Educational standards and accreditation procedure for universities

Since December 2016, Russia has been implementing the priority programme of the Government of the Russian Federation "Reform of control and supervision activities". Its key goals are to: reduce the administrative burden on organisations and citizens; and improve the quality of administration of control and supervision functions.

The priorities of the reform were set in the Main Activities of the Government of the Russian Federation until 2024. Among them are: the introduction of a risk-based approach; the development of prevention of violations of mandatory requirements; the introduction of an assessment of the effectiveness and efficiency of control and supervision activities focused on reducing damage and reducing costs of controlled entities; and a comprehensive update of mandatory requirements.

Since 1 January 2021, Russia has a new system of control and supervision legislation. Two main Federal Laws were adopted: "On Mandatory Requirements in the Russian Federation"; and "On State Municipal Control". During the reform period, more than 12,000 acts were under the "regulatory guillotine", which is about 90% of all acts containing mandatory requirements. A significant part of them are documents of the Soviet and post-Soviet era. Many of them duplicated each other, while some of them were not relevant. The ongoing work to improve the system of state control (supervision) and licensing activities involves: 21 authorities that carry out legal regulation; 33 authorities that implement control and supervision functions; and more than 40 industry working groups.

A working group in the field of education is headed by Elena Shmeleva, Head of the Talent and Success Foundation, a member of the Presidential Council for Science and Education, a co-chair of the central headquarters of the Russia-Wide Popular Front; and Sergei Rukavishnikov, Secretary of State — Deputy Head of the Federal Service for Supervision in Education and Science (Rosobrnadzor) under the Government Commission for Administrative Reform. It is set to solve the problem, including the development of draft acts establishing mandatory requirements in the field of education. Representatives of St Petersburg University have been actively engaged in the activities of this working group for several years. During its work, the group has achieved significant results for the country.

One of the most recent achievements was creating a new model of state regulation of educational activities and introducing the possibility of obtaining perpetual state accreditation. Marina Lavrikova, Senior Vice-Rector for Academic Activities and Teaching Methods at St Petersburg University, spoke about how we had been working in this direction, how we had defended the right to work according to our own standards, and changed the rules for accreditation.

Could you please tell us when and how was the working group on the control and supervision activity opened?

At a certain point in the period 2010-2012, it became obvious that a large number of "universities" that "sold" diplomas appeared on the market. The Federal Service for Supervision in Education and Science therefore began to actively restore order in education. There was colossal work carried out by the Rosobrnadzor as part of the execution of control and supervision functions to suppress the activities of unscrupulous participants in the education services market. As a result, the Rosobrnadzor managed to suspend the work of hundreds of such unscrupulous organisations. However, at some point it became clear that not only malicious violators of the law, but also quite conscientious universities, including the country’s leading universities, which were supposed to become flagships for the development of higher education, suffer from inspections carried out according to those rules. According to the law on the two universities adopted in 2009, Lomonosov Moscow State University and St Petersburg University have rights that allow our universities to set our own educational standards, issue diplomas of our own design, and have other rights within the framework of a special status. In Russia, today there are dozens of different universities that have a special status on the basis of a decree of the President of the Russian Federation or on the basis of acts of executive authorities. Yet the patterns which the Rosobrnadzor used to control and evaluate the educational activities of such universities did not imply taking into account the peculiarities of the status of such universities. During the state accreditation of academic programmes in previous years, the problem has therefore always arisen that the parameters of educational activities, in particular, St Petersburg University, do not fit into the methods the Rosobrnadzor applied following the requirements of federal state standards.

It was very difficult to find a reasonable approach within the education management system. Various high-level working groups and expert groups have been engaged in this work at various stages. Yet there were no real changes in the methods and requirements of state accreditation.

A new stage of this work began as part of the reform of control and supervision activities and culminated in real changes.

