Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

In this interview with Teresa Völker, Prof. Villa talks about the initiative "Nicht-Semster" (calling for a cancellation of the regular spring semester during the Corona crisis) and how the crisis impacts the infrastructure of the german higher education system. 

Together with your colleagues Ruth Mayer and Andrea Geier you initiated the petition “Nicht-Semester” (calling for a cancellation of the regular spring semester during the Corona crisis). What are the motivations behind your initiative?

Our main argument is that we should see the current situation in higher education in Germany from a realistic perspective –  the actual situation that universities, academies and other research institutions really operate in. Instead of idealizing teaching under these very special circumstances from a romantic or elitist perspective, we have to think carefully about what we might  manage to do this spring in terms of teaching, organization and taking care of students. That means considering the challenges and actual problems the most vulnerable, who are not the exception, but the vast majority, are facing in the German higher education system:

Prof. Villa

At least 85% of those who teach in higher education in Germany are on very short term contracts, are very precarious in the system and have an insecure perspective for the future. Besides teaching, they are evaluated on the basis of their academic output of publications, third party funding, conferences, etc and have to base their career on these outputs. So there is an important clash between teaching on the one hand and the academic output on the other. Furthermore, a vast majority of research staff and  also students have to handle care tasks during the crisis. Plus, many of them face financial income issues, such as worrying about how  to pay their rent, or visa issues for many foreign students.

This means that a lot of teaching staff and a lot of students just aren’t able to cope with the expectation that they have to  live up to the notion of a “normal term”. We saw in mid-March that the rhetoric was ‘let’s just do everything online’.  But it was obvious that it would not work that way. That is how my two colleagues and I got  together, not thinking from our standpoint as high level  professors in the German system, but trying to  switch our perspectives on what the normal situation is and shape the situation from there, without saying ‘we’re not willing to teach’ or ‘we are not engaging’ – this has been  misunderstood. Maybe our wording, using the term “nicht-Semester” was a bit unfortunate but what I just described was our main goal.

What is your opinion on the decision to let the semester take place? And how, in general,  would you evaluate the political decision-making process in science and higher education policy during this crisis?

I was partly frustrated by how the discourse evolved following our initiative. At some point all kinds of political actors in the field used our wording of the “non-semester” as a reference to say ‘no, we are doing the semester’ instead of referring to the actual content and claims of the initiative. Yet, most of the problems we highlighted were actually acknowledged. So I think it was a success that we drew attention to the real situation. Maybe without our initiative, which had a lot of visibility and was addressed by high-end people in the field of policymaking, things would have been a bit worse, or some problems would have not been acknowledged.

However, it could be much better. I’m rather disappointed by the recent initiatives and framings by the Federal Minister of Education and Research, Anja Karliczek, in particular the way they are framing the “Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz”, the limitation on the number of years that  junior faculty can be in the research system for. I think it’s really important to automatically prolong contracts for the time during which we find ourselves in this very specific situation. The current wording in the proposal, that it ‘could’ be possible is not enough. I think it should be a ‘must’ wording – the proposal must be much stronger and more committed. Younger faculty really need to be sure that their limited contracts will be prolonged for as long as this crisis takes. The same goes for BAFöG, student loans or for visa issues. We’re seeing that by not doing so, we get conflicts at the very micro level of individuals or departments within universities, and it is left to us as to how we deal with these issues. That is not the right political answer to structural problems. We need to set up a structure with fair and consistent principles in higher education that people can work upon. 

That means the struggle in universities and higher education in general will continue?

I do see that there is a lot going on. We  now have a very big initiative led by student representatives. Just a few days ago a big network of student representatives and student-led initiatives put out an open letter stating that they need more security and clear answers. Furthermore, there is a lot of activism from junior faculty e.g. “Netzwerk für gute Arbeit in der Wissenschaft” and from the unions like GEW and Verdi and others. There is really a lot of awareness and debate about the problems and struggles going on in higher education. I also think it is very dynamic at the moment,  as we’re all sort of up in the air and not really knowing what to do. My university as an example, rather failed us – the LMU just didn’t communicate with us. We’re left on our own, so the situation seems somewhat anarchic. Which has its nice sides, as we’re very free. Nevertheless, there are issues, for example how to take exams as well as legal issues which we don’t know how to manage on our own – this is a very strange situation.

In your open letter you speak of deceleration. Other institutions like the “Hochschulforum Digitalisierung”, on the other hand, speak of Corona as a chance to accelerate the digital turn in higher education (with regards to organization, teaching and research) and argue that instead of inaction and interruption of the ‘education chain’, we should take this as an opportunity.  How do you respond to this criticism?

