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.



Dropping out of MOOCs

Today’s Times Higher Education carried a report on completion rates in MOOCs, which it estimated at under 7 per cent. Like other products of cheap and rapid digitisation, MOOCs are often seen as a game-changer, threatening to send traditional universities the way of Borders and HMV, and forcing the rest to review their fundamental approach to learning and teaching. It is easy to see, then, why we might think that MOOC drop-out matters.

In fact, I think MOOC drop-out matters. But I’m not going to draw firm conclusions from the THE article, for two reasons. The first is that it is based on what is clearly a small and limited study. Katy Jordan, the researcher whose work is reported, found completion data for 29 MOOCs, which she took from quite different sources (including news reports, university data, and academic presentations). She found completion rates varied widely, between under 1% to almost 19%.

The first thing to say is that this is a small sample, and it may or may not be representative. The different sources may or may not report completion in the same ways. And where did the ‘average’ of under 7% come from? THE doesn’t say, but it looks to me as though someone – I guess THE – has taken the sum of 29 completion rates and divided it by 29. So the second thing to say is that the student cohorts will vary widely in size, and unless you weight for that, then you can’t really reach a meaningful average.

Katy Jordan’s findings are interesting pointers, but do not yet provide a firm basis for judging completion rates. And this is no criticism – she has been entirely open about her sources and analysis, and is presenting her findings as part of a very interesting series of reflections based on her experiences as a MOOC participant. As usual, the question is how the findings are reported, and what use other people will then make of a half-remembered headline.

And even if MOOC completion rates did average out at 7% or less, so what? My answer is that we have no idea whether it matters or not. MOOCs are still very new, and we have only the haziest idea of what learners are doing, and what they have in mind when they click to register on a MOOC . While we do have some ideas from earlier research on drop-out which should make us cautious about drawing firm conclusions, MOOCs are new enough to make me cautious about extrapolating from earlier studies.

What we can say pretty confidently is that open and distance learning tend to show lower completion rates than face to face learning, often dramatically so. This is why the Open University invests so much time and trouble in working out how to engage and support its students. We also know that headline completion rates are lower in part-time than full-time higher education; but any researcher would be careful about drawing conclusions, as we don’t know what learner intentions were when enrolling.

When it comes to MOOCs, entirely new considerations come into play. The clue to why is in the word ‘Open’: anyone can enrol, but we don’t have a clue as to why they have done so. They might be potential learners shopping around, or they might be academics wondering what MOOCs are about. They might want to look at one bit of the MOOC and not others, or lurk and browse rather than complete the whole course. We don’t know whether the ‘drop-outs’ are actually people who register for several courses and end up completing the one that interests them. They might be bored schoolchildren looking for help with a project, or prisoners in one of our more luxurious gaols wanting to pass the time.

So until we know far more about learner aspirations and behaviour – and indeed whether all those who enrol are learners – we don’t know whether drop-out matters. Turbulent completion rates may be annoying for institutions, who would no doubt prefer as much predictability and routine as possible, but I think they are probably inherent in the very open-ness of a MOOC. They could probably be reduced through charging higher fees.

One final thought: why don’t institutions who provide MOOCs publish their completion rates?

Katy Jordan’s blog is at:

The THE article is at: