To Be a Master

The university where I teach, the University of Bielefeld, is forty years old this month. It was founded as a «reform university». Everything was in one huge building, as may be seen in this picture. The building has two main social features. First, it encourages interdisciplinary work, since students can hop between a lecture in math, coffee, then a lecture in art history, rather than travelling twenty minutes across town to get to specific lectures, as happens in places such as Hamburg (U.S. and U.K universities have this problem long solved, of course, through the campus structure). Second, since every corridor looks the same (apart from the colored stripe down the wall) in this half-kilometer-long construction, it is easy to get lost. Indeed, the majority of visitors to my office are not my students, but those who see the open door (rare in German workplaces) and a person inside, and say “Pardon me, I am trying to find ….”.

There were also supposed to be major reforms in study structure, I am told. Indeed, there is a whole book which explains the concept. I’m from outside and really can’t see the differences. I got here in 1995, with just an inkling of how Humboldt-style German universities work (gleaned largely from a 6-month Zuse Guest Professorship in Hamburg in 1991) and a thought that it was just the thing for me: I can offer my own classes, whatever I want, I have tenure, reasonable pay, fully-qualified pension. Sounds great, right? I thought so too.

The reality is somewhat different. One heads a “group” (mine consisted of me), and one must compete with colleagues, heading other “groups”, for resources. Others had big ones, indeed up to 35 people or so. Guess which way that goes. Hint: I don’t win. If one does not play the game, but prefers, say, to write one’s research papers (primarily what attracted me) and encourage interested students to join in, then one loses out, and can even hit bottom. For example, I sued the university in administrative court in 2005 because I didn’t have enough resources to get my agreed course offering accomplished (the same colleagues, indeed in practical terms the same colleague, who agreed that I should offer a compulsory module in computer networking then failed to provide me with enough resources to offer the required laboratory. I estimated then that it would have cost about €10,000 out of a total faculty budget, for twelve professors at the time, of about €750,000). What about the 25 students who could only take and therefore get credit for part of the module and thereby not finish their course of study? I understand it was offered to them that they could take a database course instead. Keep in mind that these were primarily creative artists who are using new media and really only care about the HW and SW in so far as it enables them to do magical things with computer screens, video cameras, and sound. They have no use for databases. Summary: there is a lot of show about paying attention to the needs of students, and student groups as a whole are “politically powerful”, but incidents like this demonstrate that some of it is pure show and 25 students do not necessarily get what they had been promised. As I said, the reality is somewhat different from the theory.

So where am I going here? Is it just another over-marinated professor grumping on his blog?

No (that is, not just :-) ). This is going to get a bit long, but take heart! There is something here to offend everyone!

The university held an evening reception of talks and laudatios a week ago Tuesday, and planned a “Gala Reception” for this Saturday evening, to celebrate its 40 years. Glossy brochures were printed and distributed; the Great and the Good were invited, as well as people like me (I declined; Saturday night is the one day a week I have the chance really to cook, and I am loathe to forego it for somebody else’s cooking: nobody here uses enough chili). It is all cancelled, at short notice. A group of “students” (some of whom actually were, I am told) tried to invade the main auditorium during the talking-heads celebration a week ago Tuesday. Doors were locked, but they harrassed people who needed to leave early. There was apparently a large police contingent present (as there was in the centre of town for the demonstration earlier in the day), but “the security of the guests could not be guaranteed” and our Rector Gerhard Sagerer called the celebrations off. And then, a couple of days later, the Gala also. This is serious stuff. My partner heard Gerd’s voice cracking up with sadness when he talked on the radio about it, and I would have felt the same way.

There are real issues about study here. And there is a meta-issue, namely, how these issues are discussed, handled, resolved. The protest is at least as much about the meta-issue as about the underlying issues with course reform. But let me deal here with the real issues.

One real issue is that the previous Rector, Dieter Timmerman, presided over a major change in the way study is organised. The university has junked the traditional Humboldtian model and gone for Bachelor’s-Master’s instead. All within about three years (OK, four). The second real issue is that the university has started charging fees per semester of study. There is no doubt that, whether you approve of them or not, these reforms are a significant administrative achievement.

