Listening to students on how to improve universities
Emily Johnson02 December 2016Issue No:439
Education is at the centre of many debates these days. Education experts conduct surveys and do research based on current knowledge and data. Statistics are all well and good, but wouldn't it be better to hear what students have to say instead of conducting dry fact-finding exercises?
One way of finding out what they have to say is through essay writing. Most educational institutions hold essay contests and these can help with information gathering and analysis. Of course, the main idea of such contests is to improve students� writing skills, analytical thinking and their ability to argue their point. And yet student essays could also help specialists to take a fresh look at education issues.
When OmniPapers launched their international essay contest, "The Ideal Higher Education Model for My Country", the goal was to get an idea of what students saw as potential improvements in higher education as well as to motivate undergraduates to change their attitude toward academic writing.
The contest gained widespread currency, numerous .edu websites and media publications wrote about it, students from more than 50 countries took part and 218 entries were assessed.
It's clear that this won't lead to major changes in the global education system but it does allow students to highlight some key issues. And it turned out that some students offered useful suggestions for improving the system.
What emerged were some important themes, for instance, funding. The majority of United States students considered the high cost of education the number one problem, while their peers from the Former Soviet Union � including the contest winner Elena Tacu from Moldova � tended to mention the high level of bribery in education institutions of their countries.
Elena says that the education system "encourages socially destructive behaviour in future specialists � doctors, teachers, judges � people who hold decisions and lives in their hands".
To solve the problems, students suggest "beginning with one step back and three steps forward". One step back means undoing all that has been done before and the three steps forward include focusing on three of the main parts of the system � admissions, curricula/campus life and government involvement.
US students suggest "a complete overhaul of the current higher education model" (Anne Hentzen, University of Missouri-Kansas City) and "the implementation of a government mandate that requires all undergraduate students to attend school in their home state" (Harmony Jackson, Goucher College) to lower tuition costs. They hope it will encourage state governments to fund local universities and discourage them from spending money on recruiting students from other states.
The second place winner, Karl Nielsen from the United Kingdom, believes that the current approach to education in his country "puts the cart before the horse": it lacks an overarching sense of purpose and is therefore inefficient. He proposes a heterogenous system, saying "the better approach is for each university to focus on a particular area". At the same time, he suggests that universities should include a course in civic responsibility as an extra element.
Other students write about old ways of teaching (India), the out-of-date curricula that are the legacy of the Soviet education system (Belarus), weak course objectives and lack of digital facilities (Bangladesh) and a lack of creative methods of teaching (Ukraine).
Canadian students refer to the summary of a recent American College Health Association report saying that modern universities' lecture style "is not conducive to good mental health": 17.3% of students in Ontario struggle with depression while 69.8% of students feel lonely in universities.
"The system we have now does not help students, it is neither free nor fair. The government needs to change course," says Bill Wirtz, Universit� de Lorraine, France.
As improvements, students recommend "smaller classes with a maximum size of 50 students" (Canada) that would allow professors to have meaningful conversations, "giving teachers the liberty to try innovative ideas" (Brazil) and aligning course objectives to "industry trends and markets" (India).
The third place winner, Silviya Damyanova from Bulgaria, suggests giving "opportunities to students to visit different companies which partner with the university". That would help young people acquire more contacts, knowledge and experience which would help them after they graduate.
Another timely issue is teachers' attitudes toward the study process. In particular:
Hence, "many students graduate without the necessary skills and knowledge" (Takashi Fukushima, Japan). Indian and US undergraduates agree that such an approach creates a "gap between what is learned in the classroom and what is required in the real world".
One improvement could be yearly updated curricula with "the focus on complex thinking such as experiential learning, problem-solving and situational decision-making", says Benjamin Liu, University of Western Ontario, Canada.
A participant from India, Jasbeen Chunara, suggests teachers "test the practical knowledge of students through internships, extracurricular activities and volunteer experiences". Alexey Ivanov from Russia adds that "studying should be more creative and diverse".
US students highlight another problem, which is "the reduced level of the teaching staff". This happens because young specialists are difficult to attract (because of low salaries) and experienced educators have no opportunity to develop their teaching skills.
One improvement could be giving "an equal number of rewards to professors and administrative staff" (Canada) as well as including "more education classes for teachers" (Japan).
