The German university system has never had an equivalent to
Oxbridge, Russell Group or the Ivy League. This is partially down to the way
students are admitted – there are no (or very low) tuition fees and by law each
university is obliged to offer all students with a German “Abitur” (A-level/IB
equivalent) a place for Higher Education. Only if a certain course has more
applicants than places can the university choose – and even then the choice
must purely be based on A-level results.
Therefore, German universities are pretty egalitarian and cannot
chose their undergraduate students and build a profile in the same way
universities in other countries do, and students tend to choose their universities
mainly based on location.
In more recent years, universities have been given more freedom to choose their
postgraduate and PhD students, based on criteria they themselves can set, but since
that is a recently new development it has not yet resulted in the same kind of
profile building as UK and US universities have perfected.
Much high-ranking German research happens outside the universities:
research societies like the Max-Planck Society, the Leibnitz Association, the
Fraunhofer Society or the Helmoltz Association run over 200 non-university
research centres and are empowered to award PhDs and PostDoc qualifications.
It may be asked, surely there must be a difference in
quality between German universities?
The DFG (“Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft”, German Research
Foundation) is the main funding body for research at German universities and
has been responsible for funding of research in all disciplines since 1937.
Over the last 15 years, the DFG has recognised that in order to participate in
the international exchange of research and in international university
rankings, a certain “elite” status was
necessary for some universities. Therefore in 2004 the DFG started the prestigious “Universities
Excellence Initiative”, which initially supported certain “clusters of
excellence” at a variety of universities. Effectively, selected
interdisciplinary research projects and graduate schools were being awarded
special funds for developing outstanding research.
This initiative evolved and was developed further over the years, and in 2019 was re-named the “Excellence Strategy”. It nominated a selected number of universities as “Universities of Excellence” – awarding these institutions up to €15m annualy for research over a period of 7 years. When this period time has elapsed, each university is re-evaluated. On 19 July 2019 the DFG announced the 11 winning universities (list see below) that have been awarded this status.
The universities had to apply for selection and were
evaluated by an international commission. The initiative focuses exclusively on
research output. Whether or not teaching at these universities is “excellent”
remains undecided; the German Council of Science and Humanities
(Wissenschaftsrat) and the German Rectors’ Conference (Hochschulrektorenkonferenz)
have both made it very clear they have no plans to establish an equivalent to
Universities are now much more aware of the need to support students who are feeling stressed by work pressures and exams. Librarians, of course, tend to see more of the anguish than academics, who only encounter students occasionally during the examination period. One of the more imaginative and empathetic ways that has been developed to help alleviate stress is to introduce a therapy dog to the library, to provide “animal assisted wellness”. In 2017 MacOdrum Library at Carleton University (Ontario, Canada) appointed Uncle Steven, a dog named after his first foster carer’s uncle, to be the stress-buster-in-chief at the university.
Uncle Steven was a rescue dog, a Basset hound saved by the
Edmonton Basset Rescue Society from a “puppy mill”. For seven years he had been kept in a crate
and used as a breeding hound. He had
never been in a house or car and did not like to be near men.
His original foster carer was unable to continue to look
after him because she already had two babies and two dogs to look after. He was therefore adopted by John Vendel and
his wife Erika Banski, both of whom are librarians.
Uncle Steven visited the MacOdrum Library for an hour and a half twice a week during the exam season. His services were appreciated by university staff and students alike, who played with him and talked to him and found him a very effective therapy dog. Apparently there is a scientific reason for the remarkable success these dogs are able to achieve: humans release a de-stressing hormone when petting an animal. 10 or 15 minutes spent with Uncle Steven were therefore very effective for calming students (and staff!) and motivating them to take a positive attitude towards their work. John Vendel said that the benefits were two-way: Uncle Steven had been so neglected as a young dog that he was now enjoying the attention and lapping it up. The students who petted him unanimously agreed that he had helped to calm them and make them more cheerful. John said that he “seemed to know” how anxious students were feeling.
