GPP 2012: The Basel Experience

This is the talk I gave at the Global Perspectives Conference 2012, held 15 June 2012 at the Swiss Embassy in Washington, about how the Basel group experienced the GPP 2012

“I have the pleasure to share with you the Basel experience in the GPP, the Global Perspectives Program. But maybe we should rename it and call it the Global Perspectives Process. Process, because it changed us. We are not the same persons any more than we were in March when the GPP began with the input seminar; when Karen DePauw[1] taught us what it means to be a GPP participant, what she expects us to put in the program and what we might take out of it. At this point, we became GPP participants as individuals and our diverse little bunch, when it comes to nation and research fields, started to grow together to what is the Basel GPP Group 2012.

Thus, we were ready to enter phase two of the process: meeting our friends and colleagues from Virginia Tech and Lund University in Riva San Vitale at what was called the Global Summit.[2] This was one of the most valuable experiences of the program. It was not only about meeting interesting people from abroad and having a good time together. It was about working together. It was about creating a common vision despite our diverse backgrounds. Indeed, our diversity was crucial to meet the challenge of thinking beyond what we already know and take for granted. Without diversity, we would never have been able to overcome the tyranny of common sense.[3]

Five days ago, the highlight of the program for us started: our trip to the US. And again, diversity was the keyword. We visited various kinds of higher education institutions ranging from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the New River Community College. And I can assure you: the Community College was at least as interesting as the MIT. We had the opportunity to talk to professors, deans and high-ranking administration staff as well as to graduate and undergraduate students. And through all these new insights, we started to construct our conception of the US education system. And being exposed to what is different from what we know, we started to reflect about our own educational system. And we asked questions we would never have come up with, if it were not for our new insights. Where are the leaks in the Swiss pipeline? What are our diversity issues? Is it really only gender? What about people with a migratory background? What about socio-economic status? Do we really live in the egalitarian paradise we sometimes wish we did?

So we go back to Switzerland highly inspired and with a long list of new experiences and insights and an even longer list of questions. We are incited to continue and extend the debate and get more people on board. The Global Perspectives Program will end in a few hours. The Global Perspectives Process never will.”


[1] Karen DePauw is Vice President and Dean for Graduate Education at the Virginia Tech University and the head of the GPP on the Virginia Tech side.

[2] This is something I have learned from our American colleagues: branding.

[3] Admittedly, I borrowed this expression from Sir Kenneth Robinson and his highly inspiring Ted Talk “Bring on the Learning Revolution” http://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_bring_on_the_revolution.html (at 5:25).

Stranded! (or 9:58 p.m.)

After visiting MIT and meeting up with young Swiss researchers there, today’s program should have brought us to Blacksburg, Virginia. Well, it did not. Not only the educational pipeline is leaking but also the air traffic pipeline. At the moment, we are at probably the least exciting place in one of the most exciting cities worldwide: the Clarion Hotel at Laguardia Airport, New York.

Until 7 p.m. everything went all right. We flew from Boston to New York without any problem. (Maybe apart from me having to re-pack when checking in the luggage due to considerable overweight. Thanks to the help of my lovely GPP fellows, I made it to the flight without having to pay an extra fee of 90 USD. However, considering that this gain in weight happened mainly because of my shopping activities in Boston gives me a bad feeling about my next credit card bill.)

We were already prepared to board, when the flight got delayed several times. Due to the bad weather our plane was still somewhere else. Shortly before 10 p.m. we finally sat in the plane and were about to take off. However, it is a quite bad sign when the pilot starts an announcement with the phrase: “I hate to tell you”. The problem was that he had already worked for 16 hours today and flight safety regulations do not allow him to work more than that. (The odd thing about the regulation is that he would have been allowed to fly us to Virginia if we had taken off before the 16 hours had expired, that means before 9:58 p.m. This would have led him to a working day of approximately 18, in words eighteen, hours. Insane!) There might be some inconveniences, but I rather spend the night in New York than be flown to Virginia by a tired out pilot.

The title of my blog is an allusion to the 1996 R.E.M. album “New Adventures in HiFi”. And it was R.E.M. who wrote a song contributing to today’s soundtrack. “Leaving New York” (2004) with the chorus line: “Leaving New York is never easy”.

The Diversity of Diversity

Discussing access to and within higher education often leads us to the issue if diversity. Before we can address questions as targeted measures to increase diversity, we have to talk about diversity itself. What does diversity mean? At North Eastern university, we heard a very interesting speech with a lot of personal passion in it by Professor Neenah Estrella Luna. She told us about her own experience in higher education, being a first generation college student, having a Latino family background. In her opinion, diversity issues in the US focus to a big part on race. This is interesting enough for us Europeans, since race is a category we simply do not think in.

Thus, the perception of diversity in the US seems to be very simple at first glance. Looking deeper into the matter however reveals complexity. Neenah Estrella, for example, pointed out differences in the perception of race groups in California and Massachusetts. While in California people are aware that there is diversity amongst Asian or Latinos, this idea seems not so familiar in Boston. On the other hand, Professor Estrella discovered diversity amongst white when in Boston white people identified themselves as Irish or Jewish. There are so many ways for people to identify themselves: gender, education, sexual orientation, race, religion. Groups do not exist but they are constructed! They are constructed according to normative criteria as the ones mentioned.

