This is the second reflection from the course on “Teaching in Higher Education”. The task was to write a reflection on a number of subjects related to the rules and regulations surrounding higher education in Sweden; these correspond to the headlines.

Student influence

Student engagement in and ownership of their own studies are among the most important differences between studies at the university level and at lower levels of education, and is central to ensuring a high quality education. This difference is reflected in the choice of words (“student” vs “pupil”) as well as in the way the study programme is structured, with much higher autonomy for each individual student. Ensuring that students have the power to influence their own education is paramount in ensuring this engagement.

On paper, the Swedish education system scores high marks on ensuring student influence. The laws and ordinances governing the education system specifies that student representation should be ensured in all deciding bodies of the university, and that students are consulted whenever decisions affecting them are taken. And the fact that the university delegates the student representation to a student union ensures that there is a well-defined entity that handles issues of representation, making it harder for the university to split the student body and employ divide and rule tactics.

As far as concrete measures for student influence during their studies, the main thing defined in the university policy is the mandatory course evaluation of each course. These evaluations have been formalised and centralised so that students are automatically sent a questionnaire with pre-defined questions after each course. Of course this has the side effect that any questions that the people running the courses want to include to actually, well, improve the contents of the course, has to be done separately.

An interesting thing I discovered while looking at the policy for student influence is that the previous version of the policy (which is the one that appears when googling for it), specified that a student representative should be selected for each course. This makes me wonder why this policy was removed; I’ve had great experiences with a similar policy elsewhere.

Finally, there’s the issue of formal regulations versus reality. I have repeatedly been baffled at how “school-like” university is in Sweden. I.e., study programmes are structured in great detail by the university, and students think of themselves as “going to school” to a much higher extent than I expected before coming here. And it also seems like the actual engagement of students in shaping their education is quite low. The student union basically has one guy that coordinates all student influence, including recruiting members etc. And as mentioned above, I am under the impression that the bureaucracy has taken over the course evaluations to an extent that their value in actually improving the quality of the education is diminished.

Course syllabus procedures

The workflow tool for creating a new syllabus for a course lists 13 steps the document has to go through, to which my initial reaction was a huge ‘WTF?!’. How can it be necessary to have that many steps to approve a simple course plan?

Now, thinking about this a bit further, it is clear that a balance must be struck between ensuring the proper review, and ensuring flexibility enough in the system to actually be able to change things. And, well, on a certain level I can understand the desire to ensure this through best practices and a set procedure that is well-documented and straight-forward to follow.

But on the other hand, this is also an instance where these (no doubt well-intentioned) measures develop into something that becomes an obstacle to having a flexible and living curriculum that can develop with the needs of the student. As with any system that proves to be too rigid, workarounds will spring forth, and I think it is very telling that we are taught in the course which things to put into the study plan, and which to leave out so they can be changed.

I like the idea of having course plans be legal documents, since it means that the students know what to expect, and have clear recourse when the quality of their education is sub-par. But the rigidity of the system also means that there is a risk that content is removed from the course plans until the text becomes so general that it is impossible to pin anything down, thus losing the advantages anyway. And, well, it also strikes me as a somewhat static view of knowledge and learning to turn all course content into legal documents that are hard to change.

Quality assurance

Quality assurance is tricky. When talking about it, one usually talks about procedures and regulations, and of course it is important to ensure that these are in place. But I remember that what struck me about the quality assurance document that was being circulated at the university while it was being written a few years ago, was that it didn’t once mention what quality is. There were pages and pages of text describing the procedures for achieving high quality, but it was never defined what “high quality” actually means.

As I see it there are two groups of issues around the quality of an education. One is the quality of the teaching, in terms of methods and well-thought out goals etc; basically, the subject of pedagogics courses such as this one. Assuming one can agree on it, there are methods and best practices that can be codified and followed for this part. But the other part is the subject matter itself. I.e. picking out which parts of a subject are important to teach; in my case, “what should a good computer scientist know”. This part of education quality is inevitably something that comes into being from an academic discussion among practitioners of the field, and it is bound to be controversial and in flux. Codifying this is harder, especially at the university level, as the processes and discussions will vary between different subjects.

Difficulties aside, I do believe that quality assurance of education is important, and it has been my experience that it has been neglected for a long time. I was not aware that the European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance existed, but they seem very promising, especially the sections on student centred learning. Of course, the devil is in the (implementation) details, but one can only hope that this becomes widespread across Europe. And that the required resources follow of course (yeah, that will totally happen).

National degree outcomes

I am somewhat split on the national degree outcomes. On the one hand, they make my “centralisation and control” meter to off something fierce. How can one claim to be able to define a degree outcome that is valid across all universities in the country, and what happened to autonomy and academic development at each institution. Or at least that was my first thought.

However, upon reading the criteria (for Master of Science in Engineering in this case), they are so broad as to appear more like obvious statements to me. Which I guess they are not, really, since there was a need to write them down. One issue with the criteria as written, is that they are, to say the least, open to interpretation. This is probably inevitable, and I guess you could view the national criteria as a statement of intent that will spur discussion when it is being implemented in the universities.

Cheating and plagiarism

My attitude towards students cheating has always been that if they really want to, they are going to, and there is nothing to be done about that. In the end they are only hurting themselves (since they are not learning anything by doing that). However, there is of course an issue in that universities have an interest in guaranteeing that students with a degree from that university actually has learnt something. In a world where people are studying not for the sake of knowledge, but to get a degree that will allow them to get into their dream job an, ultimately, make money, there will be an incentive to cheat.

Of course, teaching what constitutes plagiarism and how one should conduct oneself is part of the academic education. And for most people that will probably be enough. Additional technical and formal measures can be taken to curb the most obvious attempts at cheating (similar to how a lock on a door is there to keep honest people honest); but it very quickly turns into an arms race, that the university is bound to lose.

In my opinion, the most effective way of avoiding cheating, is to structure the teaching and evaluation in a way that it is necessary for the student to demonstrate concrete knowledge and problem solving abilities. I.e., instead of a standardised test that can be cheated upon, create a setting where the student is asked to show off her knowledge in a real setting of problem solving, where questions can be asked and the scope of obtained knowledge explored. Oral group exams based on extensive written project work is an example of such a setting. Now, the trouble with this is that it is not a very efficient way of examining students, so without the necessary resources, it is not something that can be applied consistently.