Higher education policy has become a hot topic in the European press with the ongoing financial crisis and the Bologna reforms putting pressure on university resources, academic staff and students. While the financial crisis means that more people are going into higher education because there are fewer jobs on the market (and some return to education because they have been sacked), universities struggle to meet the needs of an increasing student population. Most governments can’t afford to raise higher education spending. Some even have to cut down, like Italy early this year or the Latvian government, which saw students taking to the streets on Tuesday to protest against spending cuts in the education sector. And standards are dropping.
There’s not enough staff to teach the ever-increasing bulk of students, there are not enough rooms, computers and books in the library. There are funding applications to be written and sponsors to be found. But there’s not enough money to go round. And nobody ever seems to have time.
Time is an important factor in academia. Scholars need time for research, time for writing, time for attending conferences, time for networking, time for teaching and preparation, and time for their students.
Students need time to choose the subject they’re interested in. They might even want to try out different subjects to make sure they get it right. Students need time to find their feet at university, time to read, write essays, revise for exams, and time to see their tutors.
Yet, time is something students and academics have less and less of. Especially since they have been burdened with the EU reforms of the Bologna process. Don’t get me wrong. I love Europe, it’s a great idea, and higher education standards have to become more comparable and compatible if we want to make the project work. And introducing the three cycles of qualification – BA, MA and PhD – across the board is a good way to achieve this, as is the introduction of a European Credit Transfer System. They help students to move from one country to another during their degree and so encourage them to study foreign languages and broaden their minds.
But the problem I see in Germany at the moment is that individual states and institutions have been putting the reforms into practice before thinking them through, letting parallel structures of old and new exist alongside each other, and leaving students and staff in total chaos. Even German President Horst Köhler admitted at the 600th anniversary celebrations of Leipzig University on Wednesday that the higher education sector was suffering from a “chronic lack of funds” and a “bad staff-student ratio”, and that the individual states had to put more money into the universities and make sure students wouldn’t break down under exam pressure.
Students who have been used to a system in which it was perfectly normal to finish your first degree at the age of 30 are now expected to finish their BAs in three to four years, with another two years for their MA. They also have to adapt to a system in which access to an MA programme needs to be earned by showing some real commitment during their BA course. To British students this might sound reasonable/ normal, for Germans it is not. They yet have to get away from the idea that everybody is entitled to a minimum of five years of experimentation and free choice.
What sounds like academic heaven – you take the courses you want when you want them and finish whenever it suits you – has just become too expensive to sustain, especially with the widening of access to higher education and a common reluctance to pay tuition fees. The system dates back to a time when higher education was only for the select few. We no longer live in early modern times when people went to university simply to broaden their horizons and most left without ever taking a degree. People who choose to go to university in the modern day do so to get qualifications and jobs and make a living out of them. That’s tough, but that is how things are.
In the German case, the reformers just have to think again. They can’t just squeeze the programme students used to work their way through in five years or more into three and expect it to work. Whenever you talk to a student they will tell you they’re overworked, struggling to get through timetables with 20 to 30 hours of lectures and seminars a week and exam hell at the end of each semester. It’s very honourable to want to do it all. But sometimes less is actually more.
Therefore student protests in Germany, Austria and elsewhere are good. And they’re necessary to give a voice to the people most affected by the (more often than not) top-down reforms. But they shouldn’t lead to a demonisation of the Bologna process as such or even a halt or reversal of the existing reforms. I can’t sympathize with the conservatives who want to keep the old ways.
I just feel sorry for the students who started their degrees at this unfortunate time and have made themselves the guinea pigs of the reformers. Introducing reforms on such a large scale is naturally a long and difficult process, and things should not be rushed. We need a lot more time to get it right, and time to think.