"Professors work even harder than some of those in administrative positions. So, the salaries of administrative staff, departmental heads and sports coaches would need to be lowered," says Anne Hentzen, University of Missouri-Kansas City, USA.
These are some of the suggestions from students around the world. Through heeding the words of younger generations, educational institutions could help boost students� chances of success.
Emily Johnson is community coordinator of the OmniPapers blog.
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Russia's educational system in the post-Soviet era was largely rooted in patterns from the second half of the 20th century. Just a few subjects were withdrawn from the curriculum at the beginning of the 1990s. Whether children got a good education depended heavily on their individual teachers and on how wealthy their families were.
University education was mainly reserved for the offspring of urban, high-income families. Russians from rural areas had to get by with the equivalent of a high school diploma or vocational training.
In the middle of the 1990s, reforms were introduced, and many schools changed course. Specialized educational institutions sprang up. College degrees, which had lost some attractiveness due to the financial difficulties of the 1990s, regained their luster. But the university admissions process got more and more difficult. Citing corruption in the admissions committees, the government put an end in the early 2000s to the existing system of university entrance exams.
Unified state examinations
Centralized college admissions testing may do little to curb corruption
In place of the old exam system came the unified university exams, which are now administered by a central body to each graduate of the 11th grade in all 83 of Russia's regions. The centralized exam tests each of the most important school subjects, like Russian language and literature, math, foreign languages and natural science.
Those who want to attend university submit their scores to their desired colleges. Only select institutions like the public universities in Moscow and St. Petersburg are allowed to require additional tests.
"The idea was good, but the result has been sobering," said Oleg Sergeyev of the Russian Educational Foundation, adding that as soon as the new national exam was introduced, problems came up. An enormous number of high school graduates crowded into the large universities in the capital, where the infrastructure was not in place to accommodate them.
"There isn't even enough room in the dorms," Sergeyev said.
But deeper and more serious problems in the educational system remain. Sergeyev notes that corruption is still prevalent, shifting away from the university admissions process but settling instead in secondary schools.
Administrators measure their success by kids' exam scores
"Students' grades in the official university exam have also become a criterion for the success of local educational bodies," Sergeyev said. That leads to a system in which regional governments as well as school principals and teachers want to beat one another out when it comes to exam scores. Entire curricula are now built around getting good grades on the centralized exam, while actual learning and knowledge fades more and more into the background, in Sergeyev's estimation.
"The educational system is in a critical position," he said. One result: universities have to make up for the gaps in students' secondary education once they get to college. That cuts into the time needed for advanced learning, leading to inadequately trained graduates leaving university.
The emerging system is one reason that many young Russians attempt to study abroad.
Courses in ethics, religion
Russia's schools also get bad marks when it comes to social concerns - with serious consequences. The country has the highest suicide rate among young people.
"The role of the teacher has been completely devalued in the last 20 years, and this development begins to emerge as early as pre-school. Everything is oriented around the computer and not around the teacher," said Sergeyev.
New courses, new exams, but the same problems?
An international study showed that Finland's elementary teachers earn much higher salaries than teachers in grades with older students. The rationale is that elementary school teachers do not primarily convey knowledge, but rather promote the ability to think critically, which demands a high degree of pedagogical skill. However, the opposite holds true in Russia. Elementary teachers earn too little and are not sufficiently trained, Sergeyev says.
As is often the case, Russia's response to the situation is to issue an official decree. In a few schools, a new subject has been introduced: foundations of religious cultures and secular ethics.
Parents can decide what their children should learn: the basics of Islam, Buddhism, Judaism or more general topics like worldwide religious cultures or secular ethics. But a number of experts think little of the new courses.
"Research has shown that parents do not approve of the curriculum, and the teachers are not really prepared to give instruction in these areas," said Tatyana Sharkovskaya of the Russian Academy for Education.
Sharkovskaya believes that education in questions of faith and ethics should be integrated into other subjects rather than being treated in a single course, handed down from the government. Schools and parents should also have more room to decide what their children learn, she said.
After all, the Russian population is gradually coming to assert more autonomy when it comes to education, although there have not yet been official and pointed protests against the problems in the school system.
Author: Evlalia Samedova, Markian Ostaptschuk / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen
Evlalia Samedova is a Moscow-based journalist, who works as a correspondent for DW's Russian service.