Germany rethinks after rush to adopt Bologna reforms

Problems with the introduction of EU harmonised three-year degrees have led to a reassessment

April 10, 2014

Source: Alamy

Too great a burden: redesigned courses led to protests over exam overload

Germany is having its biggest rethink of university teaching in more than 200 years, after the “less than optimal” introduction of Bologna reforms, a leading university head has claimed.

Holger Burckhart, rector of the University of Siegen, in west-central Germany, and vice-president of the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), said that his country’s adoption of three-year undergraduate degrees under the 1999 Bologna declaration, which sought to harmonise higher education practices across Europe, had caused significant problems that now had to be tackled.

Speaking at the European University Association’s annual conference, which took place on 3-4 April in Brussels, Professor Burckhart said that the German switch to shorter degree programmes in 2006 had been rushed, often resulting in badly designed courses. “Professors simply put everything that was in a four- or five-year degree into the new BA degree,” he said.

Lecturers had also insisted on assessment after every module, sometimes in the first semester of university, which led to student protests in 2009 over exam overload, he added. Universities had now reduced workloads to make them “more realistic”, which had led to a happier student body.

But other problems persisted, said Professor Burckhart, who led an HRK review into Germany’s introduction of the Bologna Process, published in November last year, which was “quite self-critical”.

Many of the 8,000 undergraduate degree programmes offered at German universities were too specialised and did not offer many opportunities for further study.

“These programmes are so highly specialised that they are only compatible with one MA programme at the same institution,” he said.

The review also found Germany was “performing badly” in its acceptance of the European Credit Transfer Scheme, which is used on less than 75 per cent of teaching programmes.

Such concerns had “triggered the most thorough rethink of teaching and learning in German higher education…perhaps since Humboldt rethought higher education 200 years ago”, Professor Burckhart said, in a reference to Wilhelm von Humboldt, the 19th-century education reformer who instigated the concept that university scholars must research and teach.

The forthcoming review of courses would now implement some of the reforms that should have been put in place seven years ago, he said.

“Eighty per cent of universities started the changes in 2005, saying they would be ready in 2006,” Professor Burckhart said. “But they were restructuring all their programmes, so there were a lot of mistakes and that started the bad feelings of students.”

He said that universities could have met the challenges of reform if they had received the funding that they needed. However, resources had been stretched as student numbers had grown by 50 per cent since Bologna was agreed, rising from 1.8 million in 2000 to 2.7 million in 2013, he added. The abolition of annual tuition fees of about €1,000 (£8) in recent years, following the decisions of devolved regional assemblies, had also impacted on resources available for curriculum reform, he added.

“For the first time this year more students are opting for higher education than vocational education,” Professor Burckhart said.

“This vocational sector forms the backbone of the German economy and many are asking do we need so many graduates – this debate has only started very recently.”

Online success: getting credit for Moocs

Academics who gain large followings for their online lessons may soon be able to gain promotions in recognition of their innovative teaching, the European University Association’s annual conference heard.

Pierre Dillenbourg, academic director at Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne’s Centre for Digital Education, told the event in Brussels that he expected academics would soon gain credit for successful massive open online courses (Moocs) in the same way that scholars were rewarded for research excellence.

“If you have a Mooc with 50,000 people studying on it, it is like having a paper in Nature,” said Professor Dillenbourg, who said 400,000 people had enrolled in the Swiss institution’s Moocs, although they have been completed by only 36,000.

Despite the high attrition rate, Professor Dillenbourg said that Moocs represented good value for money in comparison with other university activities.

“We have invested €1.5 million (£1.24 million) in Moocs in the past two years, which is the same cost as a laboratory with a professor and a few assistants,” he said. “No laboratory has ever given out 36,000 certificates.”

Dirk Jan van den Berg, president of the Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology, also believed that Moocs could raise the status of university teaching, something that was starting to happen at his institution.

“Delft is a research-intensive university, so there has been a bias towards research,” he said.

“Since the development of Moocs, education is now the thing to be in.”

Jeff Haywood, vice-principal for knowledge management and chief information officer at the University of Edinburgh, whose online courses have been accessed by 650,000 people since they were offered on the online platforms Coursera and FutureLearn, said that his institution’s involvement had had other unexpected benefits, such as the creation of seven new textbooks.

But Professor Hayward said that universities needed to be realistic about the high dropout and no-show rates of Mooc students, of whom only 34,000 had completed certificates with Edinburgh. “About 50 per cent of people who sign up do not turn up,” he said.

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