Students criticise teaching quality scheme

Germany’s student union has criticised efforts to improve higher education funding, saying they contribute too little towards improving teaching and focus too much on a research elite.

Support for teaching via an initiative led by the Stifterverband, a private association supported by the German business community, is claimed to involve too little money. Recent attempts to amend the constitutional framework of higher education to allow for more cooperation are said to focus, in effect, too much on a research elite.

In January, the Stifterverband, announced its 'Excellence Initiative for Teaching', with which it sought to provide €5 million (US$6.6 million) to improve teaching in higher education. The Stifterverband assumed that the Kultusministerkonferenz (KMK), the conference of ministers at state level dealing with education affairs, would contribute a further €5 million.

A programme to promote excellence in higher education research has already been operating since 2006. Now commonly referred to as the 'Excellence Initiative', this federal government-funded scheme concentrates its resources on institutions that have won a competition to identify the most promising research concepts.

In the Stifterverband initiative, universities are to explain how they wish to attain top-level teaching standards, and there will be special support for academics presenting new teaching concepts.

“Teaching must no longer stand in the shadow of research,” says Stifterverband president Arend Oetker.

The KMK was initially somewhat reluctant to take to the new scheme, and its president, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, referred to a competition to boost teaching standards as a “difficult issue”, arguing that there were hardly any criteria for good teaching.

More importantly, Kramp-Karrenbauer pointed to the miserable student-teacher ratios of up to 100:1 in Germany, and maintained that any competition of this kind would require sufficient funding. But for the less wealthy states, including the Saar where she is government leader, it is difficult to provide such funding.

Nevertheless, the state governments have since joined forces with the Stifterverband. The selection of the winners, resulting in the subsequent allocation of extra funding, is to take place in December.

However students are still not impressed. Anja Gadow, a board member of the student union, Freier Zusammenschluss von StudentInnenschaften (FZS), said: “Given the mere €10 million, a tiny amount compared to the money involved in the Excellence Initiative launched by the federal government, we aren’t really expecting anything, least of all the creation of an urgently needed culture of learning at higher education institutions.”

The FZS is highly critical of the competitive element in the Stifterverband programme. Florian Keller, another board member, said: “The state governments would do well to provide more money for publicly funded institutions.”

Allowing only university management to hand in proposals meant that non-professorial academic staff and students are bypassed. “This slows down progress in science and cements existing power structures,” Keller said.

The FZS is equally wary of the amendment to the constitution that the federal government is seeking to enable more cooperation in higher education affairs at state and federal levels. As yet, government efforts to enhance cooperation focus on individual research projects.

Salome Adam, another board member, said: “Given the massive problems that still prevail in basic funding of institutions, we can’t afford to promote so-called top-flight projects in higher education.”