A Fresh Start: is student mobility so mobile at St Petersburg University
Does the University offer an opportunity to study abroad, at least during one term? The answer seems to be obvious. The University offers a number of opportunities to study abroad, gain work experience or undertake research in another country during or outside the term. Moreover, after undertaking a period of study abroad you may be able to have the courses or even study periods recognised towards a qualification at the University. The University encourages student mobility as part of the cross-university cooperation under the direct bilateral and multilateral agreements between the University and other universities across the globe.
Seemingly, sounds easy. During your mobility period abroad you studied courses and passed assessments to earn credits. Then you move back to the University and expected your study abroad to be recognised towards an academic qualification here. So far, so good. But ... It is not as easy as it seems. Below you will find in-depth information about how credit transfer works in practice at the University.
How does credit transfer work?
Last June, a third-year student in law (say, Irina) gave information to the Rector that during the spring term she had studied at a university in the USA under the student mobility programme. Upon completion of her studies, she received a certificate that she had successfully completed the spring term at the university in the USA.
On her return to St Petersburg University in late May, she applied for credit transfer to have the earned credits recognised towards a qualification she had been studying for at the University.
Credits are earned by students during a mobility period abroad under the academic student mobility programmes offered at the University. Their transfer is regulated by the regulations of credit transfer under academic mobility at the University that were approved by Order No 8330/1 dated 17 October 2016. The recognition and transfer of credits earned by students during a mobility period abroad is assisted by: the Learning Agreement signed by the University and a partner-university; and the Transcript of Records which is an official document that specifies the courses, research and training/teaching activities you are supposed to achieve during your mobility.
Having been informed about this procedure, the student provided the Transcript of Records from the American university to the International Academic Cooperation Department on 21 July. On 30 July, the Academic Affairs Department in Law asked her to provide the subject syllabi of the courses she completed at the American university. She provided them at once. Yet credit transfer was still in process... Later she was asked to provide ‘an official translation of the subject syllabi from English into Russian as they had to determine the relevance of the subject syllabi of the courses completed at the American university to the subject syllabi of the courses taught at the University during this term’. She applied to the Rector for the second time. This was in early August.
She explained that she was not a certified translator and therefore had no rights to make an official translation of the documents. Moreover, the courses she completed at the American university ‘did not match the syllabi of the courses taught during this term at the University due to the differences in the academic programmes offered by the University and the American university’.
So, what was the stumbling block? The Learning Agreement dated 10 January 2019 stipulated the terms and conditions of transferring the courses, not the periods of study. But there were differences between the courses. This led to the problems concerning the recognition of the mobility period abroad. Later, the Learning Agreement was amended to stipulate certain conditions for the recognition of the study period. The Acting Deputy Head of the Academic Affairs Department in Law forwarded her application to the Chairperson of the Teaching Methodology Committees, and the Chairperson asserted that no further procedure was required.
This problem arose due to the fact that initially, according to the Learning Agreement, she had to complete five courses that equated to 15 credits. The student explained that, as she was told, the term should be equal to four courses and therefore five courses were more than necessary. Yet she wanted to take the fifth one… Finally, she successfully completed four courses and earned her credits, while she decided not to take an exam at the end of the fifth course... This resulted in the discrepancy between the earned credits (12) as stipulated in the Transcript of Records and the credits (15) as initially stipulated in the Learning Agreement.
Thus, the student turned out to have failed to meet the terms and conditions of the Learning Agreement and complete the mobility programme. In the USA, one term at undergraduate level corresponds to 12 USCS credits, while one term at undergraduate level at the University corresponds to 30 ECTS credits.
All in all, the student successfully completed her study period abroad, passed all assessments, and did not have to take the spring term exams and pass/fail tests at the University as the University recognised the study period abroad.
In the case when a student fails to meet the terms and conditions of the student mobility programmes, he/she has to complete all courses and pass assessments that they missed at the University due to their mobility study period abroad (Articles 9 and 10 of the Regulations of credit transfer under academic mobility at the University that were approved by Order No 8330/1 dated 17 October 2016).
The student received a reply in writing and was invited to meet Marina Lavrikova, Senior
Vice-Rector for Academic Activities and Teaching Methods. The Vice-Rector told her that St Petersburg University recognised the study period spent in the globally recognised educational institutions abroad without needing to be satisfied by the results of the comparative assessment of the educational programmes and courses in order to determine similarities and differences between them. Yet we recognise the study period via earned credits, not completed courses. The credit transfer and accumulation system as a central tool in the Bologna Process helps students have study periods abroad recognised.
The student explained to the Vice-Rector that, although the University recognised the study period abroad, she wanted to complete some of the courses that she missed during the term she spent abroad. Otherwise, these courses wouldn’t be listed in the Diploma Supplement and she wanted to get a ‘complete’ diploma, rather than ‘incomplete’, that would list all the courses she studied. It is important as the prospective employers can take it into consideration during the recruitment process.
Consequently, the student was offered an individual timetable for examinations and pass/fail tests. Among them were Family Law, Civil Procidure, Criminology, Financial Law, and Land Law. The exams and pass/fail tests were scheduled from late September to November in 2019 so as to provide enough time to prepare for examinations. So, during the fourth year of study at the University, she completed the spring term of the third year of study. She successfully passed all assessments as she had been preparing for them since she was studying in America.
All five courses were listed in her Diploma Supplement, with the assessment marks. Today, she is pursuing her studies at graduate level at the University. Recollecting this situation now, she says that all departments at the University acted promptly in due course and manner. She is completely satisfied. Regrettably, as she now reckons, she obtained her individual assessment schedule only in late September. She expected to get it a bit earlier so as to have more time to prepare.