The working group led by Sergei Rukavishnikov and Elena Shmeleva has been operating since 2018. Many of today’s significant innovations related to education have been implemented as part of the group’s activities, including those initiated by its members. From the very moment when it was opened, Nikolay Kropachev, Rector of St Petersburg University, was invited to join the group. Among the first issues put on the agenda by the group was implementing the reform in supervision and control in the field of education and in the procedures for state accreditation of universities. The problem had long been overdue, but it was far from being possible to solve it for a long time, although numerous appeals and proposals were sent to various authorities on the initiative of our Rector. A wide public discussion was held; the university community was involved. Herculean efforts were made to change the prevailing stereotypes that hindered the progressive development of the education system.

The main message is that various monitoring procedures in relation to the activities of educational organisations are being carried out today. Universities are uploading large amounts of information about their own activities, which makes the work of educational organisations quite transparent. It is therefore quite possible to control activities on the basis of data from numerous reports that are regularly uploaded into various federal information systems. By compiling data from these systems, we can clearly see the presence or absence of certain problems in the educational activities of a particular university. Additionally, there is another important indicator of public trust and quality: applicants, by submitting an application for study, vote for a university as do the employers, when hiring graduates of certain universities and academic programmes. We have repeatedly proposed this approach to the procedures for assessing the quality of educational activities within the framework of state accreditation. In other words, we should take into account: the assessment of employers (for example, within the framework of professional and public accreditations); the demand for a university and academic programmes among applicants; and data uploaded in federal information systems. All in all, this approach has been adopted.

Importantly, the adopted new regulations ensured that state accreditation of universities becomes indefinite since 1 March 2022. Thus, there is a shift from collecting papers every six years to accreditation monitoring based on the monitoring of the current data available about universities. Collecting more detailed information is necessary only if the university undergoes state accreditation of new areas of education that have not previously been accredited in this university.

The results of the expert work were published in the collection "The New Structure of Regulation in Education".

The working group on control and supervision activities continues to work. Any draft by-laws that are relevant to education and science are submitted for consideration by the group. Representatives and experts from St Petersburg University (primarily experts from the Interdisciplinary Centre for Research on Supervision Activities at St Petersburg University) are actively engaged in the work. This is because the experience of leading universities, the opinion of top management and experts from these universities can be a guideline in the development of new rules and approaches to regulation in the field of education.

St Petersburg University’s own educational standards often impose higher requirements on graduates than the federal standards, yet they have not been reflected in the new model of state regulation of educational activities. Are there any plans to introduce them into the model in the future? How soon will they be introduced?

Federal standards are a kind of framework to develop academic programmes. Although in June 2021, special amendments to the law on education established that professional standards can be directly applied as a basis for developing academic programmes, there is still inertia of past years. I am afraid that in the nearest future we are not going to witness bold steps of universities in creating programmes that differ from the Federal State Standard of Education in content, requirements, and conditions of implementation as the educational standard has long been used as a measure for conducting inspections by the Rosobrnadzor.

In the struggle for the recognition of other accreditation mechanisms and the quality of education, St Petersburg University initially emphasised that more than a dozen leading Russian universities have the right to work according to their own educational standards. How can you test them according to federal standards? How to compare these two standards if there are no corresponding matching tools? Incorporating or not incorporating the standards is therefore not a solution. The solution will be to avoid the standard in principle during inspections, and we have achieved this through joint efforts. Today, accreditation indicators are practically not tied to educational standards.

Yet the standards still work. They are important because they define the basic requirements for academic programmes. For example, St Petersburg University’s own educational standard establishes rules for: the structure of programmes; conditions for the credits in the curricula; the development of cooperation with employers; and introduction of innovative educational technologies to name but a few. They also state that academic staff must meet the requirements of world-class universities. According to the current legislation, the university’s own educational standards should not be lower than the federal standards, yet there are no assessment criteria. Moreover, many experts admit that it is impossible. Any standard therefore has an independent value. This is a guarantee that the quality of education will be appropriately regulated by it. However, its influence and use will change over time.

How do St Petersburg University’s own educational standards correlate with the federal standards?

