european students’ union

Speech Bert Vandenkendelaere @ EUA national conference

April 15, 2011

Distinguished rectors,
Dear hosts,
Dear guests,

First of all I would like to thank EUA for the opportunity to speak here at its annual conference, but more in particular at its 10th anniversary. The European Students’ Union is very grateful for the past 10 years of cooperation. Both ESU and the freshly created EUA acceded to the Bologna Process at the Ministerial meeting in Prague in 2001. Since then EUA has been very helpful in recognising ESU as the representative voice of students in Europe, and especially in those early days of the Bologna Process when it was most needed to stand strong and united.  Together we have been able to grow towards a more mobile and student-centred European Higher Education Area, and I can only express my sincere hope that our cooperation can continue to flourish in the EHEA framework, but also in the Institutional Evaluation Programme and in many more new initiatives to come.

As was said yesterday during the celebration by Pierre, times were different in 2001. Most of the students on the benches didn’t have a clue what the Bologna Process was, or even that their curriculum was about to change dramatically. Universities were in many cases smaller, Internet was not available in the classrooms, and as Pierre said, Wikipedia was just starting up. But today we are in a different reality, we have mass higher education in place with a strong demand for student-centred learning, and we’re here to question if that would be competing with the demand for research intensiveness and excellence in our European universities.

During the past days we’ve been hearing about different models that foster talent, from the start at the very broad base of the pyramid in the first year of the university until the top in full professorship, a specialised research centre or spin-off. The model I want to present today is the model that students experience as the best way to balance the ache for excellence the academic society has, with the needs of the student body, even in mass higher education.

Fostering excellence has to start at the very beginning of the academic career of the student. It’s not always visible at first sight if a student will perform outstandingly, and it’s not always in the first years that a student finds his or her true interest and stands out above the others. As I already said at your last gathering in Palermo, an excellent university is the one that creates or boosts excellence, even when it is hidden. For this to happen there are two prerequisites: a large fishpond, and talented fishermen. Providing equal access, without any discrimination, financial or legal obstacles is crucial to allow all talented young individuals to enrol in higher education and seek their way towards excellence.  Secondly, you need the fishermen, the teachers, to discover, support, encourage and educate that talent, and as I will say later, this can only happen when they are talented themselves and have time for this.

Next to the very basic prerequisites there are of course more factors in play for the fishermen to catch the big fish: the fish needs to grow, and it needs to be hungry to bite.

The demand for student-centred learning is very legitimate, and even in times of mass higher education, the European Students’ Union believes student-centred learning is paramount for students to fully develop their potential, for universities to skill the future workforce, and to create the best researchers. As was said yesterday by Giuseppe Silvestri during one of the breakout sessions, entry to research starts with creating critical thinkers.

Although we are educating masses, student-centred learning is the way to make our fishes grow bigger, to make our students knowledgeable and excellent. It’s about a mindset and a culture within our institutions that students are active participants in their own learning, guided to excel beyond their own expectations but allowed to do that on their own in cooperation with their colleagues.
The model ESU is proposing in its toolkit for student-centred learning is based on constructivist theories of learning. The teacher knows the expectations of the students, and the students are more autonomous in creating their own curriculum and progress. Even with a very bad student/staff ratio it is possible to organise this, and actually the exercise should produce a more efficient work environment with less time-taking lectures, less examinations and more self-and-peer assessment. It has been said before in this conference: the new way of learning is problem-based, going out in the field to collect data, digest this and transform it into academic knowledge. As I read in an article in the Huffington Post yesterday, students answer the questions themselves today. They don’t need someone to preach a truth; they need guidance on what tools to use and how to use these in search of the answers to their questions.

A lot of support is still needed at the entry-level of course, but there are examples of universities that have even abolished examination, and leave the students themselves to work on projects and assess each other’s performance. All of it is obviously mentored by a teacher, but as such the student learns to be independent and entrepreneurial. The student also learns how to debate with colleagues, how to develop ideas and gains those valuable transferable skills that are needed in the job market and in research as well. It makes us students think outside of the box and perform in the interdisciplinary environment around us.

Because now we get to the point of the day: a good researcher needs to know more than the colour of his desk, and a well-skilled worker these days needs to know how to conduct research and use the tools at hand. So I really need to question the title of this panel as such in the sense that the demands of research intensiveness and student-centred learning are not at all competing.   We need the best researchers to teach students to conduct research and find their own answers. We need problem-based learning to create the best researchers, but also the best workforce and fully developed individuals. And we need student-centred learning to provide a supportive environment to students to find their own methods of handling information and to catalyze creation of excellence. Student-centred learning makes it necessary for students to undertake research; it makes them eager to learn, it feeds the fish and at the same time makes them hungrier to bite.

Talking about supportive environment, a remaining question is evidently how to get the most talented researchers to teach and foster talent from the first years when their first and foremost task and maybe desire is to be a researcher.

For this to happen, the European Students’ Union thinks it is absolutely necessary that research, although still very important, be put on a different stand than the one it is on today. I still hold that rankings are a malicious and simplistic way of measuring quality, but it would already be a slight improvement if they would also value the teaching mission, teaching innovation and student satisfaction in the institution, rather than being mainly based on research output. Times Higher Education has tried so with some reputational questions about teaching, teacher-student rations, numbers of PhDs awarded per staff member, and several others. As Altbach says, the problem is that these criteria still do not actually measure teaching and not even come close to assessing the quality of impact. I hence reiterate with this that rankings are no tool to assess or inform students about quality of education.

When it comes to your institutions however, dear rectors, I also ask you to revise the evaluation methods for career progress.
Why would a teacher these days invest time in teaching innovation, in getting extra training for the teaching mission, and in the teaching mission itself, when his or her academic progress is in most cases depending on the research performance and output?  Only by evaluating the fulfilment of the teaching mission and allowing time for teaching innovation, teachers will be able to devote themselves more to this than to their research careers. We’re not talking about competing demands today; we are actually talking about competing time spending. Only by valuing the teaching mission more than we do today, we will be able to balance the activities of the teacher, and have the best researchers bringing out the best teaching to develop the talent in our classrooms. Only then we’ll have the best fishermen fishing in that large fishpond, with hungry fishes, ready to bite.

Thank you for your attention.

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