Reforming post-Bologna undergraduate studies in Germany

Mensa Uni Koeln

Since the Bologna agreement of 1999, some 47 European states have committed to simplying their degrees around a common Bachelor/Master/Doctor structure and moving to a common credit framework. German universities found the implementation process pretty demanding, but they managed it. Now, though, the new structure itself is about to be reformed.

Higher education reform in Germany is always a lengthy process, not least because education – and therefore university policy – is devolved to the sixteen Länder. National initiatives therefore involve negotiation and consensus between the sixteen ministers and the university rectors. This procedure, though lengthy, is well-established, and seems to work well. The two groups issued a common declaration on post-Bologna reforms last week.

The main problem seems to be that universities effectively made as few changes as possible in order to conform with the Bologna requirements. Overall, the levelof compliance seems high. Most German universities moved in 2009/10 to a new Bachelor/Masters degree structure. However, some specialist arts institutions have held back, there are question marks over regulated subjects such as medicine and law, and across the sector there are still some Diplom students grimly hanging on from before the reforms, who therefore have to be catered for.

Yet apparent compliance has tended to conceal a reality of rigidly prescribed degree structures, with limited possibilities of flexibility; and a pattern of student assessment that lacks transparency and detail, and is widely seen as unfair.The possibilities of part-time study (known usually as ‘career-accompanying learning’) and mobility weakest of all in the estalished public universities and – perhaps predictably – highest in the many private universities that now exist across Germany.

Among the main aims of the Bologna reforms were to enable student mobility and promote lifelong learning. The first has been achieved to some extent, and the decision is now to develop further the transparency and scope of recognition of credit gained abroad. The second requires more flexible use of teaching and administrative staff, particularly in view of ‘an increasingly heterogeneous student population’, as well as greater use of recognition of prior and international learning.These changes are, the document says, likely to involve additional costs.

In Germany, there was also a hope that the Bologna structure would improve retention. I’ve not been able to find recent figures, but what I hear from colleagues is continuing concern that retention and completion rates are still low by western European standards. At the same time, friends and colleagues expressed a certain reform-weariness over the latest package.

Implementation of the post-Bologna reforms will now fall to the Länder and individual institutions. A failure to change is likely to strengthen further the private higher education sector, which already makes part-time study one of its main selling points. But it is interesting that the education ministers and rectors across Germany are agreed on the importance of part-time learning, at a time when the opposite appears true across the UK.

 

 

Ignorant citizens and the European referendum

mr__gumby

If my Twitter feed is anything to go by, quite a few people seemed appalled to discover from a survey for the Independent that most British adults are remarkably ill-informed about the European Union. Personally, I wouldn’t be too critical of the 95% who couldn’t name their local Member of the European Parliament. That’s mainly because I am among them (one name springs to mind, David Coburn, who is an oaf), and anyway the elected Parliament has hardly any powers, and the constituencies are huge.

Some of the other misconceptions were rather more significant, though most were rather less dramatic than the Independent‘s headline suggested. Shortly afterwards Michael Gove, a leading figure in the Leave campaign, triggered another Twitter storm by telling an interviewer that ‘I think the people of this country have had enough of experts’. Or did he?

Certainly that is how he was quoted by many commentators, including the academic and university leader Ferdinand von Prondzynski (you can read his blog here). I’ve read the interview transcript, though, so here is a longer quotation. You decide whether the quotation is so selective that it was misleading:

GOVE: The people who are arguing that we should get out are concerned to ensure that the working people of this country at last get a fair deal.  I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying that …

Faisal Islam: The people of this country have had enough of experts, what do you mean by that?

GOVE:  … from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong because these people …

FI: The people of this country have had enough of experts?

My own judgement is that a lot of people think it is fair to twist and invent stuff in referendums, and that the selective quotation was produced in order to discredit Gove (something he usually seems perfectly capable of doing for himself). It’s not something I expect to see academics doing, but I don’t want to make a meal of it. And anyway quite a few people mistrust at least some experts for some of the time.

More interesting by far is the narrative that this “quote” helped to create. Like the widespread misinformation uncovered by the Independent, it feeds a story of the Leave voter as not only ignorant, but as wilfully ignorant. Usually, this ignorance is blamed on a biassed media, whose blatant mistruths are swallowed wholesale by those too stupid to ask questions.

