Wetenschap - 5 januari 1995

Economizing on Quality and Length in MSc Programmes

Economizing on Quality and Length in MSc Programmes

The discussions surrounding cutbacks in education raise concerns for both students and programme directors as they consider the future of the MSc programmes in Wageningen. Issues such as the quality and length of the programmes remain topics for heated debate.


According to former programme director of Tropical Forestry, Dr. Jonkers, this past year was one which, did not run particularly smoothly. Flexibility within the University has been decreasing." If funding becomes uncertain, a course for which there is not sufficient demand is likely to be cancelled. The consequence of these trends is that students in future MSc programmes may be forced into a more stringent study format with less independent planning options.

Dr Jonkers feels that it will become more difficult in the future to maintain the quality of education once the possibilities for specialization have been decreased. It is unfortunate that in the third trimester you might find out that a particular course has been cancelled because there was not enough student interest. This might mean taking other less appropriate courses to make up the credits."

I'm lucky to have started my study here when I did", expresses Jennifer Buckley MSc student in Ecological Agriculture. She was free to choose the majority of her courses for optional credit points in addition to the 3 required topics for 10 credit points. Her colleague Dossou Sim351on, from Tropical forestry adds that he appreciated being able to opt for a multidisciplinary path despite the adjustments it required in his study habits. At home in Benin there is little opportunity to create a tailor-made programme as here."

Warning

Crop Sciences programme director, Dr. Eveleens, feels that the MSc programmes can look back at 1994 as a warning for the future. Like Dr. Jonkers, Dr. Eveleens anticipates that the impact of budget restraints will mean reductions in the courses offered.

The disconcerting consequence of cutbacks, according to Dr. Eveleens, is that the preservation of the broader international orientation here will be jeopardized.

If Wageningen University wants to keep its reputation for breaking new ground in agricultural higher education, it is imperative that it avoids stagnation in its international programmes. Maintaining the quality will be harder as individual elements of the programme are abolished," according to Dr. Eveleens. This slow trend has already hit Plant Breeding. Optional courses have just been reduced from a choice of two down to one meaning that the restricted option is now compulsory.

Extra funding

In order to avoid stagnation and make sure that the international orientation is not at risk, Eveleens believes that the University should market itself more aggressively towards the funding agencies which offer fellowships to foreign students rather than creating brochures purely aimed at attracting more students. What the funding agencies need is brief concise information geared to the structure and needs of bureaucracies which make the financial decisions. Extra money is needed. The length of time it takes to complete the thesis is not the same in reality as it is believed to be in theory," according to Eveleens.

It is expected that more than half of the current MSc students will have difficulties meeting the graduation deadlines. There is no buffer zone for the people who need those extra weeks or a couple months to finalize their theses." In Crop Sciences it is estimated that 11 out of a group of 18 will graduate on time. In Tropical Forestry the estimates are in the range of 4-6 out of 16 and in Ecological Agriculture, 6-8 out of 15. At the end of the year when one is swamped by the thesis load, attention must be diverted to finding funding from back home or from outside agencies. As Sergio Ceretta, Crop Breeding Student from Uruguay, has experienced it is very difficult to finish on time while living with the uncertainty of whether or not you will receive the funding for an extension. Almost everyone who has asked the University to assist with funding for an extension has received a negative answer."

Future

Programme Director van Veluw from Ecological Agriculture questions what the university is trying to accomplish through the MSc programmes. He wonders if 17 months is long enough to complete an MSc degree.

Despite his doubts, van Veluw is optimistic. In his opinion the MSc programmes have a definite future in Wageningen despite the climate of cutbacks. We need to continue to teach using a multidisciplinary approach. Preserving the diversity of education here will enable us to provide quality programmes which address the future of agriculture. It would be wise for the university to preserve and encourage programmes such as the MSc for foreign students."

The last months of 1994 have only begun to raise the issues which will face the entire University. In the MSc programmes, debates regarding the future quality and length of programmes are likely to continue.

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