A walk in the bleak forest

July 26, 1996

A middle-aged business school lecturer and his wife thought a two-year sabbatical to manage a franchise at a private school in Germany would be something of an adventure. They left after a year with a sour taste in their mouths. This is their cautionary tale

Three years ago my business school franchised a final-year undergraduate degree to a private school in southern Germany. It took two years for student numbers to build up. During preparations for the first year's franchise the school also obtained a franchise for an MBA from another British university. Implementation of this was conditional upon its being managed by someone who had taught and managed an MBA in a British university. I matched these criteria.

At the owner's suggestion I agreed to work in Germany and took a two-year sabbatical. I negotiated my own, not very generous, terms of employment. As poverty was pleaded from the outset, it was always clear that I would get no assistance with relocation costs. I was never offered a contract, although after six weeks or so in Germany it was mentioned in passing.

We agreed to go on such terms because I entered academe late in life, so the opportunity to work abroad had seemed unlikely. My wife and I were keener to grasp the chance than to attempt to get all the details on paper. Also, it very soon became clear that paper was not the forte of the school's owner. I eventually settled for the fact of my having sent him a detailed letter based on telephone conversations. Also, we placed some value on the validations by two United Kingdom universities.

In late August 1995 we set off for a country we did not know and whose language neither of us spoke. The courses were to be taught in English. The school's owner had already talked of our staying on a permanent basis, so despite some reservations, hopes were high for an enriching cultural experience.

On arrival, complete with Pounds 1,320 of textbooks for the school, for which I had paid, I was greeted with the statement that "no bills would be paid for at least six weeks as the school is on the overdraft limit"! I was glad that the credit card payment was not due until after this period would expire, but I did begin to wonder about the first month's fee!

As of September 1 there were four weeks for the school to get the masters and bachelors courses up and running. I effectively became course leader for the BA. Somehow, by September 30, following frantic telephone talks to the UK and the burning of much midnight oil, the MBA was authorised to start.

The fax giving approval arrived 30 minutes prior to our having to inform the students that the course could not start. This was due entirely to the attitude of the school's owner. I discovered later that I would have been expected to run the induction weekend even if the franchise had not been officially authorised!

A shortage of available local staff, books etc. (the claim that the university library could be used was true, but there were virtually no relevant books) was the eventual undoing of the school. The local university did not have a business faculty, hence no appropriate books in English or German.

By November the franchisers were becoming openly suspicious. They had been told, as had I, that there was a pool of British and United States expatriate staff available and willing to teach the modules of the MBA and the BA.

By the end of October the BA course was operating on the basis that my wife, who had just completed a master's degree, taught my subject, while I was teaching all other subjects just to keep things going. The MBA was operating, just, because the franchiser was allowing staff to fly to Germany to give weekend tuition.

By mid-November crisis had been reached on the BA when, entirely by luck, a former lecturer from the UK who had his own business in France was recommended. This solved the BA teaching problem, but the questioning from the MBA franchiser was insistent. They had put into place an excellent series of controls and so far the school had not managed to meet one of the requirements concerning identification of staff, external examiners, induction, submission of course outlines for approval, etc. I was facing the situation where I had to consider my credibility in Britain, not to mention my ethical position.

Before Christmas a crucial event took place. The owner of the school asked me to discuss the MBA examination papers with him. On my asking why he wanted to see them the possibility of there being spelling errors, etc. was raised. I continued to refuse to agree to show them to him when they did arrive, resulting in one of the biggest arguments that I have ever had.

At the conclusion of this episode I thought that I had been sacked and went to my room to arrange to return home. Somehow the owner managed to convince himself that we could continue to work together and, as our house had been let for six months the day before the row, my wife and I decided to try to stick it out. Also, I had my home university to think of. The undergraduates enrolled in Germany were our students.

Following a genuine attempt to resolve the position, to which the school's owner refused to respond in any meaningful way, the MBA franchise was withdrawn in January 1996. Following a second monitoring visit by my university in February, a decision not to renew the franchise for the BA was taken. The students' comments to the monitoring officer, (following an initial refusal by the school's owner to allow him to meet the students on his own) did nothing to improve the situation.

From the time of this visit the owner spoke to me only twice, preferring to write me letters. I continued to run the BA course, having more than adequate time to do everything myself given the lack of a master's course to organise.

During this time I literally always had to request that I be paid, visiting other buildings to see finance staff, receiving excuses such as "there is no one to write the cheque". To someone with a public sector background this was extremely disconcerting.

The final act of the owner was to refuse to allow us to work at the school until the students had completed their dissertations, depriving them of supervision which, not having been used to the British way of preparing written work, they badly needed.

Colleagues thinking of trying the private sector in France or Germany where there are many similar institutions would be well advised to make very careful enquiries before agreeing to travel. I knew that I could terminate my sabbatical at any time if things went wrong, which gave us the peace of mind to continue after February.

We have no regrets about working and living in Germany where we have made lifelong friends. The German, French, American, Finnish, Austrian and Swiss people we met more than made up for the actions of our erstwhile employer, and we made many supportive and helpful contacts.

There were many other aspects to life in the private teaching world for which there is no space here. We may have been unlucky. It is good to be able to record that the universities concerned, realising that a mistake had been made despite apparently careful vetting processes, had in place the systems to identify the fact and the will to make rapid decisions to resolve matters.

However, the saddest part of the experience is that we are left with an overwhelming impression that students' interests are not a priority and that educational standards are a lesser aspect of the business. A message here for us all?

The author wishes to remain anonymous.

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