Contradictions between saying and doing.

One thing that I cannot get out of my mind is this:

If we would summarise the values that we and teachers and schools want to teach our children, it would be:

Team work, cooperation. Fairness. How to solve conflicts. Being able to create an environment that everybody can enjoy. Value roots, celebrate traditions, and not only those of the majority.

I’m not saying that all schools, all teachers everywhere are successful in doing that, I’m saying that today, there are only few who see bullying as a means of promoting values in a school any more – which they did, look it up. Schools today often try to learn more about traditions and rituals elsewhere. They work hard to reflect the social diversity of their students.

And the opposite of that is what came out as victorious in Brexit: Don’t cooperate. Despise compromise. Assume that your national priorities are more important than anything else. Focus on the outcome, not the process – no matter what.






Universities cannot solve all the problems in the world. But they should try.

[My “Think Piece” for GAPS.]
As I am writing this, people around me are discussing the aftermath of the UK vote to exit the European Union. I belong to one of the groups that benefit a lot from the European Union: the EU migrants who moved to another country for a better (or more satisfying) job. So I have very personal reasons to oppose the Leave campaign, but I try to understand it. And part of me is grieving with the “leave” campaigners who dream about the easy, national solutions to the complex, international challenges. I commiserate with the “native” population feeling disenfranchised by foreigners, overwhelmed by growing insecurities in their lives.
The problem is that the results of this vote won’t change anything. The developments in technology, economy, society and in the environment will still be closely linked, and we will continue to feel out of breath, helpless or disenfranchised by them. For the problems that humanity is facing today, there aren’t any local, national solutions. And the changes and challenges of the last decades are probably small, compared to the likely changes that will hit us in the coming decades.
The outlook might also be challenging because the process we have to solve our problems – politics – seems inaccessible to many, if not most, citizens, and especially young people: “Young people have been turned off politics.”1 There seems to be a “civic empowerment gap”2: Everyone has their vote, but apparently it is mostly affluent and middle-class people that feel they can influence politics. This feeling of not being part of the debate, but being condemned to passively endure the effects of others’ decisions is troubling, and can take an ugly turn, especially when the economic situation worsens. But we need to start with the assumption that many people don’t know how (and why) to engage. Active citizenship needs to be learned, and it is not enough that we rely mostly on parents to teach their kids how – nor can they teach what they never experienced themselves. Educational institutions need to teach systematically how to participate in society.
This idea is certainly not new. The Talloires Network, founded in 2005, is an “international association of institutions committed to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of higher education”3. And the issue is certainly gaining more traction with the decision of the OECD to add a metrics on “global competence” to the PISA study, assessing how educational systems succeed in teaching young people how to “support the development of peaceful, diverse communities”4.

Because if we don’t do it systematically, we might contribute to even more disengagement: A study of 23,000 students at 23 colleges conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 2009 found that freshmen on campus felt more strongly about their presence and involvement in their new community than upper year students: 50.5 percent of freshmen believed that they had a responsibility to contribute to the larger community compared to 41.1 percent of seniors. “This means that, upon leaving college, more students felt less responsible for becoming a voice in their communities then when entering the university.”5
This year, the project ESPRIT ends, funded in the EU Tempus program. The goal of the project was “to analyze, map and strengthen the social and public roles of higher education institutions in Israel, together with universities from European countries.”6 The project explores the social mission that universities have, e.g. when they improve access to university, when they offer public or community engagement programs7, but also when a university engages in green programs8 or improve equality for their employees9. So the ESPRIT project is not telling universities to engage in these activities. Universities all over the world are already doing that, it is not a new thing for them. But do we recognize these contributions appropriately?
Until now, assessments of universities have tended to focus solely on the academic aspects of their activities, namely research and teaching. Even the U-Multirank university ranking, which extended the range of dimensions by which to assess universities10, does not include the dimension of social impact of universities.
Universities educate an increasingly large share of school leavers. And they are not only educators, they are also the main source for all the knowledge that we have about the role of education for the ability of young persons to participate in society. Many countries have policies for widening access to university, and the next thing we learn is that there are still disadvantages for certain groups of students: We know that the disadvantages of underrepresented groups have “little to do with any real deficiency in terms of ability”. Even so, the inequalities – based on economic and educational background – continue during and after university11. Tim Blackman, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, UK, argued recently that universities should not focus on ability when they select their students: “Institutions with diverse student bodies, where the peak of academic achievement is to enable those with mixed abilities to learn successfully together and where the measure of great discoveries is not just densely written articles behind publishers’ paywalls but innovations that make a difference: that is an alternative vision of higher education for the 21st century.”12
But how can we achieve this? Do universities have the tools to do that and are they willing and able to change? Because it will change the focus of academia. Universities will no longer be just an institutional framework for research, teaching and learning. They need to reinvent themselves as social enterprises, where the process of how research is being done, how the students learn as well as the teaching contexts are just as important as the results. Even more, the activities need to be interlinked. Being a part of the university needs to be an experience that enables the students to participate successfully in processes or systems outside of the university, in companies, in politics.

