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Universities Should Help Students, Not Show Them the Door

Concerned about discipline and uniformity, teachers at Russian universities tend to squeeze out students perceived as not fitting in with the academic culture, suggests a study by Ivan Gruzdev, Elena Gorbunova, and Isak Frumin

Dropping out of a university course in Russia is often a forced decision for the student – and not necessarily a consequence of poor academic performance. Problems sometimes arise when students refuse to leave behind the ways and values of their former community or family life and to play by newrules, ending up being rejected by the university.

In their paper Students Dropping Out of Russian Universities: Defining the Problem, analysts at the HSE Institute for Educational Studies’ Research and Development Department Ivan Gruzdev and Elena Gorbunova and academic supervisor at the Institute for Educational Studies Isak Frumin, see a solution in helping students to fit inand in promoting discipline without resorting to expulsion.

Dropping Out in America vs. Getting Rejected in Russia

The authors compare drop-out patterns in American and Russian universities.

Dropping out of an American university appears to be the student's choice, while in Russia it is usually the university that passes the final verdict.

Harvard, Stanford, and other top universities boast around 95% completion rates and low drop-outrates as proof of their prestige and appeal to young people.

The phenomenon of students dropping out is regarded as a system failure and is addressed through special programs, such as tutoring systems, and targeted assistance for students at risk of dropping out.

While Russia does not have reliable university drop-out statistics available, estimates vary from the 21% reported by OECD [Education at a Glance, 2010] to the 10% reported by the national statistical agency.

According to the authors, an average university with a socio-economic focus in Moscow will reject 19.1% of admitted students before they complete their studies, while the drop-out rates for an average Moscow-based technical university and its regional branch will reach 23.9% and 19.7%, respectively.

High drop-out rates pose problems for universities as well as students but have yet to be addressed in Russia.

A declining student population means less funding for the university and sends a negative signal about the school's competitiveness.

Reducing Academic Failure Can Curb the Drop-Out Rate

Some of the challenges caused by students dropping out include:

For the student: Dropping out before course completion means a major change ofone’s career path – either enrolling in a lower-ranking university or getting a job – even though many dropouts come back and complete their studies.

For the university: Today, Russian universities are financed based on the number of students they enroll; therefore, when students dropout less funds are available to pay the faculty and the school’s competitiveness suffers.

For society, the economy, and the state: The demographic decline of the 1990s resulted in thecurrent shortage of students at some universities, causing universities to compete for students and to admit and keep poor performers – who are likely to end up as incompetent graduates – just to secure funding for the university.

Therefore, a zero drop-out rate may be as bad as an excessive drop-out rate. The authors believe that reducing the proportion of underachievers could help universities retain most students without compromising the quality of education.

More than half of the dropouts, they explain, have left due to academic failure.

Dropouts Often Come Back

A survey of 194 students, conducted by the authors in 2011 at different departments of a Moscow-based university, produced a number of insights concerning student dropouts.

First, many dropouts simply suspended their studies rather than give up on a university degreeof all formerly expelled students, 74% were taking a university course at the time of the survey, 40% at the same university and 34% at some other university.

Moreover, of the 26% who were not studying at the time of the survey, 10% had already completed their higher education and received their degree, while of the 16% who did not have a degree, 12% were planning to go back to school. Thus only 4% of the former students really dropped out, neither coming back to complete a university course nor planning to do so.

Second, dropping out of a less prestigious university made it harder for applicants to get readmitted to any other university, while dropouts from high-ranking research universities had no problem getting admitted to a lower-ranking school.

Third, students often felt they had been forced to drop out and had not been given enough of a chance to continue their studies. Some said that they had tried to hold on but were rejected anyway for noncompliance with mere formalities.

Those Who Do Not Fit In Get Rejected

According to the authors, being perceived as 'stylistically incompatible' or 'different' may be an important reason for rejection. As the main guardians of the corporate academic culture, teachers are often keen on maintaining homogeneity and rejecting people and things seen as alien. "Teachers perpetuate the norms of their university or a certain profession by handing out poor academic grades and using disciplinary tools against students who do not meet these norms," the authors explain.

By doing so, these teachers act as gatekeepers, denying certain students access to a profession.

Promoting Discipline without Resorting to Expulsion

"In a situation where universities seek to avoid high drop-out rates without compromising the quality of education, they need reliable data on why and how students dropout," the authors argue.

Based on the findings, coming up with better academic performance assessment criteriaand finding ways to discipline students without causing them to dropout may be useful approaches.


Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, December 13, 2013