High satisfaction levels for low quality education

Russia has seen a tremendous growth in student enrolments since the 1990s. More than 70% of people aged 17-22 enter higher education, which has basically become a social imperative for the majority of young people.

By 2010 Russia had become the second largest higher education system in the world in terms of the number of students per 100,000 population. The skyrocketing increase in student numbers stimulated the development of a private higher education sector – which had never existed in the USSR – but for the most part the major destinations for this diverse student body were post-Soviet higher education institutions.

Each of these – with a few exceptions – became much more internally differentiated than before: students with huge variation in readiness level came to study under the same roof, in the same class. To teach 20% of the best high school graduates is not the same as to teach 70% so adjustments had to be made.

How did these institutions respond to the new realities of universal higher education in terms of teaching and learning? How do Russian universities affect students and what kind of experience do students get once enrolled?

Student experience limited

The student learning experience is very limited in Russia, even at top-tier universities. Students are primarily exposed to traditional, but scalable, teaching methods and are rarely challenged intellectually. I conclude that students demonstrate a high level of satisfaction with their learning experience and do not worry about its quality.

I will rely on the results of two national student surveys administered by the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. The first is a 2013 survey of more than 4,000 undergraduate students majoring in economics and management at 11 leading Russian universities – hereinafter referred to as the EM Survey.

The second is a 2013 survey of a nationally representative sample of almost 3,000 undergraduate students within the annual Monitoring of Education Markets and Organisations Project – hereinafter referred to as the MEMO Survey.

Data from both surveys presents convincing evidence that the undergraduate student experience is primarily organised around passive learning. According to the MEMO Survey, an average student spends around 25 hours per week attending classes and 11 hours doing homework.

Traditionally, the curriculum in many Russian universities emphasises structured in-class learning: Soviet students in the late 1980s spent nearly the same amount of time on these activities. What do students actually do during these long hours of learning every week?

Passive learning

Well, at least for those majoring in economics and management we know that they spend most of the time writing down what the lecturer is dictating and-or copying down what’s written on the blackboard or projection screen and memorising course material (around 70% of students do that “often” or “very often”).

At the same time only 20% to 30% of students said they frequently applied theoretical knowledge to solve problems or critically assessed ideas, theories or methods. This balance between passive and active forms of learning does not change significantly during the course of study, although there might be some variation between disciplines.

Few internships

When students are so busy attending classes, there is not too much time left for extra-curricular activities: internships, field experience, student teaching, etc. Although all higher education institutions have internships as part of the curriculum, students see them as an inevitable formality rather than a source of knowledge and skills.

Instead, students prefer to start having a paid job as soon as possible: according to the MEMO Survey, they work on average eight hours per week – two to three hours for freshmen and up to 17 hours for seniors.

Being stuck between passive learning and a paid job at entry-level positions, students do not engage much in creative and intellectually challenging activities.

Limited student-faculty interaction

Another area that has suffered from massification is student-faculty interaction. According to the EM Survey, students do not communicate frequently with faculty members. Only 18% of students discussed assignments, ideas or concepts with a faculty member outside the classroom and only 6% talked about their career plans.

Individual feedback on assignments, either written or verbal, has become a luxury: only 17% of students in economics and management reported that they regularly received comments on their work from their lecturers.

The reasons behind such limited interaction between students and academics are not quite clear, but they are probably twofold: students do not have a high demand for such communication – and those who really want it usually do get it – and academics are overwhelmed with a high teaching load and large classes. In any case, such infrequent communication between students and faculty does not improve learning outcomes.

Tolerance for academic cheating

With few exceptions, Russian universities do not address the issues of academic cheating at an institutional level – such as plagiarism, falsification of term papers or even various forms of ‘gratification’ in return for a good grade. So cheating is blossoming among students and their lecturers, reinforcing corruption practices outside of academia.

According to the MEMO Survey, 14% of the respondents reported that they had cheated during exams and 4% of them had bought at least one mid-term or term-paper or thesis. The EM Survey confirms these results and provides even larger estimates for the number of students who falsify their mid-term and term papers.

Moreover, even those who do not cheat are tolerant of the cheating of others. When asked what a professor should do if he or she finds out that a student is cheating on an exam, nearly half of the students majoring in economics and management chose the option ‘Warn a student to stop doing that, but nothing more’.

The proponents of more serious punishments, such as giving such a student an unsatisfactory grade or expelling him or her from university, constitute a minority.

These expectations correspond to the actual behaviour of academics: according to the MEMO Survey of academics, the majority usually just give cheaters a warning or lower their exam grade. There are many reasons for such tolerance of academic cheating and some of them could easily be found beyond the higher education system.

Another possible explanation is that cheating has become a response to boring and meaningless education: “students cheat when they are cheated”.

High satisfaction

Paradoxically, in general students feel positive about their higher education experience. More than 80% of those majoring in economics and management are satisfied with the learning environment at their institutions. Two thirds are satisfied with their educational choice.

There could be many interpretations of what students actually mean when they report high satisfaction: they are satisfied that they are not challenged or even bothered by the university on their way towards a higher education degree; they are truly satisfied with the quality of their learning experience; or they just do not expect higher education institutions to be intellectually stimulating and transformational environments and the reality meets their expectations.

In any case, with such an attitude it is difficult to expect that students will become change agents in Russian higher education. So far, they have hardly put any pressure on universities to revise their curricula and teaching methods.

Igor Chirikov is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Education, Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia, and SERU-International managing director at the Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley, USA. Email: This article was first published in the current edition of Higher Education in Russia and Beyond.