Here is a picture of John with Uncle Steven. Sadly, Uncle Steven passed away in April this year. To mark all the good work he had done, at a ceremony in the President’s office his owners, Erika and John received a “posthumous distinction” award. Erika is on the left of the photo, wearing a red dress; John is standing next to the President, who is holding the certificate.
Each year, the NSS results spark discussions about their
usefulness and whether or not they actually reflect the performance of a
university overall. And every year, universities and service providers keenly
await their results and national media celebrates their “winners”.
What we do know is that universities take a great deal of notice of their NSS
results and often changes in teaching happen with a view on improving NSS
results. This – along with increased tuition fees and student expectations – is
one of the factors that contribute to the image of the “student as a customer”.
The NSS data is one of the most important metrics for the
TEF, and many Student Unions, who are en large opposed to the way the TEF
measures Teaching Excellence, have initiated NSS boycotts in order to
invalidate results. The University of Cambridge is one of them, and has been
successful for three years in a row. Once again, the response rate for
Cambridge has been below the threshold of 50% required for data to be
meaningful enough to be published, which means that it will again be unable to
participate in the TEF.
But how did those universities do who did get a high enough
Overall, it can be said that Scottish and Welsh universities
have received better feedback from their students than English ones. To the
question “Overall, I’m satisfied with the quality of the course”, the University
of St. Andrews received the highest number of students agreeing (95.49%). In
the top 10 there are 3 Scottish (St. Andrews, Dundee and the Robert Gordon
University) and 2 Welsh universities (Aberystwyth, who came second, and
Swansea). The Universities of Loughborough, Keele and York top the list of
However, these are views on the overall course, and we were
particularly interested in section 6 of the NSS, which deals with Learning
Resources specifically, including library resources, but also IT infrastructure
and access to subject-specific equipment. Of particular interest to us was
question 19 – “The library resources (e.g. books, online services and learning
spaces) have supported my learning well.”
Looking at this question, students at St. Mary’s University
College Belfast were the most appreciative (93.22% agreed with this statement),
followed by the University of Leeds (92.85%) and the University of Dundee
(92.7%). It is also interesting to see here that 19.12% of students at the University
of Reading disagreed with the statement – by far the highest number of students
unsatisfied with library resources; while students at Heriot-Watt and Wrexham
Glyndwr University were not particularly happy either (around 10% disagreed at
It is difficult to come to conclusions when looking at the broad figures, which of course include all subject areas. David Kernohan of WonkHE has helpfully tried to break down the figures by subjects; looking again at question 19 through his lens, it may come as no surprise that students of specialist subjects like Minerals Technology, Computer Games and Animation, Complementary and Alternative Medicine or Drama are particularly dissatisfied with their library resources. However, subjects like Archaeology, Classics and History are also listed high on the dissatisfaction scale, and publishers and librarians should certainly take such mixed results on board. More surprising, maybe, is that students of Nursing, Microbiology and Dentistry are especially happy with their library resources.
Readers of this blog may be amused to discover that overall
course dissatisfaction is particularly prevalent with students in Polymer
Studies and… Publishing!
“Fake News” was the “word of the year” in 2017 (according to Collins Dictionaries). It was a buzz-phrase that sprang up the information sector in 2016, when the US presidential election acted as a catalyst. Its importance is increasing in a world where the extent of democracy and true freedom of speech varies hugely across the globe. The Collins definition says that it is “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”. While this phenomenon has existed since the earliest broadsheets were published, it has had a much bigger impact on the psychology of today’s society than those of the past. Now Social Media is a major source of information for many, Fake News can be disseminated and spread much more quickly and widely; moreover, today’s Social Media consumer tends to be less and less worried about the sources and accuracy of the “information” s/he reads. Paradoxically, those who read news no longer trust the media – a recent Reuters Institute Digital News Report said that 49% of readers don’t trust the news sources they use, even though they have chosen these sources themselves! – but this seems to make no difference to their popularity.
You may feel that popular journalism has always been a shade scurrilous, but ask how may affect Academic Publishing. In 2016, The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) published an infographic on How to spot fake news; a closer look reveals that all eight fact-checking points are very relevant to Academic Publishing.
