St Petersburg University has held a roundtable discussion that focused on what education is today. Is education a service that provides a customer with an ’educational product’ or a social mission? How we will answer this question will help us solve the challenges relating to law enforcement in education, and may lead to bringing changes into the current legislation.

The event brought together the directors of higher schools and institutions, and representatives of the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation in research and educational policy, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Higher Education and Science, Federal Antimonopoly Service, and Federal Service for Supervision in Education and Science.

The moderator of the roundtable discussion was Sergei Belov, who serves as the Dean of the Faculty of Law at St Petersburg University. Considering differences in how we approach legislation in education should be complex, he explained. He added that education was primarily one of the constitutional guarantees. It is stipulated in Article 43 of the Fundamental Law of the Russian Federation. Rector of St Petersburg University Nikolay Kropachev said, ‘What underpins a wide range of relations, including the relations between academic staff and the university, between students and academic staff, and between the university and its owner, is a constitutional and legal norm.’

The roundtable discussion highlighted that education was not about purchasing knowledge and skills. Acquiring knowledge and expertise, skills and competences should go together with moral rearing, immerging in traditions, and forming cultural values. ‘According to the Convention on Human Rights, all human beings are born equal in rights. Yet it is evident that we are witnessing a huge inequality globally. In this respect, education may serve as a social lift. Everyone should have an opportunity to gain education by participating in equal and fair competitions. This is what is guaranteed by the Constitution,’ said Igor Artemiev, assistant to the Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation. Yet, as Mr Artemiev put it, we are facing discrimination today, and what the government should do is to perform a compensatory function preventing trade and monetary relations from taking a dominant position in society. In this respect, Mr Artemiev supposes that what should underpin education is public and legal mechanisms, while they, in their turn, should support civil law relations. As he put it, attempting to prioritise money over moral values in the 1990s failed to lead to a better education. Quite the opposite. ’The world that revolves around money intruded into education where there are other values which are more important than money. Failing to preserve them may lead to a catastrophe.’

Professor at St Petersburg University Nelly Diveeva agreed: ‘We can’t regard education merely in the economic perspective that focuses primarily on consumerism in society and personal interests of consumers who are gaining education. As stipulated in the World Declaration on Higher Education for the Twenty-First Century adopted in Paris in 1998, society has become increasingly knowledge-based. Education should go beyond economics and be enriched by moral and ethical values.’

Our liabilities and responsibilities in education cannot be unilateral, said the Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Directorate for Science and Education Policy Yulia Linskaya. Those who are engaged in education (the state, institutions that provide a social service on behalf of the state, and students), should have reciprocal rights and obligations. We must ensure a balance between obligations and responsibilities of all who are involved. The state must provide all necessary resources to state universities, while the universities provide high-quality education and ensure the wellbeing of students. Into the model of legal regulation in education should be incorporated a public and legal component.

Searching for what the legal nature of education is may lead to a confrontation between two approaches, i.e. private-legal and public-legal, said Professor at St Petersburg University Natalia Sheveleva. This may lead to legal collisions. It is not always clear as to what norms we should apply if a conflict arises. Yet, as she put it, we must primarily rely on the public-legal approach, ‘Let’s take an example. A student was enrolled on a fee-paying basis. Later, he was transferred to a government-funded place. Yet he failed to study on the government-funded place and was consequently transferred to study on a fee-paying basis. Indeed, the bases were different. Yet was the content of education different as well? Definitely, not. The university must provide the same «service» as it did before. How he was brought up was not different. Besides, he used the same library, halls of residence, and stadium.’ Among the top priorities of any university is to create an environment to adopt a holistic approach to personal development, she added. The ultimate goal of education is to ensure adult literacy, adequate labour market, and high living standards. The state is interested in boosting the intellectual potential of our society. It therefore uses a wide range of legal tools. Among them are prohibited activities and negative freedoms, positive prescriptions, federal state educational standards, and guarantees for specific groups of citizens.

Yet education is a social service too. ‘Not neglecting its social mission that education is to fulfil and constitutional-legal aspects it is based on, education has civil and legal forms, including agreements,’ said Associate Professor at St Petersburg University Andrey Pavlov.

Today, education is flexible, competitive, and diverse, said the experts. This can benefit both subjects which provide services and citizens who get the services. They can choose from a wide range of options as to what will: benefit then in the most efficient and effective way; increase their social position; make them attractive on the labour market; be quite easy in terms of how easy they can acquire it; and ensure that quality of education they gain corresponds to the money they spent, mostly in terms of the time, resources, and personal endeavours than regarding money as sound investment into future. Everyone can invest time, resources, and money into education that they can get most of. Educational institutions are constantly changing to accommodate specific needs and requirements of what is on demand on the market. Among the current trends in education is industrialisation of education.

What else underpins education today is digitisation. There was a surge in digitisation in 2020 when we had to move rapidly online and assess learning results and outcomes in a distance mode. Our legislation is a little bit behind what is trending today, and we have to bridge this gap, said the experts.

The roundtable discussion concluded to continue debates on the platform provided by the Federal Antimonopoly Service.