The right to independently develop and approve educational standards is used by St Petersburg University to establish higher mandatory requirements for education compared to the requirements included in the Federal State Educational Standards. At the same time, St Petersburg University’s own standard takes into account the requirements of the Federal State Educational Standards for the learning results and conditions for implementing the degree programmes of higher education, which are the minimum requirement for preparing graduates of any educational organisation.

In a rapidly changing world, the Federal State Educational Standards should take into account new approaches to education, the requirements of professional standards, employers and the labour market for the qualifications of workers; emergence of new professions; modernisation of current professions; and be flexible in order to produce specialists with a minimum set of competences and an additional set of competencies to start a successful professional activity.

It is important that the list of universal competencies in the St Petersburg University’s Educational Standard has been expanded compared to the list of universal competencies established by the Federal State Educational Standard, and supplemented by such competencies as Research and (or) Entrepreneurial Activity; Socially Responsible Behaviour and Cooperation; Information Management; and Extraprofessional and Cross-Cultural Communication.

St Petersburg University’s own standard establishes a classification of professional competencies, highlighting professional competencies that form the academic component of the learning outcomes of the academic programme, and professional competencies that form the practical component of the learning outcomes of the academic programme. Professional competencies are formulated on the basis of professional standards that correspond to the professional activities of graduates, and if there are no professional standards, on the basis of an analysis of the requirements for professional competencies imposed on graduates in the labour market and the opinions of leading employers. Professional competencies also include general professional and mandatory professional competencies (if any) provided for by the Federal State Educational Standard 3++ in the relevant field of study or specialty, which ensures a correlation between federal and the University’s own requirements.

The St Petersburg University’s Educational Standard is unified and universal for all levels of education and areas of training or specialties in which the University conducts educational activities. This is what makes our Standard unique, both in structure and in the complexity of the requirements. It contains tools for improving and modernising approaches to university education and, together with the academic programme, sets higher requirements for the quality of educational activities and professional training of the University graduates.

During the state accreditation in 2021, the academic programmes of St Petersburg University were checked for compliance with the federal standards. Despite the significant differences between the Federal State Educational Standard and St Petersburg University’s own standard, we, after a long and difficult preparation, successfully passed the state accreditation, which is an assessment of the quality of education. We hope that in the future this procedure of state accreditation will be less laborious for universities. At least within the scope of the working group on control and supervision activities, work on the methodology for accreditation monitoring is well underway. We will make every effort to ensure that the methodology allows monitoring without complicating the current work of educational organisations.

Could you please tell us what criteria are used to carry out the quality control of degree and non-degree programmes? What is a complete list of these criteria?

Criteria and indicators for evaluating the quality of academic programmes are very important. Yet they are only one of the elements of the system for ensuring the quality of education in general. In turn, the condition for the viability and functioning of the quality assurance system is an effective education quality management system, i.e. the education quality management system, in each university.

During the period from 2010 to 2020, St Petersburg University developed an active policy in the field of education quality and created an effective education quality assurance system, which includes the following areas as its main components:

  • ensuring an independent assessment of the quality of educational activities
  • creation of an effective education quality management system
  • creation of a system for monitoring and controlling the quality of education

The beginning of the practical implementation of the University’s policy on the introduction of an independent assessment of the quality of educational activities is associated with public accreditations. In 2012, the academic and research division of the University, i.e. the Graduate School of Management, for the first time received international accreditation of the institutional type of the European Foundation for Management Development European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS). Today, the Graduate School of Management is the only holder in Russia of the so-called triple crown of the most prestigious accreditations in the system of business education: AMBA (the Association of MBAs), EQUIS (the European Quality Improvement System), and AACSB (the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business).