And then, Prof. Dr. Timmermann turned up in our local newspaper on his last day as Rector, indeed as a civil servant, saying there had been a mistake, and “the pressure during study is too high” (English here, original here, as I mentioned in my last post). Which is, as Heiko Holtkamp remarked when the interview appeared, exactly what the student organisation had been telling Prof. Dr. Timmermann, indeed fighting with him about, the years previously. Well, thanks, buddy! You’re gone, leaving the rest of us to deal with it.

Students are significantly involved in government of the university, and are represented as an equal administrative group with professors, teachers, and administrators, at all levels. This is much different from the situation in most U.S. or U.K. universities. The Rectory (that is indeed the translation :-) ) is holding urgent talks with the student representatives about the reforms.

The upside to this student involvement is that students are stakeholders, forming half of the major purpose of the uni (the other half being research; those who do research are, in the German system, not students), and their needs should be appropriately represented. The downside is the usual litany: they are only here for a couple of years, so are oriented to the short term; they have very limited experience, with teaching, with higher education, indeed with anything much relevant over the age of thirty (except for the fine arts); neither do they have any knowledge about how things are achieved – they are here to learn it, after all. And, last but not least, the organisations and their activities are open to manipulation by political operators who are not really students at all and don’t necessarily care about student goals, such as the people who turn up at demonstrations and smash things.

The disruption was commented last week by Klaus Hurrelmann, laudator at the disturbed celebration and a recently-retired “star” of the university, who is a professional youth sociologist and now heads a research institute in Berlin. He praised the new Bachelor’s-Master’s structure, said there is no going back, commented effectively on the social background to the demonstrations (including how they were partly driven by non-student forces), and urged – this is the German solution to everything – talks between students and Rectory.

The student representatives welcomed the increased offer of urgent talks, but criticised Hurrelmann’s view, saying he had been responsible for the introduction of a three-year course which required 28 different examinations. These are called “Leistungsnachweise”, literally, demonstrations of performance, and usually consist of one of: a seminar talk, a term paper, a 1.5-hour written examination, or a 20-minute oral examination; but may be as little as “participation”, which means physical presence, or handing some object in. (Believe it or not, there is a legal requirement for “demonstrating performance” in a course designated as an “exercise”, equivalent to the small groups U.S. Teaching Assistants hold, say for calculus courses. It is that you have to show up once, or to hand something in, even if it is only a piece of paper with your name and some scribbles on it. The joke about passing if you can spell your name is no joke. It’s The Law.)

Compare with the situation in the typical U.S. university. A full-time student is required to take six courses per semester. Each course will typically have homework (weekly or term paper), a fifty-minute midterm examination, and a three-hour final examination. That is, three “demonstrations of performance” per course, one of which, the final exam, is twice the length of any written exam given by us. That is 18 “demonstrations of performance” per student per semester, about four times as much as the 28 over three years about which the student rep complained to our local newspaper.

Whatever one makes of this, I think one can conclude, from the public statements, that many stakeholders – students, faculty and administration – are, in those well-worn words, “not clear on the concept” of what the Anglo-Saxon study model is.

Some comparisons. U.K. universities attracted nearly 350,000 foreign students in 2007, those from the E.U. paying a few thousand pounds fees and those from outside paying more like ten thousand pounds. U.S. universities attracted a little over half a million, with people paying about 50% more (although fees at the most prestigious can be $30,000 per year or more). German fees are in comparison very low – our students pay €700 per year. Germany attracts about 230,000 foreign students. The student representatives are defending the position that study should be free, and that positions in some course of study or other should be available to all.

What is going to happen with all this? I have no idea what is going to happen tomorrow, or next week, but I can make some long-term predictions.

First, I agree with Hurrelmann that there is no going back. The traditional Humboldtian system was elitist, oriented towards the very clever and self-motivated (for many youngsters, that translates to being obsessed by something), but not very good for those youngsters, the vast majority whom I have seen in my 15 years here, who are intellectually somewhat capable, want to learn something more than they had learnt at school, but are not obsessive, and who then wish to get a job preferably using some of those skills. Unlike our former Rector Timmermann, who deprecated it, I applaud the wish of this majority. Indeed, the U.S. and U.K. systems serve it, offering it to half, respectively almost one-third, of their young people. Indeed, they closely fulfil the wish of our student representatives that a position in some course of study should be available to all.