Feedbacks and opinions
As we could see, the question turned out to be more complicated than it seemed initially. In order to improve the Regulations of credit transfer under academic mobility at the University, we decided to find out what students and external organisation might have to say.
In February 2020, the Student Council at the University surveyed students about their opinion of the current credit transfer scheme at the University. Also, they asked about their experience. As a result, the Student Council suggested:
- Including information about academic mobility in the Diploma
Supplement. The courses completed at the University should be followed by information about which university a student studied abroad under an academic mobility programme and study results (Veronika Koytova, Head of the International Academic Cooperation Department, commented: no alterations needed. For more information, you may refer to the booklet for students).
- Offering an opportunity to the students who pursued their studies abroad under the academic mobility programmes to attend the courses (especially those that make up a compulsory part of the educational programme at the University) they missed during the study period abroad and complete assessments to further include this information in the
Diploma Supplement. (Veronika Koytova, Head of the International Academic Cooperation Department, commented: if a student is completing a study period abroad, they can apply for completing the courses within the University’s educational programme they are studying at the University. This information will be included in the academic card and therefore in the Diploma Supplement. The courses completed at the university abroad will also be listed in the academic card and Diploma Supplement. For more information, please refer to the booklet for students).
- Offering an opportunity for graduate students to extend the study period under the academic mobility programmes up to one term if there are no complications relating to credit transfer (Veronika Koytova, Head of the International Academic Cooperation Department, commented: students can extend the study period abroad under the academic mobility programmes).
- Shortening time needed for credit transfer process after completing an academic mobility programme to ensure that students can apply for an increased state academic monthly scholarship (Veronika Koytova, Head of the International Academic Cooperation Department, commented: not applicable. For credit transfer we need a Transcript of Records from the university abroad. The document submission period to the Academic Affairs Department is up to two months. This requirement is stipulated by Order No 8330/1 dated 17 October 2016 and based on the current practice we have concerning the issuing of the Transcript of Records by the partner-universities. If we shorten this period, it may result in increasing the number of complaints from students that that fail to receive the Transcript of Records from the accepting university in due course).
- Making a reference assessment scale for the recognition of courses. As the University has an assessment scale that is different from those adopted by the partner-universities abroad, we suggest working out a reference assessment scale to measure the courses in terms of the amount of credit (Veronika Koytova, Head of the International Academic Cooperation Department, commented: not applicable. A reference assessment scale is not possible to work out as each partner-university has its own assessment scale, which is explained in the Transcript of Records)
Is there any chance to hear external organisations? We decided that surveying and questioning external organisations is not relevant or appropriate. Instead, the Councils of the Academic Programme, together with the Academic Affairs Departments, should discuss this issue. As a result, we have the following:
- The external organisations were informed about the academic mobility programmes, a credit transfer scheme, and the ways how the results of the student mobility can be included in the Diploma Supplement;
- The members of nine Councils agreed that student mobility should be included in the Diploma Supplement;
- Some of the members of the Councils said that some of the courses cannot be completed abroad (for example, the courses in law that are based on the legislation of other countries). They suggested the students who are studying abroad under academic mobility programmes should be offered an extra term to complete the courses that they missed at the University;
- For students of some educational programmes (especially, in law) it is vital to have some of the courses listed in the Diploma Supplement as these courses are important in forming a core set of competencies expected and sought by employers. This should be taken into consideration in organising student mobility and credit transfer. A lack of or automatic assessment of such courses will inevitably lead to a lack of knowledge.
Academic mobility was discussed at the Rector’s meeting in summer 2019. The teaching staff may be at times quite hostile towards the current credit transfer scheme because, as they put it, students can gain an in-depth understanding of some subjects only if learning face-to-face at the University.
Among the suggestions were the following:
- To add or subtract universities from the list of university-partners that are recognised at the University for credit transfer;
- To introduce additional requirements for credit transfer, for example, relating to the term papers;
- Not to recognise some courses that, according to the Teaching
Methodology Committees, are vital in forming a core set of competences.
These rules and regulations must be adopted for each area of study, before sending students abroad. More information can be found here.
The Directors and Deans were ordered to discuss the credit transfer scheme with the academic and administrative staff to propose further suggestions. Mostly, they agreed that the current rules were democratic enough and no alterations were needed. Yet among the few suggestions were the following:
- While planning student mobility with the educational or research institutions that are globally recognised, it is vital to make an expert evaluation to determine the relevance of the acquired competences to our standards, excluding the research practice module (Professor Irina Balova, Director of the Institute of Chemistry);
- We should assess credit transfer on a case-by-case basis as there is a lack of compatibility between the courses and study periods at our University and partner-universities (Professor Aleksandr Razov, Dean of the Mathematics and Mechanics Faculty);
- The accepting universities should hold the same or higher position in the global rankings (Professor Aleksandr Kurochkin, Dean of the Faculty of Political Science);
- No additional expert evaluation is needed if the Learning Agreement is signed in advance, especially with the educational institutions that make up a list of the top institutions approved by the Government of the Russian Federation. Their diploma is recognised in Russia or the University has partner agreements signed with them (Professor Kirill Chistiakov, Director of the Institute of Earth Sciences);
- We should determine relevance of the courses based on their content, rather their names (Professor Alla Shaboltas, Dean of the Faculty of Psychology).
These discussions with the students, external organisations, and Academic Affairs Departments resulted in working out a guide on how to better inform students about academic mobility, credit transfer, and including the results of learning abroad in the Diploma Supplement.
Once this information was published on the University’s website, the Rector asked the Public Relations Department to contact the students who have studied abroad under the academic mobility programmes to share their views on how to improve the credit transfer scheme. They also asked the students who did not use international opportunities due to the fact that credit transfer seemed rather complicated to them.
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