During the same period, we organised work aimed at independent assessment and confirmation of the quality of education of in St Petersburg University’s programmes by organisations recognised in the international educational space and authoritative in their respective professional fields. This is important for promoting the University’s academic programmes in the global educational market, attracting international applicants, and increasing the demand for graduates in the international labour market. We have steadily increased the number of accredited academic programmes by international organisations in the field of control and quality assurance of education. The emphasis was on increasing the number of international accreditations of an institutional type, that is, accreditation of education quality management systems. This enabled us to consider any academic programmes created within the relevant academic and research divisions of the University. Active testing of new forms and methods of accreditation was carried out. Among them are: joint accreditation by Russian and foreign accreditation agencies; accreditation by a mixed composition of expert committees and accreditation by professional accrediting associations in a specific professional field.

In 2018, the indicator of the number of internationally accredited academic programmes was included in the list of the target indicators of the St Petersburg University Strategic Plan. As of the end of 2021, more than 90 degree programmes of the University had international accreditation by leading European accreditation agencies, including institutional ones.

The invaluable experience of communicating with international accreditation organisations and the recommendations received on improving the quality of accredited programmes ensure that we can use the criteria and principles of international quality standards, primarily the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (European Standards and Guidelines, ESG), to build your own system of indicators for assessing the quality of academic programmes.

Another step toward the creation of a system of independent assessment of the quality of education was the creation of academic programme councils at St Petersburg University in 2016. The council is a new expert body for the system of Russian higher education for external assessment of the quality of education, first introduced at St Petersburg University by the decision of the Rector Nikolay Kropachev. The active work of the councils has ensured that St Petersburg University has a unique opportunity to receive an independent professional opinion of the council members on the compliance of the content of the academic programme with the latest requirements and the best world practices in the field of education and research. The share of representatives of external experts in the boards of academic programmes in 2016 was 50%, in 2017 — 70%, in 2018 — 85%, in 2019-2020 — 95%, with more than 200 international specialists. The number of employers in the councils of the academic programmes also constantly increased. In 2016, there were 75 representatives of employers, in 2017 — 545, in 2018 — 1,245, and in 2019-2020 — 1,900 representatives.

Following the results of public accreditations and taking into account the guidelines of international expert committees and councils of academic programmes, in 2019, St Petersburg University organised work to prepare a comprehensive document. It regulates and integrates into a single system all activities and processes carried out in line with improving and evaluating the quality of education and improving management of the quality of education: regulations on the system of quality assurance and quality management of higher education at St Petersburg University (Regulations on Quality). The document is published in Russian and English in open access on the website of St Petersburg University.

The Regulations on Quality determine: the general foundations (normative, administrative, organisational) and the structure of the education quality assurance system at St Petersburg University; approaches to assessing and monitoring the quality of education; the main processes, content and results of the work of the structural units of the University to ensure the quality of education; and the methods for recording results of assessing the quality of academic programmes and fulfilling the criteria and indicators of the quality of education in order to improve the quality of academic programmes and educational activities.

Despite the fact that the system of criteria and indicators for assessing the quality of academic programmes is set in the above-mentioned document (Regulations on Quality), we considered it appropriate to issue a separate by-law of St Petersburg University — the Order "On approval of the list of planned indicators for the internal evaluation of academic programmes and the methodology for their calculation". It brought together the list of criteria, their indicators and calculation methods. Moreover, this document was developed at St Petersburg University long before the accreditation monitoring indicators appeared in November 2021. Comparison of this document with the list of accreditation indicators for academic programmes of higher education, approved by Order No 1094 of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation dated 25 November 2021 shows that they are present in the list of our internal indicators, only some minor changes in formulations will be required in order to facilitate internal and external monitoring of these indicators.

