How does it happen? What mechanisms are used? How effective are they? We talk with Ekaterina Babelyuk, Vice Rector for Academic Affairs, about the role of students in improving the quality of education at the University.

The University students have of late been more actively discussing issues of learning and teaching; they are interested in the quality of education. Students want to know how the University’s own educational standards are developed, how variable subjects are included in the syllabus, and how their interests are taken into account. The government also pays a lot attention to the quality of education in institutions of higher education; it has approved a federal programme called “Engaging Students of Higher Education Institutions in Evaluation and Improvement of the Quality of Education”. In the middle of April, for instance, the Committee for the Quality of Education of the Youth Council of the Russian Ministry of Education and Science met. The committee discussed the development of student standards for quality of education, in addition to federal educational standards and professional standards (see Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting held on 27 April 2015, clause 6). We asked Ekaterina Babelyuk, the Vice Rector for Academic Affairs, to tell us how University students can influence the quality of education at St Petersburg University.

“Student involvement in education quality enhancement has been developing at St Petersburg University alongside the increasingly active participation of students in discussing and solving various issues of University life,” said Ekaterina Babelyuk. “In spring 2012, we established the University Student Council. This has become the main representative body of all University students. Recently, the fourth presidium of the St Petersburg University Student Council was elected (see A new presidium of the St Petersburg University Student Council was elected). By taking part in the work of student councils, young people discuss a range of issues.  Issues include those connected with the enhancement of education quality. Recently, a committee for academic affairs was established as part of the St Petersburg University Student Council, which prepares proposals on education quality enhancement (see Regulation on the Student Committee for Academic Affairs). Therefore, the Student Council ruled it unnecessary to create separate student councils for education quality, as had been recently suggested at the federal level. The student committee for academic affairs discusses questions and suggestions received from students and teachers who work on committees for academic affairs and methodological support of various St Petersburg University institutes and faculties.

“Starting in 2013, representatives of the St Petersburg University Student Council have been included in committees on academic affairs and academic councils of the institutes and faculties of St Petersburg University with the right to vote on decisions. Students of some disciplines actively use this right. They discuss issues of education quality enhancement with their “older” colleagues and can influence the decisions of committees on academic affairs and academic councils. Students are to receive meeting agendas from committees on academic affairs on a mandatory basis. For the purpose of getting student feedback, Marina Lavrikova, the Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs and Methodological Support, started holding meetings with student councils of St Petersburg University institutes and faculties (no less than five such meetings have taken place, and at least two hours (!) were allocated at such meetings to issues connected with teaching and learning). Academic affairs and methodological support are also discussed at meetings of students with directors of St Petersburg University institutes and deans of faculties.”

Interviewer: St Petersburg University academic and administrative officers regularly talk with students. What other forms of getting student feedback are used at our University?

Ekaterina Babelyuk: Apart from meetings with student councils, there is another efficient method — conducting surveys. For example, three year ago St Petersburg University started implementing its own standard of teaching foreign languages. A goal was set: to teach English to students until they reach at least the B2 CEFR level of foreign language proficiency. When some of the students took the final test of the English language, the St Petersburg University Student Council launched a student survey on the system of teaching English. The results of the survey were analysed and discussed at a meeting of the Student Council, where students provided suggestions and identified problems. As a result of the survey, it became clear that the students had not been sufficiently informed about new rules of English language learning. The majority of student proposals was analysed and later taken into account. All this led to the continuation of our work on improving foreign language teaching at St Petersburg University (see Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting held on 11 November 2013, clause 6).

Currently we are conducting a student survey on the quality of teaching. In 2014, several Rector’s meetings addressed the need to conduct such student surveys (see Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting held on 07 April 2014, clause 3; Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting held on 15 December 2014, clause 7). The questionnaire was developed by professional psychologists and sociologists; at the end of 2014, the text of the questionnaire was discussed on the St Petersburg University Internet portal in the “Public Discussion” section (see Discussion of the quality of education questionnaire). However, while we registered more than 1,400 page views, there were only 4 or 5 real suggestions! An order was issued on the introduction of mandatory regular surveys of students from all educational programmes, starting from April 2015. Unfortunately, in the past the effort to introduce student surveys met with strong opposition from some staff members. There have been, however, some positive developments: evaluation of the quality of teaching has been conducted at the school of management, faculties of sociology, psychology, journalism, and economics, and the effort has proved successful.

General St Petersburg University surveys will now be conducted regularly, so that we can obtain student feedback concerning the quality of teaching (see Questionnaire surveys of St Petersburg University students). The results will be independently processed by employees of the St Petersburg University Centre for Sociological and Internet Research. Then the results will be analysed by the research and teaching staff and the student councils, and opinions can be taken into account during competitions for academic positions. Each division or faculty of the University is going to develop its own specific recommendations to ensure a high quality of teaching. This is the first experience of a large-scale general survey on the issue of education quality (see Quality of teaching questionnaire survey).

Interviewer: Another method of active communication between the University administration, on one hand, and students and staff members, on the other hand, must be the Virtual Office?

Ekaterina Babelyuk: When evaluating education quality, one should take into account not only the content of lectures, seminars, or laboratory classes, but also the organisation of the educational process. In this respect, we have achieved good results with our Virtual Office. During the last year, more than 3,200 people from St Petersburg, Moscow, and other regions of Russia, the CIS countries, Europe, Asia and America have submitted their questions and requests. 28% of them were students, 17% − applicants, and 2% − doctoral students. Questions about the educational activity of the University constituted 67%. The Virtual Office on the St Petersburg University Internet portal has a special section entitled “Request results”. This section contains links to requests and the results that we have achieved thanks to students and staff members who are interested in the University and its development.