Hence, the relevant diversity groups vary according to parameters such as national background and they change over time. From what we learned from Neenah Estrella and later from Joanne Berger-Sweeny, Dean of Arts & Sciences at Tufts University the predominant diversity issues in the US are race, gender and socio-economic status. In Europe, diversity issues almost only focus on gender. I am convinced that the socio-economic background is not as much problematic in Europe than in the US. However, looking closer at this issue, we might discover that our egalitarian perception was too optimistic. This example shows that identifying the relevant diversity groups needs inconvenient debate.

But why do we need diversity at all? Perhaps the most obvious approach to this question would be a liberal individual rights one. However, Neenah Estrella as well as Joanne Berger went further. They both stressed that diversity in research is essential for a university to move on and ask new questions. If research was only done by white wealthy male, some questions would never be asked. To quote Joanne Berger: “There is no excellence without diversity!”

Co-op Matters

Today, the highlight for the Swiss GPP group started: our US trip. We had a very intense first days visiting North Eastern University, Tufts University and Swissnex. We heard many enlightening, inspiring and compassionate presentation. I will not go through the day in a chronological order and summarize every presentation. Instead I will, in two brief posts, refer to some, not all, of the today’s main topics.

The first post is actually a follow up to my last one on co-op programs. North Eastern University has very intense co-op programs. Ellen Goldman, Associate Director of the University Career Services referred to them as a signature of NE University. Participating in these programs is not compulsory, but highly recommended. The programs have a high conversion rate of 50%. First and foremost, however, the working experience helps students finding out who they are and what they want. Or to put it in Tufts-lingo: finding out about their VIPS. Values, Interests, Personality, Skills.

That co-op programs matter was put in one sentence by Salvatore Mazzone, Associate Director of the International Student & Scholar Institute. He said that participating in co-op programs often lead students to change their major subject.

Co-op Porgrams: Access to Higher Education and Beyond

In our Riva working group on access to higher education it was repeatedly hold, how important it is to see all the options you have in order to make a somewhat informed decision on your educational path. Vocational training? University? University of applied sciences? Which subject?

Once you know about your options, the next problem turns up: you don’t know what it is like to study the subject you have chosen until you have been studying it for certain time. Sneak peeks before you start studying might provide a remedy to some extent. You can for example visit some lectures in the physical or, if available, in the virtual world.

So now you made an informed decision, considering all the options and you found a subject you really like. Well, your time studying eventually ends and you start working. And all the questions rise again. What are the options? What does it feel like to work in a certain job? I recently talked to a friend who was a passionate law student and graduated with an excellent result. For two years now he struggles to find a legal job he likes.

It is important that during your studies you get insights into working in your field. When I did some research on the universities we are going to visit in the US, I found it quite common for American universities to offer co-op programs that provide structured job experience during your studies and you also get credits for that (some basic information and more resources on cooperative education here). I don’t know whether this concept exists at all within European universities. However, I don’t know about any such initiative at the university of Basel or at any Swiss law school. At my faculty, for instance, there are some hesitant moves on integrating the working world. But so far this steps inly go as far as showing you the options.

Thinking about it, this is amazing, since the Swiss vocational training, the apprenticeship, is based on cooperative education and there is widespread consensus that it is for the cooperative approach that the apprenticeship system is such a success. It seems that also this discussion leads to one of the overall Hi Ed questions: What is university for? What should our graduates be able to do? What should the know? What for do we educate?

I am curious to hear your experiences from co-op programs. Further, I ask my european colleagues whether I am wrong. Do we have co-op programs and I just don’t know about them?

ETH Presidents Intend to Increase Tuition Fees

On my way to Boston, I read an article in the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung about an institution the Virginia folks have visited and that relates to our general topic (article in german here). The presidents of both ETH have asked the ETH Council to increase tuition fees. The plan is that fees increase incremental up to 1250 (approx. 1300 USD) Swiss Francs a semester in 2016. This means that fees double within four years. Additionaly an administrative fee of 250 (approx. 260 USD) Francs is planed to be charged from students without a Swiss Matura (high school diploma). The additional income is to be used as follows: one third to help students in financial need and two thirds for enancing the quality of teaching and improving the learning/teaching environment.

The background of these plans is that within the last ten years, student numbers at ETH have increased by 50%. In the same time federal funding has only increased by 25%. There is a considerable financing gap in teaching.

The Council, however, will  base its decision not only on the requests by the presidents, but also on a student consultation. This consultation does inquire  what students think about the planned increase but also what their actual financial situation is. A considerable number of students have already participated in the consultation.  So far they seem to strongly oppose the increase.

Student organisation from the whole country have allied in order to fight higher tuition fees at ETH. They argue that the increase jeopardizes equal opportunities. The president of the ETH Council, on the other side, stresses that tuition fees would still be moderate, considering that the ETH was one of the best universities in Europe.