In parallel, one can note that there is a traditional German system of “career education”, whereby if you decide at 19 that you want to be a bicycle mechanic, you can go study and qualify in bicycle mechanics – but woe betide you if you do not have that qualification, but you are good at fixing bicycles, put all your tools in a panel van, and drive around to where the broken bicycles are, rather than requiring customers to bring them to you, for this is a criminal offence (an actual event, from Bielefeld). This system may work for bicycle mechanics (or not, as some will say) but it certainly doesn’t work for those people with an academic high school qualification (“Abitur”) who decide they want to get stuck in to some history, or economics, or informatics, or all three, and then go work for a financial institution, or manage an info-tech company. Our former Rector Timmermann doesn’t think the universities, or the polytechnics (now called “universities of applied science”, in English, on their signs) should be serving this constituency. Follow that line of reasoning, and you will come to the conclusion that no one will be doing it except for business colleges, yet that is the wish of the vast majority of people who graduate from the academic high schools. How’s that for smart thinking from a professional educationalist?

First prediction: Hurrelmann is right, the students are right: the constituency that wants study and then job will be addressed by the universities and polytechnics, because no one else can address it.

Second, the kind of flexibility needed effectively to offer such courses comes at a price. I have solved my lab problem, above, through two grants of €10,000 in two years which comes directly from student fees. The committee that decides this is dominated by student representatives. Now I am negotiating with the university Facilities Management, which has vacillated on either giving me the room I have (which they already equipped with the necessary infrastructure five years ago) or building a new room (they said they would, but after technical assessment it appears it may cost money that no one has). The point: no fees, no lab. No lab, no twenty students per year who have connected computers up to routers and made a net work. Therefore no twenty graduates per year who can go into Bielefeld’s three hundred small high-tech firms and successfully configure their networks against the internet malware that plagues us all. Capisce?

This money, says the students, should come from central government. Let’s look at the plausibility of this. The health care infrastructure is putting unsustainable demands on its backbone personnel, the nurses (I know, my partner is one). There is increasingly less money available for the standard of care to which Germany is used. The state pension system is currently unable to fulfil its projected obligations, as in many other lands. It has been demonstrated in many lands, including Germany I believe, how much more income the average university graduate earns over a lifetime compared with colleagues who graduated similarly from high school but did not pursue a university/polytechnic degree course. The answer is, universally, lots more money. So, as a moral issue, where should our tax money go? Everyone gets sick, and everyone draws a pension except for those who got real sick, and an elite fragment of society goes to university, and pockets thereby over a lifetime more money than otherwise. It’s very hard for people not to get sick, and very hard not to get retired, but very easy to choose not to go to university because of the up-front cost. So where is the general constituency going to lie on that? If you were finance minister, and had to decide where to put your limited pot of money, would you decide to give it to those worried sick about getting sick and not being able to pay (I’ll guess 70% of the voters, and everyone over the age of 55 – this is Germany!), or those wondering how they will pay for the Bratwurst in their old age (I’ll guess over 60% of the voters – this is Germany!), or those studying in universities who complain about fees (about 2 million in 2008/9, 2.5% of the population).

Second Prediction: central government is not going to choose to put all its money into free university education, it is going to prioritise health care and pensions.

Third, consequent, prediction: fees are going to stay, and they are going to get a lot higher to pay for the flexibility which students need, will want and will come to expect. Just as in the U.S. and U.K.

Next, what about all this pressure on students? Let’s look whence it comes. And now I am going to get a bit technical. The courses are generally based on modules consisting of two to four related courses. Each course is worth 2 or 3 credit points, and each credit point is supposed to represent 30 hours of student time, including attending lectures. We package each course of study with three or four compulsory modules, and the rest as a choice from, oh, about 75 offered in our faculty and the same number offered by other faculties. That is a huge amount of choice. It is comparable to the kinds of things one can do in U.S. universities and because it just sort of happened, magically, over the last years, few people appreciate it as much as they could. Now, with so much choice, there is really only one practical way of assessing performance, which is one or more assessments per course. As we have seen, U.S. Universities generally require three per course. We require at most one. So we are at the minimum level already, there is no room for reduction at the level of a course.

