The Bologna Experience

Let me talk about something that concerns every university teacher, and every student in Europe more than we all thought it would. The universities, especially in Germany, are going to change. Since there are many newbies around, it is worth reflecting a little the history of the Humboldt university. Though this is an English speaking blog, I concentrate on Germany. Admittedly, my knowledge about the former state of universities in outside Germany is limited.

Can you imagine, that only a little more than 40 years ago there were no semester tests, only final exams, mostly oral? There was no limitation on the duration of the studies, besides your money. Every student could study everything he wanted everywhere. In Germany, once you got the „Abitur“, you were entitled to study. Professors were researches, not teachers. Assistant professors were future professors, helping out in research, not holding tutorials. Student fees were non-existant, in fact, some constitutions expressively forbid fees for education till today.

With the rise of the number of students, universities first introduced semester tests for the basic classes. Some actually had to passed, others were volunatry. If you had collected enough passed classes, you were allowed to the final examination called „Diplom“ or „Examen“. They also introduced an examination in the middle of the study years, called „Vordiplom“ or „Zwischenprüfung“. The idea was to guide the student learning, and to get rid of inapt students early.

The universities also invented the „Numerus Clausus“ to keep the numbers of students manageable. Due to the sheer pressure of the masses streaming to the university, these numbers could be as high as over 1000  freshmen for economy. In medicine, the restriction meant that only people with the very best possible grad (1.0 in Germany) could start to study immediately. Others had to gain waiting points, which caused many wannabe doctors to start only after several years. Moreover, the university of choice was no longer guaranteed.

I do well remember the protests of the 68 generation against this.

And now?

If we read the treaties, the Bologna process was initiated to install a uniform university system throughout Europe. It was desired that students are able to switch their town and country often and without drawbacks.  To this end, the studies were separated into lower and higher degree studies (Bachelor and Master) with the idea that the Master could be taken in another university, place, or even country. Moreover, students should be able to take semesters abroad. This implies a uniform grading system, the credit point system. This idea in itself does not sound bad.

The problems begin, when bureaucrats, lawyers, politicians, and lobbyists get involved. Each of these groups presented a new problem, and set new targets. I do not know were to begin to complain actually.

First, it was decided, that classes are now modules. Each and every passed module earns an amount of credit points and a grade. The result is that the students are now burdened with at least six tests around the last semester weak, each semester. The grades counts towards their final grade. Missing a test means failing the module, and in effect may easily mean one more year of study. Consequently, there is always a second chance at the beginning of the next semester. However, it is almost a mathematical necessity of the desired result distribution, that some mediocre students fail both. Moreover, many students choose to take the second chance only, since they are completely unprepared for the first in at least one of their classes. They get one more chance to repeat this module in the next years this way. This decreases the chances to pass all classes, of course. In short, study times get longer, instead of shorter as desired. Exactly this result can now be observed.

Was this necessary for the European integration? I don’t think so. A more clever system would allow more freedom for the student, allow him to defer some tests to a later date. It would require him to reflect about the learned material once more, before going into a final examination. This would even be possible within a module system if only the bureaucrats would not have insisted that a semester is worth 30 credit points of work, and that this has to be covered with tests immediately. In some universities, the lawyers have set up strict rules for possible amount of credit points (5 or 10), for the duration of a module (1 semester), and even for the test (two 2 hour written examinations). These regulations sum up to a system, which can no longer simply be ignored by the teacher and the student.

Then, universities started a competition for the „best heads“. So even the most boring and easy Bachelor degrees now have a selection by grades, entrance examinations and interviews. Students usually apply for several universities, not to get a grant, but simply to be admitted. Moreover, students have to pay per semester. This all, of course, is copied from the US system, but without the many grants available there. Many high school pupils don’t know this yet, but it may turn out to be important what grades they have for their future life.

Is this kind of selection necessary for European integration? I can’t see why. It is an idea of industry lobbyists, who want universities of their design. It is an offspring of neoliberal thinking. Universities shall be be competitive, with the weaker ones dying or doomed to become unimportant, getting the inferior personal and the inferior students. Shall I complain about this? I hesitate. For who would not bravo the idea of excellence collected at an excellent place. Isn’t it that what we need? Maybe not. We need a good education by good teachers for all, I think. Excellent students are excellent everywhere.

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