What Determines The Quality And Effectiveness Of The Higher Education? (Part 1)

I´ve had a chance to study at 4 different universities in 4 countries. Hence, the higher education is an important and interesting subject to me.

I cannot say that “university tourism” was part of my plans, but I don’t regret anything. Far from it, I actually think I hit the jackpot; not everyone has the opportunity to learn for a long time, in different contexts and circumstances.

During this time, I´ve collected a lot of observations about the organization of the system of higher education in different countries.

Every place, where I have studied, had a different philosophy, the approach to teaching and the learning process in general.

Any educational system (like any other system) has its own merits and drawbacks. Furthermore, one can distinguish between objective and subjective qualities. For example, it´s obvious that the good infrastructure of the university is an objective advantage, whereas the absence thereof is an objective disadvantage.

And then, there are many subjective aspects that for some people may seem as a merit of the system, and for someone as a drawback. These are the most interesting ones since the subjective qualities build the philosophy of each educational system.

In the following posts, I´ll try to explain to you how everything is organized, in the countries and universities where I studied.  And from this, you can imagine what an ideal university would look like.


My observations are mainly limited to legal education. It remains classical throughout the world and has little place for creativity and innovation approaches. The Law Faculty is not the best place for identifying system features.

Comparing countries, universities and students, we will search for the answer to the question:

“What determines the quality and effectiveness of higher education?”

Part 1. Accessibility of education and student motivation

Higher education cannot guarantee the student´s quality of knowledge and skills, in case if that student does not want to study. So, it turns out that the quality of education is, for the most part, determined by the student, not by the university. It is actually true to a certain extent, but I believe it is not simple as that.

The motivation of the student largely depends on three factors that determine the value he gives to the education:

  • – how hard is it to get into university
  • – how much effort do you need to complete the studies
  • – which prospects of success do you have after the graduation

In an ideal world, access to higher education must be limited (meaning that one need to make efforts in order to enter the university), but at the same time possible. And the more difficult is the access and the learning process, the more prospects higher education should open.

Every university where I have studied had tuition-free programs.


In Russia, there is a competition with a number of places “on the budget”, meaning that the State paid the tuition fees instead of the student, and another number of “paid” places. Once you get a tuition-free place in the university, you can relax – the university is not interested in dropping you out: the money from the state is allocated for that place and university needs that money. 

In general, the student must “make an effort” in order to drop out of the university.  It is not common at all in the Russian universities.


The situation is quite different in France, there, in order to be admitted to the law school you need to score good points at the final exams (baccalauréat), but the law provides that the higher education must be accessible to all.  


So, in theory, anyone who has passed final school exams can study at the university and have a right to a free education. However, and obviously, there are too many people who want to get a university degree, and it is difficult for universities to carry the burden imposed by law. At present, in France, there are intense discussions (for French + for English) about the possibility of introducing a sort of “selection” of the first-year students.

France is facing here an essential dilemma.

  • It doesn’t want to give up on its fundamental republican principle laid down during the Revolution and so dear to French hearts (= liberal, neutral, secular education that is free of charge).
  • And on the other hand, at the moment it is impossible to keep the free access to education without losing its competitivity.

At my faculty at Strasbourg University, each year there are around 1200 freshmen, divided into three groups. Only 30% of them pass to the second year, the rest of students either remain in the same year or change the faculty.

I don’t have a detailed statistics from the faculty, but from my own experience, I can say that every single year starting with the Bachelor´s Program and up to the Master´s Program, approximately 50% are dropping out or repeating the year.

Rumor has it, that professors have a special formula that requires a certain percentage of students to fail because the system simply can’t digest a large number of students wishing to become a lawyer. I don’t trust the conspiracy theories and the existence of such formula, but I can easily believe that professors do have a kind of “prescription” to make it as difficult as possible for a student to pass an exam.

As a result, studying at a French university, and more particularly at the faculty of law, turns into a struggle for survival and strong competition between students. This can be both motivational and demotivational.

Basically, instead of the selection of students at the first year, France has installed the selection process after the first year and up until the graduation.

Wouldn’t be better to follow the example of Germany in this matter?


In Germany, higher education, as in France, is currently free of charge (some regions like Baden-Würtemberg have a fee of 1,500 euros a semester for the foreign students, but even this money does not correspond to the real price of the higher education).

Faculties and study programs fall into two categories:

  • study programs without any admission procedure, i.e. any student who has received a German Abitur has the right to a place.
  • high-demand programs, that have a numerus clausus system. Each year, for each high-demand program, the score giving the right to study is determined. The score is the average grade from the German Abitur (final examinations and school grades). There are no “paid” places, as in Russia. You either pass with your score or not.

As a result, any person has an inalienable right to access to higher education, although the high-demand programs are not overcrowded, as in France. The number of students is limited in advance, so the professors can concentrate on actual teaching instead of trying to “un-crowd” the class.

The Netherlands

I’m not familiar with the admission system in the Netherlands because I studied there only for a year and within the exchange program. I know that the Dutch and European students have to pay tuition fees of around 2,000 euros a year, and foreigners around 10,000 euros a year. There are a variety of scholarships, partially or completely covering the tuition fees and the costs of living. I had a scholarship from the European Union (Erasmus), which fully covered my studies and a small regional scholarship that partly covered my living expenses (it was small, but it has balanced the cost difference between France and the Netherlands).

When it comes to the admission to the university, according to Wikipedia, the rules of admission to the Dutch university are almost identical to those in Germany.

Most of Europe and Russia are fortunate to have access to free (or almost free) education. Everyone has a chance to get a higher education, regardless of the income of the parents. Any person can theoretically make use of the upward social mobility.

However, it´s a pity that many students don’t realize the “real value” of education. In contrast, the university degree in the US or UK can cost a fortune. Even if there are some opportunities to get a scholarship or a job that fully or partially covers the tuition fee, it appears to me (an outside observer) that students understand better the value of higher education.

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Posted by m.migalina

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