This narrative is based on pretty naked class contempt, of course, as well as the sense of superiority felt by the well-educated over the less-educated. I also think it reeks of rank hypocrisy. Universities across Britain have set about demolishing their contribution to an educated citizenry, closing adult education departments and rushing to recruit ‘world class researchers’. The University of Leicester recently told its local newspaper that it was shutting its adult education programme because it was “committed to focusing on its world-class strengths”, which sounds laughable in terms of logic, and short-sighted in the extreme.

If we want to know why we have ignorant citizens, Rupert Murdoch is the least of our problems. We should start by looking at the failure of nerve that led our universities to walk away from the role of educating local citizens. If some of those citizens now reject the academy, then I can’t resist the temptation to say: Schadenfreude. We are reaping what we have sown.

 

No honorary doctorate for Edward Snowden?

Rostock_Universitätsplatz

University Square, Rostock

The University of Rostock will not be awarding Edward Snowden an honorary doctorate. This case has been dragging through the courts since May 2014, when the University’s Rector rejected a proposal from the Humanities Faculty, giving the grounds that Snowden had no particular scholarly achievement to his credit. The Rector’s decision has now been confirmed by the judge responsible for public administration in the Land – or country – of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Mecklenburg-Pomerania).

The Faculty – known in German as the Philosophische Fakultät – is a broad one with specialisms across education, culture, history, literature and languages, and is the largest in the university. Usually in German universities, the Faculty’s proposals for honorary degrees are uncontroversial, and are accepted without change. In Snowden’s case, the Rector announced that as there was no evidence of an ‘outstanding’ or ‘special’ contribution to knowledge, he was blocking the proposal.

The Education Ministry of the Land, supporting the Rector, argued that the definition of eligibility for honorary doctorates was laid down in the country’s law. The Faculty stood by its original decision, justifying their stance on the grounds of Snowden’s wider social contribution, and took the Rector to the administrative tribunal. It is now considering whether to appeal the tribunal’s judgement, or to nominate the whistleblower once more, this time on grounds of his contribution to knowledge.

From a British perspective, it is interesting to see how these decisions work out in a different system. The German administrative tribunals have the role of a law court, and are expected to deal with conflicts between citizens and public authorities. As the German public universities are legally part of the civil service, the tribunals can become involved in their governance.

This is unusual, certainly by the standards of most English-speaking countries, but I wonder whether it would have been enough to block some of the bizarre honorary degrees awarded by UK universities, usually with had the enthusiastic support of the Vice Chancellor. It would certainly have been hard to argue that Donald Trump and Jimmy Saville  made much of a contribution to knowledge, but British universities honoured them all the same.

 

 

Obama and adult education for active citizenship

nordic-summit_0d14676150f3d1e016f19628b6721b6a.nbcnews-ux-2880-1000

President Obama has long been an admirer of the Nordic countries, and he has just hosted a meeting with the five Nordic prime ministers. Toasting his guests, he made the standard jokes about Vikings, ale and Norwegian TV. He also took time to praise the Danish tradition of adult education.

Many of our Nordic friends are familiar with the great Danish pastor and philosopher Grundtvig who, among other causes, championed the idea of the Folk School — education that was not just made available to the elite, but to the many. Training that prepared a person for active citizenship, that improves a society.

Over time the Folk School Movement spread, including here to the United States. One of those schools was in the state of Tennessee. It was called the Highlander Folk School. Highlander, especially during the 1950s, a new generations of Americans came together to share their ideas and strategies for advancing civil rights, for advancing equality, for advancing justice. We know the names of some of those who were trained or participated in the Highlander school. Ralph Abernathy. John Lewis. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

They were all shaped in part by Highlander and the teachings of the great Nordic philosopher, and they ended up having a ripple effect on the Civil Rights Movement and ultimately on making America a better place. We would not have been here had it not been for that stone that was thrown in the lake and created ripples of hope that ultimately spread across the ocean to the United States of America. I might not be standing here were it not for the efforts of people like Ella Baker and the others who participated in the Highlander Folk School.

Grundtvig, well known as an adult educator, was a nineteenth century Lutheran pastor, poet, and historian, and also a politician. I hadn’t known much about Grundtvig’s political career until we watched the Danish TV series 1864, in which the esteemed founder of the folk high school movement featured as a war-mongering nationalist, who helped push Denmark into a disastrous war with Prussia.

