German universities reject competitive teaching funding

Call from government advisers to evaluate teaching quality, echoing England's TEF, could still go ahead

May 20, 2017
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Heavyweight argument: ‘there are limitations on the comparison of teaching…in a competitive setting’

German universities have emphatically rejected a proposal that they fear could mean competing for funding on the basis of their teaching quality, but the plan is not off the table.

As England prepares to unveil its controversial teaching excellence framework (TEF) ratings and the Australian government plans to award a portion of teaching funding on the basis of “performance”, German university leaders have argued that comparing teaching quality is a near impossible task.

Last month, the German Council of Science and Humanities (WR), which advises the federal government and states on research policy, put forward proposals for a new independent body that would award funding for new and innovative teaching schemes.

In an unusually rapid and unanimous response, the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), which represents university leaders, rejected the idea last week. One of the reasons, Horst Hippler, the body’s president, said in a statement, was that “there are limitations on the comparison of a competitive setting”.

The final decision rests with federal and state governments.

Sabine Behrenbeck, head of the WR’s higher education department, told Times Higher Education that it envisaged making only a very small proportion of the teaching budget competitive – about 1 per cent of the total. This money would go to promising projects exploring new ways to teach, rather than being distributed on the basis of some kind of standardised assessment of teaching quality.

“We don’t recommend a TEF,” she said. “We don’t trust so much in metrics, for assessment, but in evaluation by peers.”

Still, she added that the proposed new body would organise discussions on “how can we evaluate the quality of teaching” in the future.

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The proposals are part of a long-running attempt in Germany to get universities to pay more attention to teaching rather than research, an issue that has played out in several other countries, including England.

But the problem for governments the world over is that measuring teaching quality is notoriously difficult: the TEF focuses on metrics including student satisfaction scores and graduate employment, but these have been criticised respectively for being too subjective and too utilitarian as measures of the quality of a university education.

In Germany, there is little indication so far about how teaching quality might be assessed, should this ever become part of national policy. Tobias Schmohl, a researcher at the University of Hamburg's Centre for University Teaching and Learning, said that was “one of the reasons why everybody is nervous right now”. Unlike England, however, graduate destinations are not part of the discussion in Germany, he said.

Other ideas currently being mooted focus on making sure lecturers have teaching qualifications and continuous training, as well as taking teaching experience into account when making hiring decisions, explained Christian Tauch, head of the HRK's education department.

Although German universities have rejected the proposed new nationwide teaching body, they nonetheless face a ticking time bomb over their financial situation. In 2020, federal funding that allowed them to cope with a big rise in student numbers is set to expire and there are question marks over how many strings the federal government will attach to any replacement money.

German universities fear that the proposed new body will mean a continuation of this kind of temporary, project-based funding. Instead they want “continuous, sufficient funding” on a permanent basis for teaching, said Mr Tauch. “You can't build up new structures based on this [temporary] money.”

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