The only way to reduce assessments is therefore to bundle modules together, call these super-modules, and to make one or more assessments per super-module. To make a practical difference, one would have to have about three modules per super-module, that is, twelve courses per supermodule (30 credit points) instead of the current two to four (5 or 10 credit points). And, of course, bundling modules together into super-modules comes with a decreased level of flexibility. Proof by example: a student could no longer do my System Safety I: Accident Analysis, learn our method for causally analysing failure behavior, and spend the rest of hisher time doing bioinformatics. Heshe would have to learn SysSafe I and then SysSafe II: hazard and risk analysis (involving all that probability calculation, and we all know how students just love math! :-) ) and do Applied Logic I and II (all that delicious symbol manipulation which some people, incomprehensibly to me, find boring and hard). I get 20 people in SysSafe I, 10-15 in SysSafe II, and so far 3 in Applied Logic – which is a new course and the three are philosophy students who were intrigued by the books the bookstore ordered for me (doesn’t happen with our informatics students, many of whom can’t read books :-) ). If I were to bundle these modules together, I would imagine I would get three or four for the entire super-module, and the philosophy students now learning logic from me would have nowhere to go (my modal-logician colleague in linguistics is overloaded with other things, and we are the only two research-qualified logicians in the university).

Fourth Prediction: Flexibility will be reduced, exactly the opposite of what everyone wants, but the only way to achieve reduced assessment, which will take priority because it is tangible whereas the benefits of flexibility are less so. The compulsory modules in a course of study will be bundled together as far as possible and one assessment will be given per module. The non-compulsory modules will remain as is, with one assessment per course, because you can, tangibly, mix and match courses within a module.

The students don’t realise how risky this is. If you walk in to a half-hour exam, face a grumpy examiner who asks you a bunch of esoteric questions to find out how “clever” you are, and then gives you a poor grade because you concentrated on the wrong thing, you are going to have failed 900 hours of your time (30 credit points, 30 hours per credit point). That is half a year’s full time work (“full-time work” in Germany is about 1800 hours, although it used to be less). That used to happen all the time in the traditional system and is hard to avoid also as an examiner with benign intent, but a student at that time could go away and come back a month later, or six months later, and make good. In the new system, there generally won’t be the time for that.

Fifth prediction: there will continue to be complaints about assessment. This will not be sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction. But students won’t disrupt university events because of it, because it is too esoteric and the political “smashers-up” won’t be motivated.

I conclude with a point that personally means a lot to me. As a faculty, we have worked together hard to put together this new system for our students. We did it intelligently (maybe intelligence is an emergent property :-) ) by tasking an enthusiastic Private Docent with designing the whole new courses of study out of the existing offerings and implicitly promising him we would do whatever he asked (including decide promptly, when he asked for a decision). Miraculously, this worked, and we rewarded him appropriately. We have six new Bachelor’s-Master’s courses of study and to my mind they are all coherent. We have a published module handbook with 150 modules representing over 300 individual courses in it, regularly updated. Did we do it for ourselves? Hell, no. I’d rather be giving a half-dozen half-hour exams a semester and spend my time on my research, as I did before, rather than assessing each of 80-120 pieces of student work per semester, filling in the assessment forms, and fighting with my colleagues as to which form of assessment is appropriate. We did it and do it, we put in this time and effort, because we think, rightly or wrongly, that it is better for the young people who come to us to learn.

It would be nice if this goodwill could be recognised during negotiations. I would be deliriously happy if everyone who came to us for education loved every course and got straight A’s (or 1,0’s as it is here). It has never happened in the history of the world and won’t happen here. We have to do well by the failures as well as by the successes, and this is very much harder. As shown, for those who have not had enough of this by now, in this essay.

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