By Richard Budd
Given that my PhD compared German and English HE, I was thrilled to be awarded SRHE funding to attend their counterpart’s annual conference in München. It gave me a chance to gen up on the hottest topics in German-speaking HE research, to catch up with a few people I already knew from a stint as a visiting doctoral researcher, and to build some new bridges. It didn’t disappoint, and the only dark cloud was that I was unable to stay for the whole event due to prior commitments.
The early career researcher day started with a workshop on publication strategies, and was mostly directed towards doctoral students who might be unfamiliar with the publishing landscape. Many of the tips such as identifying the original contribution of your paper, an eye-catching title, and listening to the editor’s /reviewers comments were (recent) old hat, although some of this I’d had to learn the hard way. Of particular interest was the array of German language journals that either focus entirely on HE or are amenable to HE-oriented pieces. A number of German academics do publish in the more familiar English language journals, but there is a great deal of interesting research that happens away from the ‘English eye’. I struggle to keep up with the volume of my ‘must-reads’ in English at the best of times, and would welcome suggestions on how to manage this (on a postcard, please). I am conscious that I somehow need to keep my finger on the German language pulse, too.
The main event of the early career researcher day was a discussion of how/whether higher education research changes HE. Susi Poli has written a brilliant summary here, so I’ll try not to cover the same ground. One of the first themes was around how research informs teaching (or perhaps doesn’t) and whether those giving the lectures are undertaking research and incorporating it into their teaching material. It seems that the potential disconnect between teaching and research that we see in the UK occurs there, too, although in different ways. In Germany it appears to be a question of whether the hottest topics make it into the lecture theatre, rather than whether the hottest academics make it into the classroom/lecture theatre. The second set of discussions revolved around the dissemination of research findings into the way universities are run. There may be a lack of awareness in management circles of the newest academic studies on HE (familiar territory?!). This is not the case, though, with the more established, national level surveys such as the annual graduate survey (KOAB). Data from these does provide university leaders with knowledge of areas where positive changes to degree provision could be made but they struggle to get any changes implemented; this is partly because of the strong independence that faculties and tenured professors have been able to retain there. This perhaps may have been slightly familiar in pre-92 universities some time ago, or in Oxbridge’s collegial structures. There is a marked contrast with the UK, where the common refrain in both popular and academic literature on HE, as well as in discussions over the water cooler, bemoans the excessive intervention of management and metrics in academic life.
The main conference was titled ‘New forms of governance in higher education and avenues for research: the state and perspectives of research’. Debates around the effects of federalism and regionalism are more particular to Germany, but many of the themes across the programme would have been recognisable at ‘home’. These included entrepreneurial universities and academic capitalism, the changing roles and challenges in academic leadership, social inequality, university entry and the student experience, performance measurement, and early career researcher trajectories. Within this, though, there are markers of difference in comparison with countries like the UK. For example, while the situation for tenured academics in Germany may appear enviably impregnable to outside influence, the period of career instability after the doctorate is far longer than in the UK. Germany also has a greater diversity of university types – from the comprehensive Universität, to more vocational universities of applied science (not to be confused with ex-polytechnics), and a larger non-state (i.e. church/private) sector. This makes any analysis of the sector more complex on the one hand but interesting and nuanced on the other.
If one took a reading of the topics, discussions and mood of this conference as a weather vane of German HE research, we might get the sense that their university system is encountering transformations that happened here some time ago. This is not to suggest that they are ‘behind’ us developmentally, but that the (global) trends in UK HE and elsewhere have found less firm ground to gain traction and generate momentum there. The nature of German HE as a more formally structured space means that many of the policy issues, particularly around funding, are not as keenly felt there as they are here. They may never be: most of the HE sector in Germany does not depend on tertiary/private sector funding to anywhere near the same extent as we do in the UK.
It is striking that, even with the theme of the conference being governance, there is a greater focus on structural and organisational issues in German HE research. Professor Georg Krücken, current Chair of the GfHF and head of INCHER, believes that this is primarily linked to the differences in tuition fees and the relative position of the state. In terms of the former, issues such as student satisfaction and associated discourses still take more of a back seat in Germany; this is to the detriment and benefit of the system as both positive and negative changes are slowed down. As for the state and higher education, much of the German university system is part of the state rather than a collection of autonomous bodies. This means that the autonomy and organisational changes required to compete domestically and internationally are requiring universities to develop entirely new roles and capacities. Overall, German HE is fascinating in its own right, but perhaps more so from a comparative perspective. I wonder if there’s any funding to attend next year’s conference…
SRHE Member Richard Budd is Lecturer in Education at Liverpool Hope University