We opened the Education Quality Monitoring Centre at St Petersburg University on behalf of Rector Nikolay Kropachev in 2020 in order to receive feedback from participants in the educational process and objective information on the achievement of planned indicators of the quality of education. The centre was established in order to determine and evaluate factors, affecting the quality of education. It became obvious that incorporating the calculated indicators for assessing quality and indicators that require expert evaluation or indicators that are assessed based on the results of surveys (students, academic staff, graduates, employers) is not efficient, primarily in terms of time and labour costs, system of their monitoring. This can be called an internal bureaucratic burden to the system. It would probably be efficient to divide the indicators for assessing the quality of academic programmes into indicators that can be assessed at the level of self-examination of academic programmes, and indicators that can be assessed with the involvement of an administrative resource as part of the functioning of the quality management system. I believe that improving the system of indicators for assessing the quality of academic programmes will become one of the main tasks of our educational policy in 2022. We do not approach this as an occasional force majeure event, but consider it as a permanent process of periodically reviewing quality assessment indicators in order to improve and adjust them to the requirements of the current state of education and the strategic guidelines of the University’s educational policy. I think that we will have to return to this issue more than once.

The policy, strategy and procedures for quality assurance, criteria and indicators for assessing the quality of education, education quality management at St Petersburg University are officially documented and available on the website .

When evaluating the quality according to the accreditation indicators, we are talking about state accreditation. How valuable is professional and public assessment for an educational organisation? Is it planned to take into account its results in the new model of state regulation of educational activities?

What I would like to stress is that back in 2013–2014, St Petersburg University set the task of focusing on the opinion of potential employers of our graduates and professional communities when assessing the quality of education. At that time, the first councils of academic programmes were opened, and state examination committees included representatives of employers. We have long understood that it is the professional and employer communities that should evaluate the quality of education that a university provides to its students. By the way, it was St Petersburg University that came up with a proposal to change the accreditation system based on the evaluation of the quality of education provided by employers. This proposal remains valid, and we will consistently promote this approach.

This approach is already partially taken into account. In particular, the meaning of professional public accreditation follows from its definition given in Article 96 of the Law of the Russian Federation "On Education in the Russian Federation": professional and public accreditation is a ‘recognition of the quality and level of training of graduates who have pursued these academic programmes in a particular organisation engaged in educational activities that meet the requirements of professional standards, labour market requirements for specialists, workers and employees of the relevant profile’. And further in the same Article we can read ‘information about the organisation carrying out educational activities, public accreditation or professional public accreditation shall be submitted to the accreditation body and considered during state accreditation’.

Consequently, the results of professional public accreditation cannot be ignored in the new model of state regulation of educational activities. As a matter of fact, they are also taken into account in the current model. In particular, they are considered and taken into account during state accreditation, used in state accreditation procedures, taken into account when forming the rankings of educational organisations, and in the procedures for distributing admission quotas of the government-funded places.

However, today there is a negative factor, that, in our opinion, significantly limits the possibilities and scope for using information on professional public accreditation in the state regulation of educational activities. We are talking about the unsatisfactory situation that has developed in the Russian system of registration and accounting of accrediting organisations, when they are registered in a declarative manner. Additionally, not all professional communities are interested in being represented in this registry list. There are many reasons for that, which you cannot discuss in a short interview.

This is one of the reasons why, in some cases, St Petersburg University prefers international accreditations to professional public accreditations. In contrast to the difficult situation in the national registry list, when the status of a registered member of the system of professional public accreditation (accreditor status) does not guarantee the quality of the expert evaluations, all criteria, procedures and regulations for the registration of accrediting agencies in international registries of accreditors, on the contrary, are clearly declared, transparent, open and, most importantly, there is a strict system of control over their activities and an institution for periodic certification of accreditors .

Despite the fact that as a result of the parliamentary hearings on the state regulation of educational activities in November 2018, recommendations were made to the Government of the Russian Federation on the modernisation of the automatic information system for professional public accreditation in terms of increasing the requirements for entering this registry list and exclusion unscrupulous organisations conducting professional public accreditation from the list. Today, there is still no registry list in Russia that meets all the necessary requirements for the status of an accreditor. This greatly complicates the normal development of the sector of professional public accreditation and reduces the interest of participation in such activities on the part of professional communities.

I think that discussions on this topic will continue within the framework of the activities of the working group on education in connection with the reform of the control and supervision activities, which we have been discussing today, and we will have the opportunity to take part in the discussion.