In the previous part, I compared different educational systems when it comes to the access to higher education and motivation of students.
Today, I´ll juxtapose the different learning environments that I have experienced myself and that, in my opinion, could play a role in determining the quality of education.
Student’s autonomy and flexibility in curriculum
In each country, the approach to the education process is more or less different.
In Russia, every student has the same set of subjects (curriculum), which could not be changed, except for a few optional courses. The schedule is predetermined in advance and is the same for all. (I might be wrong here since I have studied in Russia only for two years).
Lecture and seminar attendance is compulsory.
There is a little place to the autonomy and flexibility in the Russian university: everything is predetermined by the dean’s office and professors. You even have a list of books and chapters that you’ll need in order to prepare your homework.
In France, the level of student’s autonomy is slightly higher. Starting from the first semester of the first year, there is already a possibility of choosing some of the subjects in the module. In the second year, even if students still have compulsory subjects from the three branches of law (criminal, public, private), but there is already an opportunity to specialize in one branch. After the second year, a student who decided to specialize, let´s say, in private law, can totally exclude subjects from criminal and public law from his program.
Lecture attendance is entirely voluntary. Professor does not really care whether you have attended every single lecture or you’ve missed it all. Seminar attendance, however, is mandatory and if you miss three seminars in one semester without a medical certificate, you can not present the exam and hence, pass to the next year.
The student himself can decide whether to attend a lecture or to use the time more effectively for the self-education. At the same time, the learning framework is rather limited, you can select courses from the list, but you can not build the time schedule yourself.
And, finally, it is Germany, that I found the highest level of student’s autonomy. The law studies in Germany will be covered in a separate article since the system is really special. In a nutshell, the law students have a list of subjects that they need to pass. Furthermore, there are several stages: you cannot take subjects from the “Hauptstudium” during the “Grundstudium”, but within each stage, you are completely free to organize your educational program. Even if there is a list of subjects divided between semesters, this list is purely recommendatory. It can be used for the orientation but is not binding on the students.
Each semester you decide how many subjects you have. For example, in one semester you want to work and gain experience, then you pick just one subject/exam, and vice versa, draw up a schedule including more subjects than in the recommended list. The duration of studies is also individual for everyone.
In some faculties, the same lecture is held several times a week so that you can choose the time that suits you best.
I believe that ultimately such a system is one of the best ones. However, without self-discipline, the ability to plan and without a great degree of autonomy, is difficult, if not impossible, to succeed in this kind of system. The university provides all the tools for the effective education but is not responsible for it.
Even in my master’s program, everyone has their own path and their schedule. Everyone passes various exams at different times and graduates the master’s degree in a different period of time. Among all the students on my program, I was the only one who thought it would be more convenient to finish the entire program in a year or 2 semesters. Some people distribute exams and papers between 3 semesters, others between 6 semesters and so on.
And ultimately everyone has his own rights and reasons for this. Some students stretch the program because of the work, others because of difficulties with the language and the new system, etc. There is no one single right solution.
d. The Netherlands
When it comes to the level of autonomy in the Netherlands is somewhere between France and Germany.
Disclaimer: this paragraph is the most subjective. I formed some impressions based on my experience, that I share in this article, but I would never claim to have the “only” truth.
As far as I remember, the study load in Russia was pretty low. Perhaps, this is due to the fact that after “relaxed” time in Russia, I move to France where I experienced a strong level of stress due to the studies.
Students have some homework to do for the seminars that will not be graded. Therefore, it is common to twiddle one´s thumbs during the semester (ok, maybe not everyone, but I speak for myself), and during the exam period to skip night’s sleep to learn desperately the material that should have been learned before.
Every week we had to write legal papers for different seminars (TD). It was always either a commentary on the Court´s decision, a “dissertation” (a legal essay) or a case. Each paper had about 3-6 pages. Furthermore, we had a list of materials to read for each seminar – articles of legal doctrine and court decisions with an average of 50-100 pages of reading per seminar and per week (Normally, I read about 300 pages of legal texts a week only for my studies). These “materials” were supposed to help writing the homework.
