One of the things I most enjoyed about spending a couple of months in German universities this year, and most envy about their set-up, was the sense of freedom when it comes to teaching. Within remarkably broad limits, and subject only to a remarkably small number of regulations and administrative imperatives, it seems that professors can do more or less what they like, and can extend that freedom to their colleagues. One can teach a course over a full semester, or over half a semester with an all-day Blockseminar, or even (presumably) through a number of Blockseminars rather than a weekly class, whatever seems to suit the topic and the level of the students best. One can introduce a new course on one’s research interests without having to complete a lengthy form and submit it for approval from the university – and without the risk of being told, sorry, because of the work involved in completing and approving forms, no new units are being accepted for the foreseeable future. Indeed, when I mentioned even a few minor examples of the bureaucratisation of teaching (without even hinting at the scrutiny of assessment), all I got were incredulous stares. Goodness knows what my German colleagues would think of the full reality.
It’s about trust, clearly: German professors (and for all I know, professors in every other country) are trusted (by the faculty and university administration, by the state) to teach appropriately and well and to assess fairly, and left to get on with it, whereas UK professors are not. How is it that we have lost this trust and they’ve retained it? Is it a cultural thing, with a persistent respect for education and its practitioners in continental Europe whereas British academics are subject to the same suspicion and scrutiny as every other public servant in a atmosphere of obsessive measurement and demands for uniformity of practice? How far have we forfeited that trust as a result of too many academics not being terribly good or committed teachers, so that those of us who care about teaching didn’t seriously impose the introduction of more standards and rules because it was obvious that there were problem cases where impovement was required? How far should we blame the RAE for any of this, for compelling us all to focus more on research (even at the expense of teaching) and thus creating a vacuum for initiatives to improve teaching quality (obviously in ways other than reducing the emphasis on research or giving us more time to do both)?
i wonder also about the significance of two structural factors – a comparison of more than two countries might be useful here. Firstly, the very structured degree programmes in the UK mean that students have had very little opportunity to show a low opinion of a particular teaching by avoiding his/her classes; increasingly, the classes of a less popular teacher will be filled regardless, because it isn’t economical to put on enough different classes to allow any to be under-strength. Of course students now get to express their views in feedback questionnaires and in the NSS, but these were a product of the loss of trust and drive for regulation; they’re all confidential, driving ‘quality’ frameworks and processes rather than student choice, and the NSS (besides being incredibly unspecific) can affect only whether or not students choose a particular programme, rather than their choices within that programme. In Germany, on the other hand, students have much greater freedom in choosing units to make up their degrees, and there is far less regulation of class numbers (which of course brings other problems), and so a teacher with a poor reputation can rapidly find that his classes are avoided – and that gets noticed by higher authorities, with direct implications for the department’s reputation and well-being. In brief, students elsewhere can vote with their feet, whereas our students are essentially a captive audience and we’re simply trying to manage their mood; German professors have a very direct incentive to ensure teaching is of decent quality, and can be trusted to do this from sheer self-interest, whereas we need to be presented with additional incentives (or rather threats of punishment).
Secondly, there’s the very hierarchical organisation: in most humanities departments in Germany, a small number of professors carry full responsibility for everything in that subject area, including student numbers, and bear the consequences if things go wrong. In the UK, the organisation is much more horizontal and diffused, so that heads of department, departmental teaching officers and the like have only limited power to dictate to colleagues and conversely carry only limited responsibility if things go wrong. Prior to the quality framework revolution or whatever you want to call it, departments didn’t closely regulate teaching quality, partly because they probably saw that as an attack on individual colleagues’ autonomy and partly because they lacked the structures and incentives to do this; as a result, the task of regulating quality, when this was introduced, was vested for the most part not in departments (because they lacked the structures, and weren’t trusted enough) but in higher levels of organisation, including the professional managers of education quality. it’s quite understandable that they then set about crafting guidelines that would apply across the board to implement standards and standardised behaviour – even if this sometimes meant imposing structures developed for the Engineering Faculty on the humanities.
I’m not sure where this is leading, apart from the unhelpful “well, I wouldn’t start from here” conclusion…