Fake News presents some fundamental challenges to Academic
Publishing, an industry that relies on accuracy and integrity of information as
the central justification for its existence. Academic Publishing needs to be
robust, transparent and meticulously well-researched, because it drives
innovation, public policy, and the entire academic discourse. However, Fake
News has a big impact on the sector and the opinions held within academia, since
misinterpretations of research results can quickly be spread as “facts”. One
very prominent example of this was the measles outbreak in Brooklyn, New York in
April this year which caused a local public health emergency, because it had
been preceded by widespread misinformation about a (non-existing) link of childhood
vaccination to autism, with the result that fewer children had been vaccinated.
This “information” was based on a study which was already been proved a fake,
withdrawn and the author sanctioned, but was still being spread widely on
Again, this is not
new – tabloid newspapers have long based their business models on selling biased
research data or exaggerated interpretations to the public – but the power of
rapid dissemination and concomitant general lack of interest in sources
exhibited by the public at large has allowed Fake News to spread more rapidly,
even within academic circles. Publishing is the central route to academic
preferment. Unfortunately, therefore, Academic
Publishing sometimes lends itself to fraud practised for unscrupulous personal
The world of Academic Publishing relies heavily on Peer Review as its main mechanism of preventing Fake News; there have been frequent examples of publishers having to retract journal articles because of fraudulent peer reviews, as an examination of the blog Retraction Watch, which tracks scientific integrity, can demonstrate.
In response to such malpractice, fact-checking sites like snopes.com and factcheck.org have been established, to help readers to verify the integrity of academic content. Hypothes.is is a fact-checking site dedicated to Academic Publishing which uses annotations in a very effective way and also allows plugs into blogs and news sites.
The switch to Open Science provides another opportunity to
prevent Fake News from contaminating Academic Publishing, because the whole OS
publication process is open and transparent, meaning that fraud can be detected
at an earlier stage.
There is a demonstrable need not only to educate students, but also the wider public, in information literacy and critical thinking. Websites like NimblyWise are attempting this, but take-up is not wide-spread and their reach to the wider public is limited.
Academic Publishing is therefore not immune from Fake News. Society’s trust in published work without
questioning its authenticity holds far-reaching implications. Clearly there is
an urgent need for an improved system that can de-incentivise (and possibly
prevent) the production of Fake News, provide education in information literacy;
and offer a trusted forum to enable Scientists and Academic Publishers to stay
in an active dialogue with the public.
Six international students took part in the student workshops
at the ABT Conference 2019. They were
respectively from Mexico, The Netherlands, Italy, Iran, South Korea and
Indonesia. The workshop was run twice,
so that all delegates could attend once (it ran back-to-back with a publisher /
bookseller workshop). It was moderated
by Louis Coiffait.
Much of the discussion focused on textbooks. The students agreed that the purpose of a
textbook is to impart knowledge, rather than introduce controversial or exploratory
ideas. Simplicity of approach is
therefore key to success. “You have a student who wants to know something;
don’t put it in a complicated way.” The
layout and structure of a textbook is also extremely important. Textbooks should be constructed in an
accessible way; and although the definitions included in them probably don’t
change much over time, students would appreciate it if the practical examples
are updated regularly, to maintain currency and interest. Worked-through examples, either in the book
or on a complementary website are extremely important in some subjects – e.g.,
Business or Engineering.
Asked what kinds of learning resource they used other than
textbooks, the students said they started by looking at core articles for which
references were supplied in the resource lists, then selected follow-up
references in order to grasp “the big picture”.
“The Library guarantees access to a lot of publications not normally
available.” (This meant material not
available via Google or Google Scholar.) One of the students, an Italian, said
the choice and range of materials available for students to access from the
Library in this country is much better than in Italy. Here it’s “brilliant, wonderful”.
Most of the students agreed that they should not have to pay
extra for resources over and above their tuition fees. For international students, the point is of
particular importance, because many of them pay higher fees than home-grown
students. Some had borrowed family money
to study in the UK, which would have to be paid back eventually.
