31 maart 2015

Educate students to become academics


It is not unreasonable to state that the primary goal of the university is to educate students to become academics and to conduct high quality, scientific research.

The present argument will focus on the substantive quality of education at the VU. The relevant paragraph from the most recent annual report states that the aim of education at the VU is to (freely translated): “train students to become academic professionals who are capable of independent thinking, scientific reasoning and critically reflecting on their own work and the work of others, are aware of the presumptions of themselves and of others and are prepared to take responsibility and to lead in a dynamic, diverse and internationally oriented society."

Scientific boundaries

In short: the VU aims to educate people to engaged and conscientious academics who are constantly exploring and stretching scientific boundaries. These are without doubt beautiful words, to which we can all relate. As such, they seem to be the perfect starting point for our educational policy.

However, when we consider the actual educational policy at the VU, other principles seem to be guiding. In 2011, the VU has made performance agreements with the ministry of education.

In accordance with these performance agreements, the key performance indicators on which our educational policy is based are: (1) “student success rate”, which is a combination of efficiency, drop-out and switch, (2) percentage of staff with a Basic Education Qualification, or BKO in Dutch, and (3) excellence, which is the percentage of students that score an 8 or higher average.

Lower quality standards

Everyone in this room will appreciate that neither of these performance indicators is in any way related to the substantive quality of our education. This is cause for concern as the latter is one of the primary objectives of a university. Indeed, an increase in student success rate and excellence might actually be indicative of worsening substantive quality of education. For sure, the easiest way to increase student success rate and excellence according to these measures is to lower the quality standards.

Apart from policy based on non valid measures of quality, another threat to substantive quality of education stems from the output based, financial allocation model. In this model, education funds are distributed according to the number of credits, diplomas and promotions that are granted. Such a financial model may promote granting inappropriate passes. For example, if too few students pass a certain course, it might be deemed inefficient and therefore be removed from the program, to the detriment of its staff.

Scientist are mere humans

Given the problems I have just mentioned one might expect that the substantive quality of education at the VU is rather low. So is this actually the case? I don't think so, but the only reason it isn't, is due to the scientific and supporting staff of this university who try to keep their standards high, in spite, rather than thanks to, the aforementioned policy. However, scientist are mere humans, and if the current policy is continued, they are surely forced to lower their quality standards, leading to further erosion of the substantive quality of our education.

In summary: the combination of policy guided by non valid measures of quality and the financial allocation model constitutes a serious threat to the substantive quality of our education. This policy seems to be at odds with the VU's own educational vision.

Urgent problem

My questions to the Board are therefore: do you agree with this analysis and as such acknowledge this as an urgent problem? If you do not agree with this analysis, can you explain to us how and why the aforementioned policy does not constitute a threat to the substantive quality of our education?

If you do agree with this analysis, can you explain why you have chosen for this particular policy? If anything, what are you doing, or are you planning to do, to mitigate these problems?

Finally, I believe I can state on behalf of everyone present here that we are always willing to  move forward to revert the erosion of the substantive quality of our education. Thank you very much. 

Koen Lemaire, student bewegingswetenschappen /

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