Reform of the Reform

Well, folks, the promised “reform of the reform” has started. In my last post, I mentioned some of the troubles the transition from traditional german Diplom to Bachelor’s-Master’s degree courses has caused at my university. The Rectory has made money available for each faculty to discuss the reform of the reform, including overnight accomodation if they want to do it in a “retreat” setting. (I doubt there will be many takers for that. The last thing most German professors wish to do is to hole themselves up in some out-of-the-way place for a couple days with only their faculty colleagues for company.)

Announced last week, my faculty is holding its jaw-jaw next Monday in meeting rooms in some hotel in the center of town (I have thereby discovered a new way to love my dentist, with whom I have an appointment next Monday).

How successful is this going to be? I’ll mention two data points.

First, our degree course in Informatics for the Natural Sciences, and its derivatives, were for many years in the 1990’s and into the 2000’s easily the most successful non-professional course(s) in the university in terms of intake per (tenured) faculty member. And last year our course in Molecular Biotechnology was the most oversubscribed in the university in terms of applications for the limited number of places (by about 20 to 1). So we are doing comparatively pretty well, whatever the complaints.

Second, as far as I know, I am the only member of our faculty with any experience teaching or learning in the Bachelor’s-Master’s model outside of our own university (a good fourteen to fifteen years of teaching in it, in the U.S.). I have degrees from two of the top ten world-ranked universities, and have taught at two of the top ten, in my subjects (as far as such rankings mean anything – see below). I believe I have a feel for what works there, at the best places, and what not. The closest matching experience of anyone else in our faculty is with my two colleagues who were post-docs at ETH-Zürich, which comes in the top-twenty of some people’s lists. But nobody has thought to ask me for my opinion about what is wrong with our study programs and how it may be fixed. Indeed if I were to miss Monday’s discussion altogether I doubt whether anyone would notice.

People who know my writings and contributions to on-line discussion might be surprised that I am locally invisible (except of course when I need to be reprimanded for my poor teaching).

I was one of the two faculty members of my university (which has thousands of faculty) in the mid 1990’s to put most of my teaching materials on the WWW (the other was also a Brit, a computational linguist). Now, more people are doing it, but my material is the most extensive of that of any of my faculty colleagues. So I have been in “e-learning”, as it is called, for fifteen years. I have also been involved in, and made the most extensive content contributions to, two e-learning projects in our faculty led by my colleague who is now the Rector. Despite this, I have been recently invited by our faculty’s e-learning representative to a personal discussion, so that I can find out how e-learning can aid my teaching!

I think this shows at least that we have some communication issues within our faculty. Are we going to be able to solve our course-of-study issues? How likely is it that a group be able to solve a set of pressing organisational problems without soliciting the experience of someone – not necessarily me – who has extensive experience with that form of organisation?

I leave the question as posed.

Ranking lists – a digression

Ranking lists are very variable. For example, The Times/QS ranking has Oxford 5th, Stanford 16th, ETH Zürich 20th, and UC Berkeley 39th. But Berkeley leads the world in the number of Nobel and Nobel-Memorial prize winners, and its Math Department has or had 4 Fields medal winners, out of a total of 48 winners ever, and a couple more who could/should have but didn’t (only Princeton Uni with 6 and IAS Princeton with 5 have more. Cambridge Uni is equal with 4 – but one left for Berkeley :-) ). Compare with University College London and Imperial College, London, at 4th and 5th respectively, which despite their undoubted eminence don’t come close in terms of such winners. has Stanford at 4th and UC Berkeley at 6th. And UC San Francisco, which is purely a medical school, at 19th! And 4th International Colleges and Universities has the Autonomous National University of Mexico at Number 2, and the Institut Teknologi Bandung in Indonesia at 21st, well ahead of Stanford at 56th. Clearly, any user of these rankings needs to inquire very carefully about the criteria used and whether they are correctly applied.

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