Listening to students on how to improve universities

Education is at the centre of many debates these days. Education experts conduct surveys and do research based on current knowledge and data. Statistics are all well and good, but wouldn't it be better to hear what students have to say instead of conducting dry fact-finding exercises?

One way of finding out what they have to say is through essay writing. Most educational institutions hold essay contests and these can help with information gathering and analysis. Of course, the main idea of such contests is to improve students’ writing skills, analytical thinking and their ability to argue their point. And yet student essays could also help specialists to take a fresh look at education issues.

When OmniPapers launched their international essay contest, "The Ideal Higher Education Model for My Country", the goal was to get an idea of what students saw as potential improvements in higher education as well as to motivate undergraduates to change their attitude toward academic writing.

The contest gained widespread currency, numerous .edu websites and media publications wrote about it, students from more than 50 countries took part and 218 entries were assessed.

It's clear that this won't lead to major changes in the global education system but it does allow students to highlight some key issues. And it turned out that some students offered useful suggestions for improving the system.


What emerged were some important themes, for instance, funding. The majority of United States students considered the high cost of education the number one problem, while their peers from the Former Soviet Union – including the contest winner Elena Tacu from Moldova – tended to mention the high level of bribery in education institutions of their countries.

Elena says that the education system "encourages socially destructive behaviour in future specialists – doctors, teachers, judges – people who hold decisions and lives in their hands".

To solve the problems, students suggest "beginning with one step back and three steps forward". One step back means undoing all that has been done before and the three steps forward include focusing on three of the main parts of the system – admissions, curricula/campus life and government involvement.

US students suggest "a complete overhaul of the current higher education model" (Anne Hentzen, University of Missouri-Kansas City) and "the implementation of a government mandate that requires all undergraduate students to attend school in their home state" (Harmony Jackson, Goucher College) to lower tuition costs. They hope it will encourage state governments to fund local universities and discourage them from spending money on recruiting students from other states.

Curricular issues

The second place winner, Karl Nielsen from the United Kingdom, believes that the current approach to education in his country "puts the cart before the horse": it lacks an overarching sense of purpose and is therefore inefficient. He proposes a heterogenous system, saying "the better approach is for each university to focus on a particular area". At the same time, he suggests that universities should include a course in civic responsibility as an extra element.

Other students write about old ways of teaching (India), the out-of-date curricula that are the legacy of the Soviet education system (Belarus), weak course objectives and lack of digital facilities (Bangladesh) and a lack of creative methods of teaching (Ukraine).

Canadian students refer to the summary of a recent American College Health Association report saying that modern universities' lecture style "is not conducive to good mental health": 17.3% of students in Ontario struggle with depression while 69.8% of students feel lonely in universities.

"The system we have now does not help students, it is neither free nor fair. The government needs to change course," says Bill Wirtz, Université de Lorraine, France.

As improvements, students recommend "smaller classes with a maximum size of 50 students" (Canada) that would allow professors to have meaningful conversations, "giving teachers the liberty to try innovative ideas" (Brazil) and aligning course objectives to "industry trends and markets" (India).

The third place winner, Silviya Damyanova from Bulgaria, suggests giving "opportunities to students to visit different companies which partner with the university". That would help young people acquire more contacts, knowledge and experience which would help them after they graduate.

Teachers matter

Another timely issue is teachers' attitudes toward the study process. In particular:
  • • "The concentration on grades rather than knowledge" (India),
  • • Asking students to "study everything by heart without understanding the material" (Ukraine),
  • • Teaching "dry statistics from textbooks" (Bulgaria) instead of real life experience,
  • • Forgetting about "different learning styles" (Brazil), and
  • • "Looking for one type of student only" (USA).
Hence, "many students graduate without the necessary skills and knowledge" (Takashi Fukushima, Japan). Indian and US undergraduates agree that such an approach creates a "gap between what is learned in the classroom and what is required in the real world".

One improvement could be yearly updated curricula with "the focus on complex thinking such as experiential learning, problem-solving and situational decision-making", says Benjamin Liu, University of Western Ontario, Canada.

A participant from India, Jasbeen Chunara, suggests teachers "test the practical knowledge of students through internships, extracurricular activities and volunteer experiences". Alexey Ivanov from Russia adds that "studying should be more creative and diverse".

US students highlight another problem, which is "the reduced level of the teaching staff". This happens because young specialists are difficult to attract (because of low salaries) and experienced educators have no opportunity to develop their teaching skills.

One improvement could be giving "an equal number of rewards to professors and administrative staff" (Canada) as well as including "more education classes for teachers" (Japan).

"Professors work even harder than some of those in administrative positions. So, the salaries of administrative staff, departmental heads and sports coaches would need to be lowered," says Anne Hentzen, University of Missouri-Kansas City, USA.

These are some of the suggestions from students around the world. Through heeding the words of younger generations, educational institutions could help boost students’ chances of success.

Emily Johnson is community coordinator of the OmniPapers blog.