So e.g. improving the green impact of the institution needs to become a part of the learning experience of the students. And instead of expecting the students to adapt to the academic context and dismiss their past experiences, lecturers need to learn how to engage with the students’ diverse backgrounds in a way that enriches teaching and learning and enables students to reflect on and engage productively with their own background.
There are strong signs that the learning experience will be limited if the universities don’t actively engage in inclusivity. Experiences from ethnically diverse communities suggest that diversity is not a positive experience per se: Comparing attitudes towards minorities in cities, a study showed13 that being exposed to minorities doesn’t automatically lead to less prejudices. Contact between different ethnic groups is necessary in order to learn how to live together peacefully, and this peace seems to be vulnerable to negative media reports and stereotypes.
This is also a lesson learned by companies that started to manage diversity among their staff: For individuals, this might be an enriching experience. For the company, it can lead to conflicts and low productivity if diversity is not managed well. The approach of “diversity management” adds the idea that diversity is in fact an untapped resource which can be used e.g. to improve cooperation within the company, the company’s products or customer service, and thus contribute to the company’s success.
So how can universities use ethnic as well as social diversity of students and staff for improving teaching and learning, research and internal governance? And how can these experiences be used to have a positive impact on society?
Learn more about the negative effects of diversity Universities already know about negative effects of diversity. The lower success rate of minority students is one of them, others are the effort that lecturers need to apply to groups of students with different levels of knowledge and experience, or the issues arising when international students act differently from what lecturers expected. And, truth be told, the struggle to include women at university is still not over, even after all these decades, as gender inequalities as well as pervasive experiences of sexual harassment show. And the increasing demand for cooperation among disciplines is difficult to deliver, seeing as even the diversity created by the institution itself is not easily dealt with.
At the same time, this offers the chance to learn more about what the university is actually doing when there is teaching and learning and research, answering the question, “What was it that worked with the old group of students that does not work now anymore?”
Diversity can be exasperating. However, if we leave it at that, it will be the “others” who have to carry the burden of lack of integration and inclusion. So the more transparent we are about the negative effects that diversity can have, and how much work we need to put in in order to make it work, the higher is the probability that we might actually succeed.

