Deutsch, Students, Universities

Germany: Universities of Excellence – excellent universities?

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 the TEF.

The German “Universities of Excellence” are:

  • RWTH Aachen (Rheinisch Westfälisch Technische Hochschule)
  • “Berlin University Alliance” (including FU Berlin, Humboldt University Berlin, TU Berlin and Charité)
  • University of Bonn (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität)
  • Technical University of Dresden
  • University of Hamburg
  • Heidelberg University (Ruprechts-Karls-Universität)
  • KIT – Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
  • University of Konstanz
  • LMU – Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich
  • Technical University of Munich
  • University of Tübingen (Eberhard-Karls-Universität).
Libraries, Pedagogical Resources, Students, Universities

NSS results 2019 and Learning Resources

On Wednesday, the Office for Students published the results of this year’s National Student Survey.

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 response rate?

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 English institutions.

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 each).

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!

Conferences, Pedagogical Resources, Students, Universities

The ABT Conference 2019 – Student Workshop

(Picture of the ABT Conference Student Panel, (c) Alan Staton, Booksellers Association)

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.”

Finances, Policy, Universities

HE and Student Finance: The “Augar Report” – what’s in it?

“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.

On apprenticeships, 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 parents.

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 full report can be downloaded from the Gov.uk website.


Finances, Universities

Bums on Seats: Regulating the UK Higher Education Sector

Gold Leaf carries out a great deal of research in and around universities, both in the UK and in many other places in the world.  An issue that several of its recent research projects has highlighted is the heightened competition to which the HE sector is now being subjected globally.  In the UK, this was largely caused by the decision taken by recent governments – of both main political persuasions –  to create a ‘market’ within the HE sector; unfortunately, in the minds of students and their parents, it has also become linked with the rapid hike in fees that took place at around the same time.  This has had the unforeseen (and presumably unwanted by the government) effect of causing some students to believe that they are ‘paying for’ their degrees – i.e., paying for the actual grades they are awarded, not just the tuition fees.

It is perhaps unfortunate that during the same period the activities of HEFCE [Higher Education Funding Council for England] were wound down, as HEFCE was replaced by the OfS [Office for Students].  A certain hiatus resulted, as the OfS seemed to be relatively slow in getting into gear and for a while little regulatory work seemed to be being carried out in the sector.

This has now changed.  The OfS has flexed its muscles by publishing a series of important reports and directives, one of the most recent of which is entitled Financial Sustainability of Higher Education Providers in England.   The report states that, as part of the registration and ongoing monitoring process, all higher education providers are now required to demonstrate to the OfS that they are financially viable and sustainable. 

Some Vice-Chancellors of even well-known and very well-established universities may have quailed at learning this, as their seeming failure to be able to balance the books has frequently been dissected by the Press over the last two or three years.  The OfS doesn’t explain its methods, however – there are many kinds of capital, for example, not all of them tangible, and it doesn’t say which kinds are acceptable in boosting universities’ perceived solvency – but it does say “our analysis suggests that the sector overall is currently in reasonable financial health”.   Better news than might have been thought, then. But, sounding a greater note of caution immediately afterwards, the OfS adds that “the general picture masks considerable variations in financial performance between individual providers”.  Not really a surprise, but perhaps some Vice-Chancellors should start quaking, after all.

Although some providers are predicted to do less well next year than initially expected, the OfS says that this is mainly because the forecast growth in student numbers has been over-optimistic in the short term; but apparently universities’ student recruitment ambitions now stand a greater chance of being realised.  Of the 183 registered UK HE providers, 122 are assuming growth in student numbers of more than 5% – the students are expected to come from the “UK, EU and overseas” – in the next four years.   The OfS notes that most of these providers are not reliant on this projected growth to reduce their projected costs (i.e., their calculations are not based on what economists call ‘margin’) if their student recruitment ambitions are not met, so the OfS will continue to monitor them closely for financial stability.  Good news for students and their parents, then.  Vice-Chancellors still under pressure!

However: “Collectively, providers forecast the number of overseas students to increase by approximately 56,000 full-time equivalent (FTE)(20.7 per cent). Fee income from overseas students is projected to rise by £1.7 billion (37.9 per cent), suggesting an anticipated increase in the average fee charged to overseas students. The government’s recently announced international education strategy aims to support the sector to increase the number of overseas students.”  Is this a cunning element of the government’s Brexit plans?