Can we reconcile this rather negative portrait with our image of Grundtvig the peaceful paron saint of adult education? Or was this just a television director’s way of heightening a dramatic moment in Danish history? Grundtvig was indeed a nationalist, whose first proposal for the folk high school claimed that ‘King and Folk, Fatherland and mother-tongue’ were the four leaves of the Danish clover.

So the folk high school went along with other measures such as replacing the Lutheran hymn book with Danish writings, emphasising the value of the ‘living word’ over the written text, and celebrating Nordic mythology. Grundtvig championed adult education as a means of integrating young men into a distinctly Danish way of life, helping preserve the country’s language, literature and song from Germanic contamination, and promoting a qualified egalitarianism.

Later generations were faintly embarrassed by this nationalistic dimension to Grundtvig’s thought, emphasising his respect for the German speaking people of Schleswig, and pointing out that his nationalism represented the conditions of the nineteenth century. Of course it is reasonable to insist that we do not simply judge the past by our contemporary standards, but neither should we airbrush away those parts that we now wish to disown.

Grundtvig was a many-faceted figure whose influence went way beyond Denmark’s shores. I am deeply impressed, and cheered, by the fact that the President of the USA took time in a brief speech to single out the Danish folk high schools, and made clear the connection with the training for active citizenship which helped equip the civil rights movement. Skål!

 

Student mobility and social inequalities

We’ve known for a number of years that international student mobility programmes tend to increase social inequalities. One recent analysis of patterns of study abroad reasonably concluded that while a number of factors are at work, including sometimes strongly held parental ideas, there is no doubting the importance of access to financial, cultural and social capital. And the same study shows that a period of study abroad has a measurable and positive impact on life chances.

mobilite

Infographic from Campus France

I was reminded of this research recently by seeing a French infographic on Twitter. Reporting a survey of outwardly mobile students from France, the authors noted that international student mobility continues to be a key social marker, in terms of outcomes as well as participation.

In terms of participation, the authors found much higher levels of parental support among students from wealthier families, particularly where the parents themselves had gone to university.They didn’t even ask about ethnicity, disability or mature age study.

There was also more institutional encouragement and support in the elite institutions, with the least encouragement being reported by students in health studies. Language was a challenge: as English has become the global language of academic study, so it becomes more important to have studied in an environment where you can develop your English language skills. Finally, money was also an issue, with study abroad costing an average of €6,000 for a six month stay.

What this effectively means is that study abroad programmes such as Erasmus are selectively subsidising the most affluent and advantaged of the student population. Furthermore, the students who have participated in study abroad programmes then get a head start in competing for cosmopolitan positions, which reinforces their privileged position. The net contribution to social mobility is therefore negative.

Researchers have known about the regressive effects of mobility programmes for some time, and have drawn them to the attention of policy makers, who have done precisely nothing to change the situation. Europe’s education policy makers and university leaders alike view Erasmus and similar programmes as a great success, and take every opportunity to say so. This latest French study adds to a body of evidence which ought to make us all ask a few hard questions about what values these programmes represent, and what aims they should be seeking to serve.

 

Can you promote social mobility without supporting adult learning?

Last December, the Government invited Universities UK to lead an investigation into improving social mobility through higher education. UUK duly created an advisory group on social mobility, chaired by its chief executive Nicola Dandridge, which aims to deliver its report to the Government, outlining a series of strategic goals for 2020, in May 2016.

The advisory group has now held its first meeting. It started by defining its remit, which is now probably rather broader than the Government initially intended. It has decided to explore not just who gets in to university, but also how they get on at university, and what happens to them after they graduate. This reflects a growing awareness that non-traditional students are not only disadvantaged at point of entry, but continue to be penalised throughout the student life cycle and beyond.

New Picture

Published record of the Advisory Group’s first meeting

The group also decided that it needed to consider ‘all underrepresented groups in higher education, including mature and part-time students’. Again, there is some evidence that mature and part-time students face continuing penalties beyond graduation, though this is an area that requires futher research. And of course, mature and part-time students are more likely to be parents themselves, whose commitment to lifelong learning provides a model for their children.

What the net effect of this is on social mobility, though, is largely unknown, not least because part-time and mature learners tend to be most numerous in those universities which have the least prestigious images. Nevertheless, I expect and hope to see some strong proposals around mature and part-time study, both of which have declined significantly in recent years.