What is it that everybody is meant to contribute to? Universities already address diversity as well as non-academic goals in their mission statements and strategies. However, this does not automatically mean that they will be ready or able to prioritize these issues. So what is it exactly that the university wants to prepare the students for – and how and where is that accomplished?
In the context of a diversity management approach it would be important to develop in detail how these goals can be reached and what the individuals’ contributions could look like. In a “all hands on deck” situation, which are the abilities and perspectives that we haven’t put to good use yet? It is important to be aware that this will lead to a lot of change. It will change how the institution does things, and it may even change the goals that the institution wants to achieve.
But contributing to the university’s goals is obviously not why a student goes to university. Students probably want to get an education that helps them to find a career. The university’s agenda to transform them into academics, into critical thinkers, active citizens or entrepreneurs, needs to be presented convincingly as part of the educational program.
What does that mean, practically? First of all, none of this just happens on its own. It never did, it was done by other agents, probably the parents of the students. It needs increasingly more planning; it needs to be implemented into the activities of the institutions.
Therefore, it is not something that individual lecturers can successfully take on on their own. It requires an institutional, managed approach that enables institutional learning. It is necessary to face the awful truths of our dear traditions and how the way we always did things leads to advantages for some and comes with disadvantages for others. And academic staff needs help to understand their role in this context: What does student-orientation mean in a context of non-academic educational goals and a diverse student body? How does the knowledge about disadvantages and the effects of diversity translate into productive pedagogies? What does student success mean in the university’s context and what contributes to it? And how does all of that change the university as an institution?
1 Anja Neundorf and Kaat Smets: “Young people are detached from politics – schools can be the solution.” May 3, 2016. Retrieved 18/6/2016.
2 Neundorf/Smets quoting political philosopher Meira Levinson.
4 Closely related it the new “global competence” metric planned by the OECD PISA project: Last month, the OECD announced that they will develop a metric measure for “global competence”. This measure is meant to “assess young people’s understanding of global issues and attitudes toward cultural diversity and tolerance”. This is meant as a “first step” to enable schools to “prepare young people for an interconnected world where they will live and work with people from different backgrounds and cultures”. Source: Press release from 15/05/2016:, retrieved 18/06/2016.
5 ISD Editorial Board: Why civic engagement is a necessity for college students. May 17, 2016.
11 Richard Budd: Disadvantaged by degrees? How widening participation students are not only hindered in accessing HE, but also during – and after – university.” Published online: 19 May 2016. Retrieved 19/06/2016.
12 Tim Blackman: When universities select by ability, nobody wins. THE, May 19, 2016, retrieved  18/06/2016.
13 Aneta Piekut: Revealed: the truth about ethnic diversity of neighbourhoods. May 3, 2016. Retrieved 18/06/2016.

Should we base HE funding on “study quality”?

There are many reasons not to use measures of study quality in budget schemes for Higher Education. Most importantly, we don’t really know yet how to measure study quality. The easiest way to do it is to ask students about their assessment. But it seems obvious that this can never represent the whole picture: Students might be experts about their own learning, but not about teaching. And in their perspective, easy courses and nice and funny teachers contribute to their well-being, but we would assume that both is not directly linked to the quality of their studies and especially their learning outcomes. On the other hand, we would like to see students gain in knowledge and competences, both of which might profit from hard work, long study nights, and challenging teachers. “Becoming an academic” is – or should be – a transformation process which might come with discomfort, exhaustion, and sometimes phases of disorientation and even anxiety, and the students might only realise later in life if that experience was worthwhile or rather soul-crushing. And because of such contradictions, we need to make sure that when assessing study quality, we are not producing negative incentives – e.g. inflationary good grades, non-challenging teachers, or taking on only students who slip easily into the role of an academic (see Kaili Rimfield, “The same genes influence exam results across a range of school subjects”).

What makes this issue additionally complicated is the fact that the assessment of study quality serves a wide range of different purposes: First of all, it is an important information for future students when choosing their university. Secondly, it is part of the universities’ accountability towards to prove that they indeed offer value for money. Thirdly, it seems obvious that universities should have an interest in knowing how good the study quality they are offering is – in relation to their own educational goals and in comparison to other universities.
Having said that, offering an education of good quality is one of the core reasons why we have higher education institutions and why we fund them with public money. So it stands to reason that study quality should be on dimension in how we assess universities. And if we want to eradicate bad teaching quality, we should also consider study quality when distributing money to higher education institutions.

So how do we assess study quality? By the professional success of the graduates? By how teachers assess the students gain in competences? Or by how students assess their studies? The answer is most probably: All of the above, and then, not all of the above at once.

