological advances and the law. Providing students with the tools necessary to navigate the complex regulatory systems developing around new technologies, the programme delivers an innovative and competitive degree in a rapidly developing area of specialisation. In fact, employment in the field of technology law is almost guaranteed because of how fast the field is growing. 

AK: In her recent interview to our journal, the Norwegian ambassador in Tbilisi mentioned “co-funding the Riga School of Graduate Law” in a list of large regional projects, in which Georgia is a partner. Could you tell a bit more about your link with Georgia, and about the broader regional context in which RGSL is involved?

JI: Our largest project linked to Georgia is the Advanced Programme in European Law and Economics. It has been running since 2014, and the idea of the Programme is to bring professionals from public administration, non-governmental sector and academia to Riga and offer them a very intensive 12-week training on EU law, policy and economics, and to share with them the Latvian euro integration experience. There is also a sibling project called the Intensive Programme, which is shorter and more suitable for higher-ranking professionals, who cannot leave their work for a longer period.

We are very proud of our Georgian alumni and everything that they have achieved so far and will still achieve.

The programme targets the Eastern Partnership countries as well as Central Asia. We have had Georgian participants since the very first session of the Advanced Programme. The Advanced and Intensive Programmes are primarily implemented through a strong cooperation between RGSL and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Latvia. The regional eligibility of the Eastern Partnership countries is strongly linked to the Latvian foreign policy priorities. 

In addition to our regional project, RGSL also has close ties with the Georgian Embassy in Riga. Ambassador Tea Maisuradze has given a guest lecture on Georgian-Russian relations in 2018 and also participated in the “Meet the Diplomats” event for Bachelor students in 2019. We have cooperated on different levels.

AK: In addition to education of students, RGSL serves as a platform for educating international professionals in public administration and other fields, is that correct? Can you tell more, and perhaps share some concrete “success stories” about your School’s alumni?

JI: Yes, that is true. In total, we have 57 graduates of Advanced and Intensive Programmes from Georgia, and we are proud of this number. It is quite a common occurrence for our RGSL colleagues to receive news of the different success stories from our graduates. These often include promotions to higher positions within their existing departments or promotions as part of a transfer to departments dealing with issues directly related with the European Union. 

Perhaps, an excellent success story is Nino Tandilashvili, who participated in the 2017 session of the Intensive Programme. She was Head of Division at the Ministry of Environment at the time, but now she has assumed the position of Deputy Minister. This is a very impressive example, and we believe that the experience gained during our programs boosts professional growth. 

Another story that illustrated the programme well enough is the story of Salome Barbakadze who strongly believed that the programme she completed provided her with the confidence to take professional steps out of her comfort zone. At the time of the programme she was working at the Ministry of Justice of Georgia, at the Department of Agreement’s Expertise and Court representation as a First Category Senior Specialist. Soon after her return she applied and was awarded the position of Head of Administration at Legislative Herald of Georgia. This was a significant step for her as her new position was of a managerial nature. 

These are just two of the many stories that we could share. We are very proud of our Georgian alumni and everything that they have achieved so far and will still achieve.

AK: I know you cooperate with Copenhagen’s university in your postgraduate programs. If there are other international exchange and cooperation programs you want to mention, we would be very interested. I mean not only student exchanges, but also faculty.

JI: Since 2016 RGSL has had an active academic cooperation with Caucasus University in Tbilisi within the framework of the EU Erasmus+ programme for student, faculty and staff mobility. Based on our inter-institutional agreement both institutions have exchanged several undergraduate students for a semester-long academic studies whereby students take courses and exams to obtain unique knowledge and academic credits towards their degree. The students have been very pleased with their experience – we saw that the Latvian students were so inspired by the societal processes in Georgia that upon their return they wrote research papers and even bachelor thesis on topics related to EU-Georgia relations. Georgian students have also greatly appreciated the time at RGSL, commenting that everyday interaction with people coming from different countries had widened their worldview and taught them to become more open-minded. They felt they benefitted professionally from being exposed to very different teaching methods, high degree of interaction between professors and students, cross-disciplinary discussions and active cultural and social life.   

In addition, teacher mobility and administrative staff exchange has provided the personnel of Caucasus University and RGSL with opportunities for diverse teaching experience with previously unfamiliar student groups and valuable exchange of best practice examples across departments. International mobility was obviously affected by the global pandemic but we are hopeful that in the coming academic years new exchanges will be in place and academic cooperation will not only regain its strength but also expand.

Students from the Caucasus region say that their main motivation is to gain knowledge in order to contribute to their countries’ development.

AK: Are there any students from our region’s countries in your School, and what are the competitive advantages that RGSL offers to them?  

JI: We can say that interest from Georgian students in studying in Riga is very high in general – when our representatives go to Tbilisi, we get questions also about medical studies or how to become a pilot! Easy connectivity by air between Georgia and Latvia also adds to the pros in choosing Riga as a study place.  

Studies in English, international environment, interdisciplinary programmes, convenient module study system and competitive, internationally recognized degrees are the main reasons our students choose us. Our graduates get accepted in prestigious universities all over the world, including University of Leuven, Belgium, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and others.

But the main advantage of RGSL for all students is student-centered approach at all levels, starting from the programme structure, enabling those who really want to pass on to the next level. Mix of different professors enables students to be at touch base with European academic and professional discourse. RGSL has so much to offer that you can take everything you need to get an excellent bachelor or master level education. Other advantage is the holistic approach to studying law. In all courses there will be an interdisciplinary element because no human being or case can be isolated in a specific box of law.

As RGSL is a small law school, students and faculty know each other by name, and more often than not, the students enter the professional world via the contacts they obtained during studies. We value the sense of community and support our students in their activities. In 2019, RGSL Debate Society was founded by two of our first year students, and it has already gathered considerable number of enthusiasts, also from other universities and high schools. Students participate in various Moot Courts [simulated court or arbitration proceedings used at many law schools – CJ], both in Latvia and internationally. In fact, RGSL team won the Levan Alexidze Moot Court in Georgia last December. And of course, the participation of our international students is crucial to the success of the Moot court teams. 

AK: Georgia aspires membership in EU. In the higher education sphere, however, there is sometimes a risk that, once high school diplomas become recognized across Europe, the graduates fly abroad. Will they come back? Is there such a problem, in your view?

JI: First, I would like to stress that studies in general – either at home or abroad – give you a considerable advantage in life. According to the recent survey by the Latvian Ministry of Education and Science, the annual income of the university graduates is 30% higher than the national average in Latvia, and we are happy to share that Riga Graduate School of Law share the top spot among private universities.

Getting back to your question, yes, if someone chooses to study abroad either for bachelor or masters degree, there is a chance that he or she will find an employment or create a family, and choose to stay in that country. However, I believe that in this case this person continues to contribute also to his country of origin –  via supporting family and friends, investing in properties, coming for holidays, and, most importantly, gaining unique knowledge and experience which can be greatly beneficial to his country once a suitable employment opportunity arises back home. We see many such examples also among our graduates who return to Latvia after a considerable time abroad to work in public positions mainly because they want to contribute to the development of their country. In fact, many students from the Caucasus region say in their motivation letters that their main motivation to study with us is to gain knowledge and experience in order to contribute to their countries’ development.

But, if you are worried that universities in Georgia will become empty as students will run abroad – no worries, it will not happen. We in Latvia still see very high number of applicants to our universities every year, the competition for top programmes is very high. And the world is so connected – now even more than ever. 

AK: Thank you very much!

Read the Georgian language version here

Caucasian Journal
 appreciates kind support of Royal Norwegian Embassy in Tbilisi in preparation of this interview.

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