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Daily Rant: The Horrible Problems of German Universities

Dr. James Thompson, who runs a fine blog on cognitive ability and psychological measurement, sent a questionnaire out to various professors asking them to comment on the teaching environment at their universities. He got this response from the (psuedonymous) Prof. Dr. Schweinsteiger, from an unnamed German university. I haven't seen all of the problems he describes, but that is probably because I'm teaching law, which is a world of its own. Anyway, here is Schweini's rant, almost in full:

Even though in Germany education policy is determined by the federal state, Leberwurst University is a fairly typical German university, and its educational policies and standards are similar to most of the many other German universities that I know.

Before I go into the horrors of Leberwurst education standards, first a bit of background, so the reader knows “where I’m coming from”. In my admittedly layman’s view (I am not an expert on education), the central aim of education is that students acquire certain skills and or knowledge which they did not possess before. In order to achieve this goal, two things need to happen. First, students go to an institution (for instance, a university) where they engage in intensive interactions with qualified experts who will teach them the required new skills and knowledge. Also, in order to facilitate the learning process, the students also do home assignments etc., supervised by the teacher. Secondly, in order to ensure that the students actually have acquired the desired skills and knowledge after the educational experience, the students are tested, for instance by taking verbal or written exams, doing home assignments, writing essays, etc. These tests enable the institution to establish the degree to which the student has become skilled and knowledgeable, usually with the help of a ‘grading system’ that quantifies the level of expertise that the student has reached. Testing students serves the purposes of quality control, both at the student level (universities, and presumably, the students themselves, want to know how competent a particular student has become) and at the university level (universities want to know how effective they are at educating students).

You may perhaps be yawning already, but trite as this all may sound, the German higher education policy does not share these assumptions at all. Generally, the aim is not to change students into more competent and knowledgeable people, but rather to give as many members of the population as possible a certified university education. The difference between educating people and giving people a certificate of education is comparable to the difference between a country increasing its GDP on the one hand, and simply printing more money on the other. This rather odd goal is motivated by the noble political ideology of Chancengleichheit (“equal opportunity”), which is also why our students have to pay nothing at all (as in: zero Euros) for the privilege of receiving a university education. At the end of this essay I will explain why and how the German education policy nevertheless manages to severely obstruct equal opportunity.

In Leberwurst University, the simple education strategy outlined above completely and utterly fails, for the following reasons.

First, it is forbidden for teachers to require their students to be present. I do not mean “mentally present” here; I mean, “physically present at the location where the education actually takes place”, e.g., a classroom or a lecture hall. It is forbidden to record the absence or presence of the students, and it is most certainly forbidden to use presence or absence of students as a criterion for grading, or for deciding who ‘passes’ or ‘fails’. This is not only the policy of the management of Leberwurst University (although it is) but it is also official federal state policy. We even got an official letter from the Federal Ministry of Education that told us that we are not allowed to require students’ presence, as this would violate educational law in that it would restrict the students’ Studierfreiheit (“freedom of study”) and even more serious, it would violate constitutional law because it would restrict the students’Handlungsfreiheit (“freedom of action”). So if we as teachers require students to be educated at a certain location, we are illegally restricting them in their personal freedom. The consequences of this policy are disastrous. First of all, a very large percentage of students actually hardly ever show up in their seminars. Usually they drop by once or twice to get a bit of a taste of what’s going on, and that’s about it. For large lectures this is not much of a problem, because if students really believe they can pass the exam without the lectures, that’s their problem (more on this later). But for small and intensive seminars, where texts are discussed, techniques demonstrated, exercises explained and discussed, etc. etc., it is simply not possible to engage in meaningful educational interactions if the majority of the participants in this interaction is physically not present. Also, the few students that do show up occasionally are usually different ones every week, so it is not possible to build on material that has been covered before, forcing the teachers to make little stand-alone sessions without any cumulative coherence whatsoever. Another interesting consequence is that students sometimes enlist in two or three simultaneous courses, reasoning that if they don’t need to be present, they might just as well be absent at three courses at the same time. Finally, student evaluations of teachers become irrelevant and even absurd, if the students filling in forms about what they thought of the quality of the teaching have never even showed up at the actual teaching.

Now some may argue: why not just do a tough exam at the end of the course, and then the students who weren’t there will simply fail. Fail they will, but there are three reasons why this strategy does not work. First, a large majority of courses do not require a grade. For instance, in the BA program I teach, students will have to complete 25 courses (i.e., seminars, lectures etc.). Of these 25 courses, only four require a grade. The other courses require instead something called aktive Teilnahme (AT), “active participation” which is a very Orwellian name because it neither involves activity nor participation. To get AT, the students have to do something at least vaguely related to the content of the course, usually give a short talk about one of the articles they read, or hand in a summary or protocol. But the thing is: we are not allowed to judge (grade) the quality of the work that is handed in; we are only allowed to assess whether they have done it. The important legal criterion here is whether they have “put in some effort” (which the students can always claim to have done, and we can never disprove it). So if their requirements for AT in Wurstology 101 are “hand in an essay about the contemporary pricing policy of German wurst” and the student hands in a text saying only “I never eat wurst because I’m a vegetarian, so I have no idea”, they have formally complied with the request. And then there is literally nothing the teacher can do to stop this student from getting the AT certificate. Even if the student has otherwise never even been present at the course at all, doesn’t even know the name of the teacher, and everyone knows that the student’s knowledge of Wurstology is absolutely zero.