Almost as an afterthought, the report acknowledges that the higher education sector continues to face uncertainties, “including the UK’s future relationship with the EU; potential changes in government policy following the review of post-18 education funding; and as a consequence of student choice following a continuing decline in the 18-year-old UK population to 2020.” 

Aside from the fact that the last statement appears to blame the decline in 18-year olds by 2020 on “student choice” (were the first-borns so obnoxious that they deterred their parents from providing siblings?), the report fails to inspire confidence.  The cautious optimism it demonstrates in the face of almost certain adversity seems almost reckless.        

Nevertheless, it is an interesting document: it produces some useful financial detail about where the university sector in the UK is heading, and as it is only 23 pages long, offers both information and entertainment (infotainment?) at the expense of not too great an outlay in time. 

The report may be found at https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/cf54b6ee-714e-45c3-ade9-56bc685b861d/report-on-financial-sustainability-of-higher-education-providers-in-england.pdf

Pedagogical Resources, Pedagogical trends, Universities

Flipped Learning and OERs

Of the pedagogical trends identified by the research (commissioned in partnership with SAGE Publishing), by far the most prominent were research-led teaching and flipped learning – the latter often mentioned in conjunction with technologically-enhanced resources. 

Flipped learning, which was practised in schools for some time before it took hold in universities, promotes dynamic learning by encouraging the student to take more responsibility for study.  There is no single accepted definition of what it entails, but as well as technological innovation it often involves pre-class prep by students; more targeted use of lecturer contact hours; and the use of (often online) assessment to enable lecturers to identify students’ strengths and weaknesses (with the intent of enabling them to focus on the latter).  It may be delivered as a form of blended learning; and some of the most successful practitioners combine its use with more traditional pedagogical methods.  Despite the fact that one of the reasons for its development was to enable lecturers to cope with large cohorts of students, there is some evidence that it is more effective with relatively small groups.

Open Education Resources (OERs) have enjoyed quite a lot of media exposure recently and are often favoured by senior university administrators, because they help to fulfil the promise that students won’t have to pay extra for resources; and also serve to highlight the uniqueness of the individual university’s offering.  In addition, they win Brownie points by showing support in principle for the Open Access movement. Some academics are enthusiastic about developing them and there have been several serious experiments with OERs at UK universities; but they come with drawbacks.  From the academic’s point of view, chief among these is the time they take to develop, and even more, to keep updated, when academics’ schedules are already being squeezed to fit in teaching, research and administration. 

From the purist’s point of view, an OER is not really an OER if the university is not prepared to make it available to other institutions and students not enrolled in its own institution – an attitude which many adopt now that HE is promoted by the government as a ‘market’ and universities are in competition with each other.  (Such OERs may be contrasted with MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – which by definition are Open Access.)

However, an OER doesn’t have to be a full-length book or comprehensive study programme: much smaller units of teaching and learning resource can qualify, such as individual ‘repurposable’ units of knowledge; quizzes and notes placed by lecturers on the VLE; academics’ own podcasts and video clips; and Lecture Capture, but again only if made available to a wider audience than the university’s own students.

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Once the report is available online, we will post the link here. So, just subscribe to our blog and you won’t miss the release.

Digital Publishing, Pedagogical Resources, Universities

It’s all in the metrics: Reading List Software and other measures

So, how are libraries measuring the success of a resource?

That’s a tricky question, and all the libraries we talked to used a mixture of “hard” metrics such as usage statistics and “soft” ones like student and user surveys. Even though most online resources provide usage statistics, these often are not particularly user-friendly, and don’t necessarily measure the effectiveness of a resource. Reading List Software can give a much better picture, with metrics providing a better understanding of resource use.  It is being used at all the universities we worked with. However, often academics do not engage with the software; it’s not a seldom occurrence for them to refuse using it because they say it’s not user-friendly or they don’t have time to get their heads round it. In most cases, it’s the Library that administers the software and provides the training – and often actually uploads the titles into the system on behalf of the academics.

There is a wide divergence of opinion about how long a reading list should be, and how much new material it should contain.  In some instances librarians use the software to steer academics and students to resources already held by the Library, rather than investing in new ones.

Overall, the evidence shows librarians have a much bigger impact on resource choice and use than they think. They tend to under-estimate their powers of influence: more academics agree than don’t agree that librarians influence reading list choices.

‘Virtuous circle’ of Librarian Influence, (c) Gold Leaf, 2019

For the last post about key findings of the study “How Are Students and Academics Using Pedagogical Resources Today?” (in partnership with SAGE Publishing), please come back to our blog tomorrow, when we will talk about Flipped Learning and OERs.