While surveys paint a general picture of education quality at the University and help in making decisions related to the entire system, requests addressed to the Virtual Office highlight both general and specific organisational problems of university services. This mechanism helps to identify latent problems and solve them. For example:

Many answers to the questions require a certain procedure for the development of an adequate decision. For instance, the Virtual Office received a request from a student who needed a letter of recommendation for enrolling in a Master’s Degree programme at a foreign university. In order to ensure that in the future students would know where and how they can get a letter of this kind, we have prepared and issued Order No 7929/1 of 29 December 2014 “On the procedure of preparing and issuing references for St Petersburg University students”. This issue was discussed at the Rector’s Meeting on January 19 (see Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting held on 19 January 2015, clause 3).

If the problem is difficult to solve, if the issue affects the interests of both students and staff members, a consultation with and participation of the university community is necessary for making the best administrative decision. For instance, students suggested that we should develop clear, easily comprehensible and convenient rules of enrolment for special courses. At the Rector’s Meeting held on 2 March, directors of the, institutes, and deans of the faculties were instructed to submit their proposals on the issue to the Director of the Institute of Philosophy, S. Dudnik (see Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting held on 02 March 2015, clause 5). The proposals were collected and consolidated; after that, a draft order concerning “Elective and Optional Courses” was prepared, which introduced changes in the Regulations for Main Educational Programmes of Higher and Secondary Professional Education at St Petersburg University. The draft order was published on the University website for the purpose of conducting a public consultation (see Public consultation on the procedure of choosing elective and optional courses). When everyone interested submits their suggestions and proposals, the final text of the order will be prepared and issued; it will then regulate the procedure of registration for special courses at the University.

Another way of communicating with members of the University is the meetings of the Rector and the Vice Rectors with students and staff during the office hours, which also address issues of education quality enhancement (see Requests and Complaints to the RectorReception of Visitors by E. BabelyukReception of Visitors by M. Lavrikova). There are also meetings of the Rector with students and our regular Friday meetings with representatives of student councils (see Student Council).

Interviewer: You have mentioned committees on academic affairs where students work together with teachers. Now representatives of potential employers begin to be included as members of such committees at the University. What is their role in education quality enhancement?

Ekaterina Babelyuk: The opinion of people who will ultimately become prospective employers for our graduates is important to us. These people can tell us what competences will be valuable in practical work. They can tell us beforehand where and how we should change the training of our students. For that purpose, the University has for quite a long time been inviting prospective employers to participate in the work of state examination boards. Now we are moving further and the process is developing in two ways. On one hand, directors of St Petersburg University institutes and deans of the faculties actively engage employers in the work of academic and research committees and the councils for educational programmes, encouraging them to participate in the life of the University. On the other hand, students take an active part in this process. Recently, for instance, students of the Applied Mathematics and Computer Science educational programme have for the first time – and on their own initiative − prepared a list of employers with whom they would like to undertake an internship. So we started working on singing internship agreements with employers and changing the curriculum. This was a very promising student initiative.

Interviewer: In April you participated in a meeting of the committee for education quality of the Youth Council of the Russian Ministry of Education and Science, which discussed the development of student standards of education quality…

Ekaterina Babelyuk: It is impossible to develop the free market of education services without creating a multilevel system for evaluating the efficiency and quality of education. For that purpose, the federal programme called “Engaging Students of Higher Education Institutions in Evaluation and Improvement of the Quality of Education” has been introduced. The list of the necessary criteria and methods of assessment are now being developed. Student evaluation of education quality is considered to be an efficient tool for the management of a higher education institution. The meeting of the committee for education quality of the Youth Council of the Russian Ministry of Education and Science discussed the development of student standards of education quality, in addition to federal and professional educational standards. It seems to me that a separate, independent student standard will contradict the legislation and it is not necessary... Our University has adopted its own educational standards for all educational programmes, and students actively participate in the development of these standards.

Interviewer: So far we have primarily discussed the content of the education process. The quality of education, however, as you have already mentioned, also depends on the quality of administration and management...

Ekaterina Babelyuk: Yes, we can only talk about high quality education when students are satisfied with the results and when the educational process is organised in such a way that students can make the best use of the limited time they have for their studies in an institution of higher education. Therefore, the efficiency of educational process organisation and the quality of facilities and equipment used are highly important as well. One possible useful tool could be a unified electronic timetable for all disciplines and subject-specialisations, which was introduced at St Petersburg University in September 2014 (see St Petersburg University Timetable). And starting from May of this year, we have conducted questionnaire surveys of students and teachers on the topic “The future of the electronic timetable” (see The future of the electronic timetable). Using the results of these surveys, we will be able collect, analyse and implement suggestions and proposals concerning the improvement of the electronic timetable.

In order to improve the premises and equipment for academic activities, which also influences the quality of education, St Petersburg University students are engaged in the following activities:

  • The committee on renting out real estate properties includes representatives of the Student Trade Union and representatives of student councils;
  • The committee on order placements includes representatives from the Trade Union of St Petersburg University staff, the Student Trade Union and student councils;
  • Representatives of student councils and trade unions are actively consulted with on issues of preparation and execution of repair work; they are included in all committees on quality assessment of repair work;
  • The design work on new student halls of residence on Korablestroiteley Street was discussed at a meeting with representatives of the student community;
  • When separate premises are rented out, representatives of student councils, as well as trade-union committees and bureaus, are encouraged to submit their proposals (for instance, where copying machines should be placed).

...We see that the quality of education is influenced by a lot of factors, from teacher qualification to the size of library holdings, the accuracy of the timetable, and many others... As for students, they are in a position to really influence many aspects of the quality of education at St Petersburg University.