In order to assess the quality of teaching, we need to do at least three things. First, we need to acknowledge the fact that there are different instruments to measure study quality, and that these can easily contradict each other, without losing out as an instrument in their own right. Second, we need to differentiate between instruments which take the perspective of the students from those which take the perspective of the educators, those of the funding institution and those which take the perspective of employers or general society. And third, which might be the hardest, we need to acknowledge the purpose for which a certain measure was developed and not use it for inappropriate purposes.
There are several examples of methods to reflect aspects of study quality for a specific purpose which clearly are not applicable for other purposes:

Course evaluations. These are most helpful for teachers and educators – both as a feedback from the students and as a pedagogical tool, helping the students to identify and assess those aspects in their learning environment which helps them succeed. There are also examples of course evaluations which help the students to self-assess their learning progress – which is again useful information for the teacher for further development of the course. So while course evaluations might influence and help develop study quality, it is not advisable to use them to assess the study quality of an institution: The results need to be assessed against the specific circumstances of the course. They might be comparable within one faculty, but already between faculties, course evaluations cannot be compared directly, much less between universities.

Professional success of graduates. The professional success of alumni is also considered by employers as well as policy makers as reflecting study quality. Considering the fact that Higher Education is the most expensive education, it makes sense that policy makers want to make sure that it leads reliably to a good and life-long income. So far, Higher Education on average continues to outperform other kinds of professional or vocational education. However, differences between fields and rising unemployment in times of crisis lead time and again to the discussion if Higher Education focusses enough on aspects of employability.
On the other hand, professional success of graduates is also part of the reputation game. Employers often see the institution from which an applicant graduated as a proxy for the quality of education that they enjoyed. Some employers use university of field-specific rankings to identify the “best” university. But especially the university rankings are often created for a different purpose, and do not reflect the institutions’ ability to develop their students’ intellectual competences or the employability skills that the employers seek.

Success rates. In many countries, success rates – i.e. the probability of a student to successfully graduate in a course – are part of the funding scheme. Sometimes they also include the planned duration of study. In some countries, access and retention of underrepresented groups are considered as one aspect of study quality. However, as academics don’t tire to point out, this can lead to unintended effects, like lowered standards. Demanding too much from students or not offering enough support is certainly an aspect of low study quality, but improving teaching and learning is only one possibility to address it.

University Rankings including student feedback as one of several information sources. Not all rankings include student feedback, but at least those which are specifically created as an information source for future students – such as U-Multirank – include the students’ perspective on their university and course.

One of the first national survey was the National student survey in England, initiated by the National student union more than a decade ago, and now carried out by a private company on behalf of the HE funding authority hefce, and its results, published in the form of a ranking, is meant to hold HEIs accountable. Generally, the results are widely published and acknowledged, but there is also a growing dissatisfaction with the survey as it is not really clear what the results reflect.

Another example for a national student survey is the Kandipalaute survey in Finland. Targeting all graduates of Bachelor programmes at Finnish universities, the survey is used for two distinct purposes: First, there is a set of 13 items, reflecting specific aspects of the students’ view on study quality, which are used to distribute 3% of the university budget. Second, the complete survey, with over 130 questions, is used to gather a complete picture of the students’ study experience, and is part of the universities’ management information system and quality management. The Kandipalaute project goes back to an initiative by the national student union in Finland. The development of the survey, though, is in the hand of a working group, where the 14 Finnish universities, the student union and the ministry is represented. Thus, the 13 “budget items” reflect a current and common view on study quality of the HE sector in Finland.

The British Minister for University and Science recently announced the plan to develop a Teaching Excellence Framework. It is not yet clear how this will be set up or used, but apparently the results will be used to limit or raise the student fees per university. These plans raise many questions and also concerns among academics and university leadership.
Give universities the opportunity to prioritise study quality! And yes, that means: Money.
The data collected by instruments like rankings, student surveys, or in the future a Teaching Excellence Framework, are only valuable for the universities if they can derive lessons learnt from it. And those lessons learnt are addressing very different questions, depending on who is concerned:

Graph Different levels and study quality

In many countries, the game is rigged for research at universities. This is where reputation and money is, and even more importantly, it is where academic careers are made. Thus, the idea to assess universities by their ability to offer a high quality study experience and learning outcomes is something that could finally provide university teaching with as much weight and importance as research already has. At least on an institutional level – academics will still need to put a lot of focus on research in order to have a successful career. And it could offer the opportunity to create a common understanding of what the HE sector considers study quality: This is at least one of the outcome of the Finnish student survey. The debate around the survey and the budget scheme lead the way to a common understanding of what should be aspects of study quality, across a very divers group of institutions, expressed in only 13 questions.