Second, even for those courses where grading is still allowed, you just can’t get away with failing 95 out of a 100 students. The management will sternly tell you that either your standards are too high, or you are a bad teacher, or both. And if you then tell the management: “no, but they just don’t show up when I teach”, the common reply by the management is “well, then your courses are apparently not attractive and student-friendly enough”. Also, failing students often results in legal procedures initiated by the students (which they very often win) and in any case in having more students to deal with in the next semester, because at Leberwurst, students can repeat courses indefinitely, as often as they like. So there are many strong incentives for teachers to give up their academic standards and just pass everyone at some point in time. The management’s pressure to pass students is to a large degree caused by pressure from the federal state government to lower the quota of students who fail to get a degree, so failing 95% of the students, no matter how justified, will lead to all kinds of (usually financial) negative consequences for the university and the faculty.

Which brings us to the next point: grade inflation. The German grade system is numerical with 1 meaning “excellent”, 2 “good”, 3 “satisfactory” and 4 “sufficient”. But giving someone a 2 or worse often results in either suicidal or legal behavior by the students, so the actual realistic margins are between 1 and 2. Even then, students getting a 1.7 often angrily demand an explanation why they didn’t get a 1.0. So when some funding organization once asked us to give them the list of the 5% best students on the basis of grades, we could not comply, because if a massive majority has an average of 1.0, the best 5% are simply not definable. So we were then asked to “intuitively” identify the best 5% of our students, which we can do, of course, but it obviously defeats the purpose of using a grading system. Even more absurd is the grading system of PhD theses. In our neighboring country The Netherlands for instance, the qualification “Cum Laude” is rather rare and indicates an exceptional performance of the PhD candidate. In Germany, the same qualification “Cum Laude” actually means: “dear candidate, please take your thesis and please discretely take the back exit and never show yourself at this university again, because we are extremely disappointed in your thesis”. We now have “Magna Cum Laude” and the highest, “Summa Cum Laude” for the acceptable and the good thesis respectively. At least, that was the case 15 years ago. Now the Summa is becoming the new norm, and it is seen as an “affront” to give someone anything lower than Summa. Interestingly, many German applicants who only have the default “Cum Laude” are undeservedly seen as geniuses in other countries, where this inflation has not taken place.

It is also not allowed at Leberwurst to require students to have successfully completed course A before one can follow some course B. So we cannot require any foreknowledge for any of our courses, except for the first year in which a few elementary courses have to be completed. This makes it very hard, if not impossible, to go deeper into complicated topics, because there are always some students lacking the necessary background, slowing the entire educational process down to a near-halt.

Generally, the students are very powerful at Leberwurst, and most of them are interesting in doing as little as possible while still getting their certificate as fast as possible. Professors are perceived as authoritarian relics from the past whose only elitist goal is to prevent students from getting the degree they deserve as a birthright. Students are fundamentally against any form of testing for which they can fail, and often have the political power to get to a large degree what they want, because the German educators are very reluctant to compare students and judge them qualitatively. The very idea that there are better students and worse students is strongly discouraged in our current educational ideology.

A good illustration of the mentality of the German student at Leberwurst is the following anecdote. A teacher was very annoyed by the fact that her students didn’t read the texts they were supposed to read. So she said: OK, you know what? Go home, read the text, and we’ll discuss the text next week. Instead of feeling ashamed about not having read the text, the students immediately went to the Dean to complain that the teacher was not fulfilling her legally required 9 hours of teaching per week.

The consequences of this type of educational environment are catastrophic. Leberwurst University is getting a very bad name in German industry (as are German universities generally), the students that leave Leberwurst with a certificate have hardly learned anything, and have acquired a very bad working mentality in the process.

Another thing that we can learn from this German educational “experiment” is that education is a contract between teacher and student. If one of these parties does not fulfill their side of the bargain, no education is taking place. Even the best teacher in the world cannot teach students anything if do not show up and invest some effort. Not only is this student-teacher dynamic very detrimental for the students’ acquisition of knowledge and skills, another not unimportant effect is that it really kills any residual didactical motivation in the teachers. And staying motivated is hard enough already for German professors with their legally minimal teaching load of nine hours per week.

As a final remark, the German educational policy seems to be a classic example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. If everyone can get high grades and a certificate without any form of talent and/or hard work, a smart person from a poor socio-economic background cannot distinguish her or himself from a not-so-smart person from a rich family. So by giving everybody effectively the same high grade or qualification, the end result is that the person from a poor background is deprived of the possibility to let his or her qualifications compensate for the cultural disadvantage. In the end, employers who need to select the best people cannot do so on the basis of grades, and will be tempted to look at less relevant aspects such as accent, manners or clothing style, in other words: indicators of social class.

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