A bitter cuppa for lecturers

February 23, 1996

As controller of lecturers' teaching performance, Stephen Bretschneider, head of administration at Hamburg's smallest university, had few friends. So when his dead body was discovered by a hapless student, there was no shortage of suspects as to who might have slipped something fatal into his teacup.

Was it a radical student group enraged by the university's drive towards market forces, or was it one or more professors who had been forging lecture and seminar figures to make it look like they had more students than was the case?

Frigga Haug, a professor at the University for Economics and Politics, (Hamburg's smallest university), only reveals the murderer at the end of her new crime novel, Jedem nach seiner Leistung, (Each according to Merit).

She states wisely that all characters and events are fictional and any similarity to living persons is coincidental. Yet real-life events at German universities suggest that inspiration was not hard to find.

Medical students at Eppendorf University Hospital (UKE) this month publicly accused their professors of "teaching fraud" when the results of a teaching evaluation study were published. The university had proclaimed itself fairly satisfied with results showing that medical lecturers are now fulfilling 80 per cent of the four hours a week teaching their contracts require - a vast improvement on last year's figure of 54 per cent.

But student Ute Watermann told the local press: "The professors have lied. Around 40 per cent of their declarations are wrong." She claimed the students' own investigations showed that some professors had either made up phantom meetings or included seminars actually taken by their assistants.

The row over teaching at the UKE has been long and bitter. Two years ago students staged a widely-publicised occupation and last year they leaked the first teaching evaluation results to the press - naming professors they claimed were the worst offenders.

But it is not an isolated problem. At Oldenburg University, in northern Germany, president Michael Daxner caused an uproar at the start of this academic year when he suggested that students should blow the whistle on professors who skipped their teaching duties. Deans of faculty were systematically to control whether or not their 450 staff were fulfilling their contracts. The aim was to weed out those making bogus timetables.

It has become a favourite media sport to "out" tenured professors who shirk their minimum teaching duties (usually only eight hours a week) but in the meantime run flourishing architectural offices or private clinics with incomes which dwarf their professorial salaries (averaging Pounds 55,550 a year for a top-grade professor).

Michael Hartmer, of the professional association of professors, says the problem is restricted to only "a few black sheep". His association supports teaching evaluation as long as it is carried out by peers not by the state, he says.

But on the subject of Oldenburg University's recent initiative the language becomes positively Chandleresque: to get students anonymously to denounce staff would "poison the atmosphere", says Professor Hartmer.

A policy paper by the Centre for Higher Education suggests that universities should charge each of their students Pounds 400 per semester to be chanelled into improving teaching quality. Perhaps in future university administrators will have to check carefully what is in their tea.

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