Each tutor had his own rules, but normally you need to write papers in order to “pass” a seminar. The grade for the seminar consisted of the grades for the papers + of an oral participation in the seminar, and this grade would account for 25% of the final grade. However, if you skipped 3 seminars or didn’t write papers, there is no possibility to compensate that with an excellent exam grade.
Honestly, the study load in France was the worst throughout my entire academic life. I recall the days when I was at the university and in the library from 8 am to 10 pm, and the day was that busy, so I literally couldn’t find the proper time to eat. And this was not during the examination period, but rather a routine studying process.
The Golden Mean. Who is responsible the study load? The student itself, who, as I mentioned earlier, is fully responsible for the entire educational process. Seminars (AG) might have homework but not a mandatory one. Instead, the papers are written during the “vacation time”. The vacation time is very relative, it is called as “vorlesungsfreie Zeit”, the i.e. period without lectures. This time is used for 1) writing legal papers, 2) internships. So what about the “real” holidays? Since the student is free to decide on how to organize his schedule, it is perfectly possible to find time for a one-week trip.
The problem, however, is that if a student perceives such “freedom” and “flexibility” in the university as an excuse to sit back and relax, then it is pretty difficult, if not impossible, to complete the law (or any) studies in the German university. One should be able not only to organize the time but also to shape the entire educational process, to search by yourself for the appropriate literature and information. For the professor, only the final result has a real value. Studying in the German university reminds me the “self-education” where only the acquired knowledge will be tested.
It seems to me that it is possible to study in Germany without experiencing any major stress. At the beginning of the year, it is important to build a precise plan of the whole educational program, preferably defining what you will be studying every week. The system and the regularity are the keywords of the German education. If you stick to the plan, the results of exams will be quite predictable.
Communication with professors
The figure of the teacher varies greatly by country. Two examples of extremes and one – the golden mean (again it is very subjective, and again Germany is in the middle).
Here the tutor, and especially the professor – is a supreme being (almost a God). A somewhat snobbish attitude, no desire to communicate. It’s really hard to get to the professor here. The maximum you can do is to come after the lecture with a question. They don’t answer emails, there is no possibility to just come by into the office of the professor.
The function of the professor is to provide students with information from an authoritative source. That’s about it. (Also they have to give grades for the exam).
Here is something completely opposite to France. The professor is the student’s friend, his coach, and mentor. During the lecture, everyone has the right to free speech and opinion. Lectures are, rather, a dialogue than a monologue, as in France.
Each professor has its office hours when you can come to his office and discuss any question. Only in the Netherlands, you can easily imagine the situation when a student goes to drink coffee with a professor during a break. The professor also readily reply the emails and generally are interested in the student and his further career path.
The Netherlands is one of the countries where people are getting very happy when the sun is out. It was here that I heard the professor’s proposal to give a lecture on a meadow on the campus to enjoy the sunny weather.
Such a big difference in the attitude of professors in France and in the Netherlands is related to two factors: 1) the mentality and 2) the teacher’s attitudes toward students.
As I wrote in the previous part, the universities in France are overcrowded. The professor simply does not have the opportunity to get to know students personally and to go out with them to drink coffee. But the mentality also plays an important role. No one canceled the stereotypical snobbery of the French, as well as the open-mindedness of the Dutch.
In Germany, professors treat students not as arrogant as they do in France, but are not as close as in the Netherlands. There is a respectful attitude from both sides.
With the teacher hardly you can discuss any TV-series or personal things, but you can safely go with any questions related to law, or for the professional advice. The professors also have their office hours, and each professor has several assistants who can solve minor problems or questions if he is absent.
During the lectures, German professors, like the Dutch, tend to ask students’ opinions. What amuses me, is that even if you´ve made a nonsense comment during the lecture, the professor will try to find at least some grain of common sense in your words. And will be very gentle and politically correct when correcting your mistake. It’s funny to me because I immediately imagine the reaction of the French professor to student´s nonsense → there would be zero-tolerance.
In the next part (or parts, who knows), I will compare exams in different countries, as well as university infrastructure, sports, students´ social life, extracurricular activities and internship/practice.
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