Nieuws - 15 mei 2008

Bottom-up change to Education program

Every ten years, Wageningen University (or its predecessors) seems to be gripped by a fever to change study programs. The most recent one was ‘Krachtig op Koers’: a broad reorganisation that demanded a lot of effort, produced turmoil and required several years for the problems that this created to be repaired and solved. After ‘killing off’ a number of old programs, new ones were introduced, under the name of broad bachelors programs. These were in fact rather specialised programs. The previous reorganisation had caused a slump in student numbers at Wageningen University and a dent in the University’s image. Of course, part of this reorganisation was an inevitable step in shifting ‘Wageningen Agricultural University’ to ‘Wageningen University’: a domain-oriented University focused on agriculture, food, rural areas, and natural resources. Another part was intended to bring together applied and more fundamental research in one organisation (each with its own identity). Both steps can be considered successful, but the discontinuation of a number of chair groups and the reorganisation of the study programs were only partially successful. Still, there was a good reason for starting this whole process—the introduction of the Bachelor-Master structure (on the basis of the Bologna agreement)—and in this, Wageningen was ahead of many other universities in the Netherlands and elsewhere. One might say that the recent improvements in student numbers at Wageningen University are partly due to the Campus and the new University buildings, and also partly due to changes at an earlier stage. But this is speculation.

There are always good reasons for reviewing our teaching and education programs, and one may assume that this is something all study programs and the Education Institute (OWI) devote permanent attention to the matter. But why such a top-down approach with new schemes that have to suit everyone (even both WU and VHL)? I can imagine that having low student evaluations justifies a more fundamental change (e.g. VHL), but what about an organisation that seems to be proud of their high student evaluations (e.g. WU)? Of course, student evaluations do not provide the whole picture about the quality of programs and courses, but they are certainly important: we serve the students after all!

There seems to be a tendency at the moment towards larger study programs: an effort made earlier in ‘Krachtig op Koers’. This effort failed partly because a number of programs were added later, and new financing rules—the ‘Bakker’ model—were introduced. The ‘Bakker’ model worked in a way that was contrary to the strategy of broader programs, where students select the most appropriate courses. Several inherent failures in the financing of the programs reinforced this contrary effect:
1. Smaller programs received relatively more funding because of a fixed funding per program instead of a fixed charge per program (because of a fixed cost per program);
2. Allowing study programs to include ‘limited choice subjects’, which causes courses to be included in the ‘Onderwijsdatabase’ and receive funding without convincing arguments that they are actually required for the programs. If subjects are essential, why not make them core subjects? Removing ‘limited choice subjects’ would increase the freedom of students and make clear which courses are preferred. Why do we insist on thinking that students cannot select the best subjects for their programs?
3. At the moment, courses that have only a few students or even none at all, are receiving funding. Removing the funding of courses with no students would save 0.24 million euros. If funding of courses with a low number of students were to be removed or reduced, one could easily save 0.5 million euros, an amount which would provide opportunities for new initiatives, and enable rewarding on the basis of quality;
4. Up till very recently, only very limited attention has been paid to course quality. For the first time in 2007, prizes were awarded for courses which ranked highest in student evaluations. But that applies only to a small percentage of the courses. Moreover, student evaluation is only a part of the relevant program and course quality. A more systematic link between quality and reward is lacking.
5. Obviously too much is being paid for theses, because there is a constant ‘battle’ among chair groups to get students to write MSc theses or BSc essays/theses within their group. The ‘property rights’ of existing groups often prevent a more open and flexible system.

Such failures in the financial structure of programs and courses form good reasons for first formulating our main strategic objectives and for coordinating these with a related financial incentive structure for programs, courses, and theses. The next step could be for new ideas to be generated at work-floor level that would fit those strategic goals. It might be assumed that students and program directors are very much in favour of high-quality programs with a sufficient number of students, guaranteeing continuity. Chair groups are interested in contributing to such programs, partly via core courses or via ‘free courses’ and via supervising theses. Of course, if you allow them, they will take the lead in organising study programs, and put in as many of their own courses as possible. And that applies even more if they consider the reward to be highly attractive. The instruments available to study programs for selecting on quality and output performance should be strengthened: they should be placed less in the hands of the suppliers and more in the hands of students, course directors, as well as on the demand side for graduates.

The ideas presented in the Study House report on quality are insufficient. The uniform focus on broad study programs and major/minor does not say much about quality. Compare it to a car factory that formulates its quality assurance through two main variables: dual-purpose cars serving a broad group of clients. Evaluations of quality also require the judgements of students after a number of years (preferably one or two years after completing their studies), by (potential) employers and by the academic community. With such judgements on board, the question becomes whether judgements by students who have just completed their courses are ‘good predictors’ of such future quality evaluations.

The Steering Committee Education House was asked by the Executive Board to come up with a discussion document containing proposals for the structure of the Education House, taking the Strategic Plan 2007-2010 as a starting point. I believe that their approach could be much improved if one realized that strategic objectives should be discussed that are in line with a relevant and supportive financial structure. Moreover, the ‘work-floor’ should have sufficient freedom to develop high-quality programs that serve WU/VHL in the future. This demands flexibility and effective coordination between strategic objectives and financial incentives.

I trust that the Executive Board, the OWI, and the Steering Committee Education House IP/OP will consider this as a contribution to that discussion.