Asked about discovery, all agreed that they would like
discovery systems and publishers’ search engines to replicate Google; and they
would also like publishers to produce more ‘how to’ video clips of the type
found on YouTube.
The students were also asked how they knew they could trust
material they just found on the Internet, as opposed to via the Library or
conventional publishers’ sites. “You get
to know which ones are most tried and tested; and students talk to each other
about them. I struggled with Maths two
years ago. I found a website that gave
good explanations and clear examples and operated at my level in the subject.”
Louis asked them when they felt lecturers were or were not
helpful. Opinions on this varied, from
“Textbooks are a guide only; the role of the teacher is most important”, to
“Some lecturers tend to over-explain” and “Sometimes you need to go through the
whole book to search for the keywords they’ve mentioned”. Some lecturers fail to put an author on the
reading list and then mention them extensively in the lecture – so the author
and his or her work is “lost in the wind”.
Asked how much they would be prepared to pay for a textbook,
they suggested that £30 was a “manageable” price for a book they really
needed. “£50 is too much, even with
discount.” However, two of the students
said that if a book was more expensive but contained more worked examples, they
would then buy it. Accompanying answers
to the questions or worked examples are also vital: “If there aren’t answers
provided, I don’t look at the questions.”
Tables of Contents came in for some criticism. “The explanations in them aren’t detailed
enough. It makes me frustrated when they
don’t describe what’s actually in the chapter.”
Short textbooks were almost universally preferred. The students felt that book length could be
cut down considerably by omitting details of the provenance of a concept and
how it evolved – though one said that maybe such information might be more interesting
in later years of study. “An engineer
doesn’t need to see the history of what he does, but I guess that, for the
Humanities, there is a need to draw a lot more connections.”
None of the students regretted choosing to study in the UK,
despite the expense. “It’s a great
country – in education, it sets a very high standard. I’m from a developing country. There are people needing these types of
materials in my country, that are accessible to them. They want a real textbook that is relevant
for them. Publishers might think this is
obvious, but maybe the message hasn’t got across.”
However, these students didn’t necessarily think
that textbooks would be the key resource of the future, as they still are of
the present. “It is really difficult to
be able to say that this is the form / shape / structure of the material I will
always want to buy.”
“Post-18 report” or “Augar report” – there has been talk about this long-awaited report in the HE sector for a while, and it played a pivotal role in the discussions at the ABT Conference (see our last blog post). Yesterday, it finally was published, but what is all that about??
Last year, for the first time in more than 50 years, the government commissioned a review into student finance to inform the sector. The report was conducted by an independent panel following an initiative by businessman Philip Augar, and was originally expected to be released in February 2019. With much delay and long awaited, the “Review of Post-18 Education and Funding” was finally published on May 30th. 216 pages long, it gives a wide variety of recommendations (50 in total) and considers many details that affect student finance and the cost of Higher (and Further) Education. What’s remarkable is that it includes all post-compulsory education funding, so covers both HE and FE.
And one of its most important conclusions is that Further Education is in much greater
need of support than the Higher Education sector. A new mission is needed for
Further Education, and it needs solid financial backing. The three main
recommendations for this sector are the protection of the title “College” (just
in line with that of “University”) to enhance the knowledge of its meaning in
society and a certain quality-control, a creation of a coherent network of
colleges across the UK that deliver skills (focussed on levels three to five),
and a substantial increase in funding.
the main recommendation is a growth in degree-level and level seven
apprenticeships, though acknowledging the expense of that route. One suggestion
is to limit the funding for apprenticeships to those apprentices who do not
already hold a degree-level qualification. The panel sees a need for Ofsted to
assume responsibility for assessing all levels of apprenticeships.