While policy makers and employers might be content with more reliable data and league tables, this is not what the universities need. In the Finnish survey, the 13 questions used in the budget scheme are part of a longer survey which offers other insights into the student experience. This information can be used by the universities in their quality management systems in order to improve their offers according to their profile and educational goals.

Update: interesting conferences in 2015

See the konosocio conference website:

Higher education needs to worry less about employability, not more…

There is no buzz word that has known such a steep rise in the higher education lingo as “employability”. To put things in perspective: google “employability in higher education” and you’ll get more than 5.6 million hits. “Internationalis/zation in higher education” – that other hot topic – will only get you 2 million hits combined. If you are handing in a project proposal for EU funding, just add “employability” a few times and your chances of getting the money will go considerably up. This seems relatively logic. In the aftermath of the economic crisis, budget cuts force policy makers to question the return on investment in higher education and with youth unemployment at an all-time high, the role of higher education in this respect is high on every ones agenda. But is this really as logic as they want us to believe?
First: Is there an employability problem in higher education?
No. Compared to the other levels of education, higher or tertiary education (level 5 and 6) actually has a much better performance than all the other levels. In all European countries the unemployment rate among higher education graduates substantially lower than among non-higher education graduates, as shows this graph of Eurostat.

Unemployment rate by level of ed attainment

Secondly: Is higher education responsible for the current unemployment rate?
The unemployment among young graduate has known a steady increase since the outbreak of the economic crisis, especially in those countries most heavily hit. Higher education is not responsible for the economic crisis, so neither is it for the current unemployment rate. Or maybe it is somewhat responsible. One can only wonder whether the economic crisis would have happened if the bankers of wall street and the City, the captains of industry and the captains of politics all would have had basic ethics, sustainable development or community service learning as a course during their academic studies instead of yet another advanced economics subject… Would their greed, shortsightedness and poor risk assessment have still brought our economy to the verge of disaster? So maybe higher education institutions in the past have in fact been focusing too much on employability of their graduates and not enough on the responsibility…

But: Does this mean higher education should discard its role towards the labor market?
No. The question is not whether higher education is responsible for the employability of its graduates. Of course it is. The question is how to ensure this. Instead of adding employability aspects to the curriculum, higher education should do what is does best. The OECD Skills reports clearly show a growing need for graduates able to do two things: non-routine analyses and advanced information processing. Aren’t these the two elements which form the base of academic education? If higher education delivers quality, their graduates will be employable, even those that have studied philosophy or anthropology…
The most fundamental question around employability and higher education is this: do we need to produce a labor force that serves the market or critical minds that actually change the market… If we want the second, we shouldn’t worry too much about what the market wants but give the market what it needs: critical, flexible and responsible graduates, and the jobs will follow…
It is therefore time to shift the discussion around employability from the current labor market oriented approach towards an understanding of employability that is actually valuable for higher education:

  • Understand that your students will with high probability end up outside university, and offer them opportunities to learn how to act responsibly in different environments.
  • Let students act, not just receive teaching. Teach them about proven methods, self-reflection and interaction with their colleagues and social context.
  • Challenge their worldview, their ideas, their sense of self-importance.
  • Send your students into the world with the goal that they impact the world in a positive way, contribute to society and take over responsibility.
  • Create lifelong higher education learning opportunities in order to keep your graduates employable.

Why media reports about learning assessment data make me cringe

Focus the message or keep the complexity of the information – it wouldn’t be such a hard decision if there were more people – in the media or somewhere else – who would be interested in all the other interesting things we found out. (Which might be an argument for “never publish data without a conference to explain and disuss it.)
The alternative: Only publish the data which has already been focused on the message you want to deliver and skip the rest.