I think that if that statement wasn’t meant as a criticism of what we did, but rather a conversation or complementary proposal, it would be totally okay. I agree that Germany is a bit behind and would profit from more digitalization, e.g. digital literacy in higher education. I think we all need that, myself included. Yet, what I think is really problematic is this kind of heroic discourse that tries to turn everything problematic, overwhelming or difficult automatically into a chance.

We have to try to make the best of this situation but this form of enthusiasm often works as a kind of glossing over and pushing aside of the real problems that we have. One problem that we have with the digital turn in higher education, that we know from a lot of research, is that digital formats are a very specific thing: While they have great and special qualities and it is very important to integrate them into our teaching practices, they cannot replace all the other forms of teaching. In particular, people in politics have this simple idea that you can just take other forms of teaching and make them digital – which is obviously not the case. Digital teaching formats allow us to be creative and work really well in a lot of contexts but they differ from classical or traditional teaching methods like face-to-face and physical presence formats.

Therefore, the digital turn in higher education should include two things: Firstly, an acknowledgement  of the specificities, advantages and disadvantages of digital teaching formats, rather than trying to replace everything or to say ‘it’s all easy, we’ll just switch to online.’ Secondly, we have to take this as a chance for digitization of higher education but at the same time not push aside the multifaceted problems people are facing. First of these is data bandwidth,  data volumes and technical issues – many many students do not have access to or cannot afford to  pay for high-end technical devices. The second is  care issues and the third is legal or privacy issues;  for instance the communication software Zoom is currently being used by a lot of universities, even though it has serious privacy issues.

In sum, there are a lot of problems, and we can’t just say ‘This  is all a great chance and hooray let’s go – this is a digital party!’ In terms of the digitization of higher education we have a long way to go and it would be good to do that without the extreme crisis conditions we are facing right now.

With regard to these examples illustrating the degree of digitization, precarious labour relations and reprehensible crisis management in higher education –  what does the crisis tell us about our universities and higher education system? Where do they see a need for change after the crisis?

That’s a very big and interesting question – I’m not sure I know the answer.  I think, and I’m being a bit self-critical here, what we genuinely need in the German system is more exchange and more cooperation and we really need to give much more credit to and add value to teaching. The German system is very research-focused, which is great – it has a huge research capacity. However, especially as senior faculty, we have a huge teaching load compared to the international context and  compared to many colleagues in different systems. I’m not at all complaining, the combination of teaching and research has  huge value for everyday life in academia, universities and for students. The problem is that we’re very poorly prepared for teaching. It’s not a real part of the academic learning, socialization and recruitment procedures. Also, the German system does not give much credit to teaching when it comes to recruitment, career steps, promotion decisions, etc. The real assets are all within the realm of research, teaching is neglected. 

Other national systems, maybe the US or the British one, focus more strongly and pay more attention to teaching and they train teaching staff better and value teaching more. We don’t do that as much in the German system. So it’s underrated and something everybody struggles with, especially in social science and the humanities (I don’t know so much about STEM fields). It works on the assumption that if you’re intelligent and engaged in research, you do good research and teaching kind of automatically goes well, which is of course not the case. People who teach do think carefully about it and are very engaged themselves, but there is little open exchange about it because it is always looked down upon. What really counts in the education system is research. Therefore, one thing we might learn or should learn from all this, is that teaching matters a lot. And we should give it more structure, more credit and pay more attention to it.

The second area where there is a need for change in higher education is exchange and cooperation, where more is needed. In the current situation this is happening a lot in departments, between colleagues, with the research community and the broader public. We have a lot of exchange during the Corona crisis about how we work, how we research, how we teach, how to get students to participate in online-lectures and so on. These very lively debates are on all kinds of channels and formats such as Twitter, Youtube, Zoom etc. It is a bit overwhelming sometimes or seems a bit random when people tend to throw out their experience into the public forum. Yet it is also an opportunity to exchange and cooperate in the digital sphere: recently we had a virtual academic debate organized by research networks in Latin America and globally, around five hundred people connected and participated from all around the world – it was brilliant. Again, this is not a replacement, but to add digital teaching formats can enrich the research-centered academic life and thereby  reduce our horrible carbon footprint.

If this exchange was a bit more structured and more part of the norm in higher education, if we had more routines on how to talk about teaching and share experience, it would be really great and helpful. Maybe this crisis will make us aware of the worth of talking about education and research, cooperating and learning from each other.

In your petition you demanded  fairness and solidarity in the handling of the crisis: What does solidarity mean in the context of higher education?

Solidarity, from my very privileged position within the German system, requires thinking  about the entire system from the point of view of the normal – of those that are vulnerable, and to use my privileges, my security and visibility to show that there are many people that are forgotten, have no voice or are not dealt with.

An interview by Teresa Völker