The advisory group proper includes a number of people who have experience and expertise in adult and part-time learning, including Professor Les Ebdon, Director of the Office for Fair Access; Professor Geoff Layer, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton; Peter Horrocks, Vice-Chancellor of The Open University; and Prof Mary Stuart, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lincoln.

The practitioner reference group, chaired by Mary Stuart, also includes a number of members with adult education backgrounds, notably Nadira Mirza, Director of Student Success at the University of Bradford and Treasurer of the Universities Association of Lifelong Learning. While it is harder to spot similar expertise among the researcher reference group, they are bound to be concerned over the absence of much systematic analysis of post-graduation outcomes for mature and part-time learners.

Of course, the report is only of direct relevance to England, though the problems it is tackling are equally relevant in Scotland and Wales. Even in England, the Government may not be delighted that the UUK group has widened its remit in this way, and institutional managers may also try to resist any shift of focus away from the most low-maintenance groups of students (namely young entrants straight from school). Clearly there is still a lot left to play for.

To answer my own question, it is perfectly conceivable to develop policies for social mobility that do not involve adult learning. My own view is that this would be short-sighted, and that targeted support for second and third chance learning is a good way of promoting fairer access to top positions. So far, the signs are promising.

Universities and freedom of information

The Independent Commission charged with reviewing Freedom of Information legislation has now issued its report. Its chief conclusion is that “the Act is generally working well, and that it has been one of a number of measures that havehelped to change the culture of the public sector”. It recommends a number of changes, some of them extending the scope of the law, and some intended to clarify its operation. Nothing, at least on a first read, seems to involve major change.

dandridge

Nicola Dandridge  of UUK

Well, you might say, if nothing’s changing why write about it? The short answer is that a lot of powerful individuals and bodies hoped that the Act would be changed significantly, among them most of Britain’s universities. The Commission said that 74 public bodies had submitted evidence to it, most of them complaining that the Act was burdensome and asking for restrictions. University heads have been lobbying governments in England and Scotland for some time about the law, and in England at least government was willing to consider change.

This case was put directly to the Commission by Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, who attended to present evidence in person. According to Dandridge, the higher education sector supported the principles behind the Act, but was suffering from a huge rise in the costs of compliance, allied to the growing competition between public universities subject to the legislation and private providers who are not. And I really encourage you to read the transcript of the subsequent discussion.

The veteran Labour MP Jack Straw, former cabinet minister and onetime student leader, gave her a particularly torrid time, exposing a number of holes – or less charitably, errors – in her knowledge. Equally damaging, when pressed for an example of the harm done by answering FoI requests, Dandridge chose the topic of ‘non-academic salaries at senior level’. She didn’t know the size of private higher education provision (her guess of 10-15% of students is way off the mark). She was unable to understand a Liberal Democrat peer who suggested that being subject to FoI could be seen as an advantage, when compared to the less transparent private universities.

New Picture (1)

Little wonder that the Commission concluded that the evidence provided by Universities UK (and the Russell Group) was ‘unpersuasive’, finding that ‘it continues to be appropriate and important for universitiesto remain subject to the Act’. But this may not be the end of the matter.

The Government has the right to reject part or all of the advice it receives from the Commission in respect of the English legislation, and the Vice Chancellors’ lobby will continue. Scottish the university heads are lobbying  separatelyfor exemption from the FoI Scotland Act, on the grounds that it diverts resources towards answering questions and away from teaching and research. This is as spurious an argument as those advanced to the Commission, and again it does the sector’s reputation no good.

It should be clear by now that I support the FoI legislation, and argued for such a law back in the 1980s. I see the 2000 Act as one of a number of significant achievements of the much-maligned New Labour government (and no, I am not usually a Labour Party supporter). I also think that universities should be comfortable with the idea that they are public institutions with public obligations, even if some of their funding comes from private sources.

Of course the Act does cause some problems. I’ve encountered companies trying to access interview data that relate to the health impact of their products, but we saw them off. Many requests are dealt with simply by pointing people to the relevant web link, others contravene data privacy. On the other hand, it is not hard to come up with plenty of cases where the Act has worked in the public interest, from exposing off-payroll payments for senior staff to universities reliance on corporate sponsors to explanations of admissions decisions. The legislation has justified itself, and it’s time for university heads to get over it.