The recommendation that Higher
Education should reduce the tuition fee cap to £7,500 (and then freeze it
until 2022/23 before increasing it in line with inflation) has made the
national news over the past 24 hours. The recommendation also says that the
income gap should be closed by the increase of teaching grants by the
government, and should be adjusted on a subject-level basis, according to the
cost of each subject. According to the report, the funding for widening
participation should not be taken out of a proportion of the student fee (the
current system), but instead a funding system comparable to the schools’
Student Premium should be introduced. Using this method, a university would
receive its grant based on the actual intake numbers of socially and
economically disadvantaged students.
On the wider topic of student
finance (which affects all above-mentioned kinds of non-compulsory
education), the basis of the recommendations is that the tax-payer should be
covering a smaller proportion of the student finance system. Based on research
conducted by the Department of Education that suggests that people would prefer
higher monthly repayments and a longer repayment period in return for lower
fees and lower interest rates (surprisingly!), the recommendations say that
there should be zero interest applied during the study, that the repayment
threshold should be reduced (to median non-graduate salary) and that the
repayment period should be extended to forty years. There are also suggested changes
to interest rates and the lifetime repayments to avoid those who earn more
later in their careers being penalised.
However, the most interesting recommendation for the sector is perhaps the
re-introduction of maintenance grants of at least £3,000 per eligible student.
The panel also recommends that the expectation of parents’ contributions (of
families of higher income) should be made clearer, so both students and parents
know what kind of financial support a student could or should expect from their
Overall, the report has been conducted in a mindful way,
with awareness of current pressures on student finance, addressing the needs of
Further Education and a sense of detail about university finance. Whether the
report reflects the realities faced by students and universities and supports
their interests more widely is another question. Whether any of these
recommendations will be carried out, given the current political climate, is an
entirely different issue.
The ABT Conference 2019 was held in Kenilworth on 9th and 10th May. It was chaired by Louis Coiffait, the newly-appointed Head of Policy at London Metropolitan University.
Louis also gave the opening keynote talk, which, like his
address at the 2018 conference, was entitled The Shipping News (capturing many changes that have taken place in
HE over the intervening 12 months).
Before giving his presentation, Louis introduced Lynne
O’Neill, the current (but, sadly, outgoing) chair of ABT. Lynne said that although publishers and
booksellers appear to operate by different rules, they are pursuing the same
goals, and do need to work together. The
long-term prospects for both industries are encouraging, although in the short
term Brexit brings with it continuing uncertainty. UK Higher Education institutions retain their
high reputation, but UK researchers are being excluded from EU projects; and
the question needs to be asked whether we can still demonstrate the benefits of
a university education to the young.
Louis said that students were now truly at the heart of the
system: the Office for Students [OfS] puts students first, whereas its
predecessor, HEFCE, acted as something of a buffer for universities. There have been many reviews and reports: Augar
is just the latest of a long line. There
is a big risk that universities will get pulled in two directions: teaching vs
research. What does the government want
from universities? Economic growth, to
take the UK to the OECD average; HE “market choice” – new providers, more
competition; and “fair” value for money, for both taxpayers and students.
Jackie Labbe, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at de Montfort
University, talked about Subject-level
TEF and How it Works. She said that, like TEF itself,
subject-level TEF is still metrics-driven, but the reports are more
narrative-based. The key to success for
universities is just to present the facts as they are: “Don’t rationalise; don’t
justify; don’t argue”. At de Montfort,
most of the subject-level TEF activity took place centrally and was led by
senior management. De Montfort was one
of a handful of universities to pilot subject level TEF, beginning in the
academic year 2017 – 2018. In the first
year, the pilot experimented with 2 models: Model A, by exception, which looked
at 12 – 13 subjects that didn’t achieve Gold status in the general TEF; and
Model B, which took all subjects offered at the university aggregated to 7
subject areas. Along with most of the
other pilot institutions, de Montfort felt that neither model was particularly
successful. In the second year, more
local expertise was introduced, in the shape of course leaders. Model C was added – this involves a 5-page
narrative statement based on 9 metrics.
It was agreed this worked better.
Many challenges still remain, including mapping ‘hybrid’ subjects to
specific courses or programmes; obtaining engagement, especially from students;
reconciling competing demands within the university; and measuring student
outcomes – i.e., understanding what success looks like. Jackie concluded “Some form of subject TEF
will survive, but probably not Model A, B or C.”
