Size Does Matter

Novinite Insider » EDITORIAL | Author: Ivan Dikov |June 9, 2008, Monday // 00:00
Bulgaria: Size Does Matter Photo by Nadya Kotseva (Sofia Photo Agency)

I have always claimed that in order to make Bulgaria prosperous any government needs to do two things - build highways, and fix the educational system...

On Monday the Council of Presidents of Bulgarian Universities complained the Education Ministry had fined their institutions because they systematically admitted more students than their quota allowed...

Oddly enough, probably by mere chance (I can't imagine there could be some logical and prudent thoughts in this institution thanks to all the "good" stuff I've seen from them), this time the Education Ministry does seem to have a point. It is actually touching upon a critical issue for the quality of education - namely, CLASS SIZE.

Having attended as an undergraduate both one of Bulgaria's top universities, and one of the top universities in the United States, I can't fail to point out one marked difference - while schools in America deliberately try to keep classes small in size, Bulgarian institutions do their best to admit several time more students than their classrooms can accommodate...

The benefits of small classes are more than clear - you get to receive way more attention on part of the professors and to interact with them, you get to have much greater opportunities to raise your thoughts and to set them on discussion in class... Indeed, moderately small class size is a blessing.

In my college in the US I had two or three classes with about 100 students but these were exceptions. Most of the time the classes I took had about 10-12 students, with some having as few as 4 or 5. Needless to say, the smaller size pressures you much more to prepare for class, and gives you a better opportunity to get assessment of your work.

In contrast, in the Bulgarian university where I studied for one year, I was surprised to discover that even though the school had said it would admit 50 students in my major (the system is obviously different from the one in America), there were over 100 who showed up the first day of class.

There was hardly enough room for all of us in the classrooms to the extent that some had to stand up at the back, and two or three even had to listen to the lectures from the outside. You had to arrive really early in order to get a seat. Obviously, this rather uncomfortable situation did not contribute to the good quality of the education...

In the recent years, not only the 45 (!) Bulgarian universities but also many of the so called prestigious high schools have increased dramatically the number of applicants they admit so that many can't even find enough students to fill all the open spots they have declared despite the lack of adequate facilities to train them.

These moves have been happily approved by the Education Ministry, with the Minister recently stating the Bulgarian universities had the capacity to admit and train 6 000 more students!

To put it concisely, the present situation where literally everyone who applies is admitted even to the top schools, universities and high schools alike, shatters totally any remains of high-quality education in Bulgaria.

It devalues severely the respective diploma, it removes all sort of competition that is otherwise supposed to stimulate the students to achieve better results, and it forces them to crowd in order to use many extremely limited resources. I can never forget how in my Bulgarian university, the whole class of 100 or more students had to read the same books of which the library possessed only one copy... In that case it was - first come to the library, first serve...

Why is this idiocy! Why do you need to admit more students than you could train properly? What good is this?

The best explanation that comes to my mind is lack of educational management capacity combined with bureaucratic inadequacy. For one thing, I am certain many of the people that make the decision to admit more students can hardly comprehend their consequences. The Bulgarian educational management seems to be on the level of the mid 1980s - some 20 years behind the global trends.

At the same time there is the idiotic requirement that you need at least 16 students in order to form one class. This bureaucratic invention has led to the closing down of many schools around the country because of the demographic crisis, the effect being that many school directors and faculty are willing to admit any kid only to save their institution from losing the required number, and respectively to save their jobs.

What is to be done? Abolish the dumb minimum class size requirement completely. Institute prudent restrictions with respect to university and high school admissions. This is the only right way to keep those from not belonging in an educational institution from spoiling the process there.

To be completely honest, after the first several weeks, many of the 100 or so students in my major in my Bulgarian university just stopped attending the classes. There were some 30-40 of us remaining, mostly those who really cared. This is sort of a natural regulation but the school's resources were still hardly adequate even for us. Plus, the great chaos reemerged every time there were tests and exams and everyone decided to rush in to class.

Many things with respect to improving education require a lot of money. But limiting the class size to sensible levels requires just a little bit of brains....

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