‘I Can Continue Helping Students’
Ivan Chernyavsky, HSE Student Ombudsman, who recently resigned after holding this post for a year, spoke to the HSE News Service about the results of his time in office.
— What’s it like being a student ombudsman?
— The most interesting thing about the ombudsman’s role is that it places you somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea. The students push you to solve their problems, and the administrators, at least until they meet you in person, view you as an activist who hampers their work. And all the while you have no official authority.
— And how did you solve the problems that were brought to you?
— I didn’t solve them alone. We addressed the administration together with the students. Solutions were successful when the administrative staff would meet us halfway.
In some cases, the students lacked the necessary persistence to insist on achieving the best solution. For example, some requests I received were related to transfers from fee-paying places to state-funded ones. Provided there are grounds for such a transfer, there shouldn’t be any problems. Sometimes it was enough to consult the student; they went to the study office, submitted an application, and were transferred. But at some faculties, we faced a situation in which study offices told the students that they didn’t stand a good chance of being transferred, thus dissuading them from submitting applications. Most often the denials were unreasonable. We had to interfere, and the problem was resolved successfully.
— What time of year was your busiest time as an ombudsman?
— During exam periods. Clearly, if a student is on the verge of being expelled, they may be tempted to do anything they can to keep their place at the university. During times like this we also saw some misleading requests, and instances when students tried to whitewash the situation. For example, they complained that they failed an exam, but forgot to say that an earpiece was seen falling fell out of their ear during it. Luckily, there have only been a few cases like this at HSE.
— Did you have any instances of students coming to you for support when their teachers had not acted properly?
— Yes. For example, a teacher set an exam for a certain time, it was scheduled, the student arrived on time only to find that the teacher had already left. The study office told the student it was the student’s problem. We made sure the teacher made sure this student could sit the exam.
Another course lecturer broke a lot of rules, such as not making assessment criteria clear. Students’ tests were not set in the format initially outlined, and when the students sought to understand why they had been given a certain grade, they were not shown the marked tests. They got the impression that no one had in fact marked their work, and that the grades had been assigned randomly. The students kept records of all this, I helped them include references to the official HSE rules, and we addressed these issues to the programme administration. They decided not to prolong the contract with this teacher.
— About one fifth of all requests you get are related to the dorms. What are the most common problems?
— Generally, the student council works effectively on the dormitories. Students turn to it more often, but since I worked with the student council for a long time, they still come to me out of habit.
There were instances when we had to defend the HSE pass building access rules. For three years HSE dormitories have been open not only to those who live there, but to all students and staff who have passes to university buildings. But some staff members at new dormitories ignored these rules and only let in only those living in student accommodation, and only at certain times, and even additionally checked IDs of other visitors, keeping a record of their coming and going, and asking the purpose of their visits.
Students also asked me whether dormitory staff have the right to enter their rooms in their absence. This question has a clear answer stated in the internal regulations. It unequivocally says that this is restricted. I remember when I first moved in to dormitory accommodation myself, I, together with the other future lawyers, quoted the Constitution to the dorm receptionists and tried to defend our right to the inviolability of our residence.
Another problem is that sometimes Student Council activists, supported by the dorm administration, try to start checking rooms for cleanliness and the presence of various items there. I don’t like this approach, since the relationship between the student and the student council should be one between equals. I even had to make a public statement via social media, to defend the students from the student council, and explain the nature of the council’s responsibilities.
— Were there any cases when you were not able to solve a problem brought to you?
— Yes, there were. The most useful example to mention here was with a minor in logistics last academic year. The lecturer was dissatisfied with the attendance, and at the end of the year, in May, told the students that the assessment criteria were changing – the final exam would carry greater weight in that minor than had previously been stated, and it would be oral, not written. That would have given the lecturer an opportunity to give worse grades to those students who did not turn up to classes or lectures.
The students were worried about this, came to me, and we contacted the vice rector for academic affairs trying to prove that the rules should not be changed during the game. We were told that some minor changes are acceptable. But what changes are minor, and what are major? How can this be determined? So, on exam day half the students failed, and only one was given an excellent mark. And in July, we met with the Rector, who admitted that this was a difficult situation. But we still saw students fail academically and, in some cases, lose their scholarships. In fall they repeated the exam, and that lecturer is no longer teaching that specific course, which is a good result. But from the perspective of a student who could have graduated with honors, and then suddenly failed, it cannot be rectified. We faced the basic premise of the administration and were powerless.
— How did you approach communicating with students? Did you have an office? Working hours?
— No, all communication was via social networks and email. I even talked to the parents of some of the students. They were worried about their children, although there were only a few cases like this. They called me and asked me to tell them where my office was – so we could meet. It was difficult to explain to them that I represent student self-governance and don’t have an office. But in general, our students are independent people and their parents simply wanted to be involved in solving their problems.
— A new student representative, Andrey Bukhantsov, was recently elected at HSE. Is he a worthy successor?
— I will not play the ‘successor’ game, although, probably, in early September I could resign and appoint an acting ombudsman. But I decided that the position should be filled by free and fair elections, and as a result we’ve seen an interesting candidates’ race. When interest in the ombudsman’s position is high, you see a real contest and real voting, and the eventual winner will have to meet his electorate’s high expectations: you promised X, so now – deliver!
— Did your work aid the development of student self-governance nationwide?
— HSE was the first university in Russia to have a student ombudsman position. I took my oath in the presence of Artem Khromov, Russia’s student ombudsman and he often refers to our experience. HSE was the first university to lift dormitory curfews, and later, thanks to Artem, it was also lifted at other Russian universities. We are still closely cooperating with him.
— When you were elected ombudsman, you said in your interview on the website that you wanted to convince students that having an ombudsman is helpful and effective. Are they convinced now?
— More students participated in the elections this time than previously, which this means that they understand that the person who takes up the ombudsman’s position can be useful to them. It is important for them to know that there is someone who can at least give them advice in a complicated situation. And, unlike the Student Council, this individual is personally responsible to them. And the students who participate in self-governance and stand for election see this position as an opportunity for their professional growth.
But we’ll see how ombudsmen work at HSE over the coming years, how various people will implement this role. That’s why I resigned after a year of work – I didn’t want this position to be associated with one specific person. I can continue helping the students unofficially. The position gives you recognition, and students trust you because they believe you have responsibilities. But in fact you don’t have any. Your only resource is an email address headed ‘Student Ombudsman’. Some people may be impressed by a message from this address.
— Are you satisfied with what you personally have achieved through this work, and with what you have achieved for the common good? Would you call your time ‘in office’ a success?
— For me personally the ombudsman’s position gave me an excellent opportunity to develop my professional skills. I graduated as a lawyer, and am now studying Integrated Communications at MA level. The ombudsman’s work for me is not only about being able to write complaints, requests, to understand local regulations, but also the ability to build communications with students and staff through various channels. The flow of requests is greatest during the exam period, but I have to sit exams – just like all those students who write to me. I had to learn how to manage everything in time.
I don’t like to boast, but, in terms of the tasks that were set a year ago, I would say that I succeeded. I said in my last interview that ‘we need to get on track’, meaning that we needed to convince students that they needed an ombudsman, and get them to be involved in the next elections.
Over this year, students have been contacting me actively. I received about 100 requests via the HSE website alone, over 200 including social networks, and, if we count phone calls and cases when they just caught me in the corridors, it felt like at least two or three requests a day. The position proved to be greatly needed by the students. And more people turned out for the elections this year than previously. So I would say that we are on track and moving forward. The ombudsman is changing, the route is adjusting, and this is fine. We are on our way.