Becky Roberts, Customer Insights Manager at Cambridge University
Press, and Stuart Webster and Dr Andrew Ashwin, respectively Digital Solutions
Manager and Head of Publishing at Cengage, shared with the audience some of
their recent work in Changing
Pedagogies: the Challenge of Developing the Right Resource Materials. All concluded that understanding pedagogical
needs in a rapidly changing HE environment was a complex process. Not least among the challenges is the need to
partner with third parties. The
traditional textbook publisher provided core, curated content with little
outside input; now change is the name of the game and publishers must work with
‘Ed Tech’ and ‘Learning Science’ companies.
Sofie Wennström, Managing Editor, Stockholm
University Press and Analyst, Stockholm University Library, gave as the title
of her talk The Deal-Maker and the
Content-Creator: the Academic Library as Transformative Agent for OA. She said that in both roles she had developed
a user-centric approach, delivering to users what they need when they need it.
Sweden, which is one of the leaders of Open Access in Europe with its BIBSAM
project, takes many of its publishing goals from the EU. These include making everything available on
EOSC; adopting creative commons licensing to preserve author rights; working
towards no embargo periods and 100% OA; and updating electronic platforms and
formats to allow TDM. When implementing
these initiatives, there is a definite bias towards STM subjects and the
article format. Open Access for journals
articles in the sciences is common and accepted. It is more difficult to engage with AHSS
subjects because they don’t get the research funding to support OA; and then
there is the question of monographs. Sofie
said the change to OA monographs would be much slower for the Stockholm
University Press; but there are other players who already have a good track
record here: for example, UCL Press and the University of Amsterdam Press.
Linda Bennett of Gold Leaf, who has been the conference’s programme director for the past eighteen years, offered key points from the Sage / Gold Leaf Pedagogical Report and said this would be her farewell to the conference in an official capacity. More details about the report can be found here.
At the Academic Book Trade Awards ceremony which followed the conference dinner, Oxford University Press won Ingram Publisher of the Year and Blackwell brought home all three Macmillan Study Skills awards for booksellers: Chain Bookseller of the Year, Academic Bookshop of the Year (Blackwell, South Bridge, Edinburgh) and Bookseller of the Year (Clare Pepper of Blackwell University of Kent in Canterbury). The Ingram Rep of the Year award went to Lucy Pink of Taylor & Francis, and “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari (published by Vintage) was awarded Academic Book Week Book of the Year. The BA’s outgoing CEO Tim Godfray was given the Outstanding Contribution Award for his career of over 30 years working in, with and representing the bookselling community. The after-dinner speaker was Bec Evans, who talked about the techniques of making ideas happen and how to learn from failure which are the topic of her most recent book, “How to have a happy hustle” (published by Icon Books).
Andy Stephens, FCA, Director of Finance at Loughborough University, took as his subject University Finances … on the Brink? He explained how the finances of a medium-sized UK university work. Loughborough – which was awarded Gold in the TEF last year and is the Sunday Times University of the Year this year – has a turnover of £320m, 18,000 students and 3,800 staff. He said that, contrary to popular belief, the university sector operates on a very small margin, despite which this is getting tighter; among all universities there is an increasing reliance on tuition fees as the government withdraws funding; and it is a false assumption that university income is supplemented by research, as most research money has to be spent on the project it is intended for. Furthermore, any increase in the student population will “massively dilute the student experience”. There is also a 5% decrease in the home student demographic, but as a country “we haven’t exactly put out the Welcome mat for overseas students”. The upshot is that some universities will grow at the expense of others; and some will be hobbled by debt, the result of unwise past investment decisions. However, the current climate offers universities the chance to take stock; to examine and challenge the way they do things; and to diversify and explore new ways of attracting income.
The overall themes of the conference were collaboration –
between different stakeholders – and efficacy – the perennial holy grail to
prove the link between academic resources and academic achievement.
Please look out for the next post, which will summarise what
was said at the conference workshops.