World Education Blog

montoya-cropped1By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

With a new set of post-2015 education goals and targets on the horizon, the international community is looking to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) to help collect global data on countries as they seek to improve the learning outcomes of their children and youth. UIS is the official source of cross-nationally comparable education data, uniquely placed to identify and produce a range of new indicators with the support of its technical and financial partners. The challenges ahead are tremendous. While addressing the myriad of issues related to data production, we must address the following critical issue: How will the data be used?

The view from the field where scorecards eclipse analysis

Before joining the UIS as Director, I led a series of learning assessment initiatives in my native Argentina. With a small team, we focused on two key…

View original post 740 more words

German Science and Research Organisations demand: More flexibility for professors by less security for staff

Johanna Wanka, federal minister for higher education and research in Germany, made news recently by supporting vocally demands of unions to finally improve the situation of academic staff at universities. A study from 2011 showed that more than half of academics in German higher education with a fixed term contract have less than a year of contract duration. This can be seen as a direct result of a law which allowed for specific grounds for fixed contracts specifically for organisations in research and science, which normally is limited when the contract is for positions concerned with “Daueraufgaben” (permanent tasks).

Unions demanded for years to take more care with academic staff, also in order to be able to win and keep highly qualified researchers and teachers.

With new proposals to limit the use of extremely short-term contracts, however, Wanka provoked resistance: with national research and science organisations like the DAAD – German academic exchange service, the HRK – presidents’ council and the Wissenschaftsrat – research and science council. These organisations now argue that if the law would be changed at all, it should include all staff, even non-academics like assistants, because flexibility would be what could attract highly qualified researchers – namely, tenured professors – to consider a position in German HE.

Another proposal of the organisations is to get rid of the “Qualifizierungsvereinbarungen”: For PhD students, the contracts specifically state that they are will be able to work on their PhD during their working hours. According to the law, that is the grounds for being able to limit the duration of the contract. If the students are at all able to work on the PhD during working hours is even today very much depending on the professor and how demanding they are – or, to put it more bluntly, how responsible and careful they consider their role as superior and, at the same time, mentor and teacher. I heard a lot about PhD students who do their own research in the evenings, weekends and in their vacation time, and never heard of a student who sued the professor for breaking the contract by not making enough time for the PhD.

And now the research and science organisations apparently propose to get rid of it completely by disallowing for a “Qualifizierungsvereinbarung”.

For me it seems that the whole discussion about social responsibility of HE is an issue which these organisations eluded completely so far…

Source: Spiegel Online (German)

Conferences and Call for Papers on konosocio

Find coming conferences and Call for Papers here:

The Discussion About AHELO

Since the conception of the AHELO process there is a discussion about the feasibility of such an endeavour – are there comparable targets in HE which could be compared internationally, per field? This discussion gained more traction in recent weeks:

First, Philip Altbach pronounced the AHELO project dead and done in his contribution for University World News.

And now, the American Council on Education and Universities Canada reiterated their scepticism about the project.

Even if you concede that the methodology needs improvement – I am not sure that anyone can argue that a) HE teaches competences and b) that those competencies need to be assessed. And maybe we would all agree that it would be good if this assessment is comparable internationally? Even more importantly, with the also very critically received PISA and PIAAC studies (most recently the “Skills” study) the OECD showed already how helpful this kind of data can be – not as a means to produce “last answers” but in order to follow-up on questions we have about what works how in education.

And if we follow Alex Usher’s argument, we might have to ask ourselves if the resistance against AHELO is higher not because the methodology is so much less viable, but because the resisting organisations are much better organised…

Universitas 21: Comparing Higher Education Systems

Universitas 21 is a global network of research-intensive universities situated in Melbourne, Australia.

The organisation published a ranking of Higher Education Systems according to the four dimensions Resources, Environment, Connectivity and Output.

I read it as a ranking of efficiency of HE systems in their effect on society and economy. Surprisingly, the ranking does not account for widening participation of underrepresented groups.