Wednesday, October 29, 2014

‘Don’t Let Profit-Making Companies Run Education’ says UN Report

by , Schools Improvement Net:

Governments are bypassing their “moral imperative” to provide free state education by outsourcing public schooling to profit-making companies, a new United Nations report says. This is from the TES.

States should remain primarily responsible for providing free and quality basic education to all, it claims, and not allow their education systems to be exploited by private companies “reaping uncontrolled profits”.

The report calls for countries to put an end to “market driven education reforms” that provide subsidies to private education. States should also not allow or promote low-cost private schools and the provision of school vouchers, it says.

The report’s author, Kishore Singh, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, told the UN General Assembly: “Education is not a privilege of the rich and well to do; it is an inalienable right of every child.

“The exponential growth of private education must be regulated by governments to safeguard education as a public good.

“The state is both guarantor and regulator of education which is a fundamental human right and a noble cause. Provision of basic education free of costs is not only a core obligation of states, it is also a moral imperative.”

Mr Singh added that governments must meet their “international obligations” through careful regulation and monitoring of private schools, especially in developing countries where the public system is overwhelmed and unable to cope with rapidly rising demand…

Supporters of low-cost private schools in the developing world said it was important not to tar all providers with the same brush.

James Tooley, an academic and co-founder of the low-cost Omega Schools chain in Ghana, said many groups were doing vital work and promoting equality rather than hampering it.
  See the report from the UN at: Right to education

Is private education the bad guy here - in terms of providing a service that is clearly in demand from parents around the world desperate for an education for their children - or is it governments for not meeting the need themselves? Please give us your feedback in the comments or via Twitter…

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Power of Walking

Gowns showing hoods, from behind, walking alon...
Academics walking along Parks Road in Oxford (Wikipedia)
by Cally Guerin, Doctoral Writing:

I was talking to a PhD student today who is in the final stages of writing.

It’s a very difficult patch for anyone, both physically and mentally, and I believe that all students go through a phase at the end of a PhD where they need to become quite obsessive (even irrationally obsessive) before they can emerge into the bright sunshine on the other side of submission.

This student was saying his main struggle was trying to stand back from all the material he had collected and written about over the years in an attempt to assess it objectively.

Instead of being able to notice what has been achieved, he was experiencing the temptation to give into doubts about the worth of his efforts: is the research valuable to the discipline? Is it sufficiently original? Is it a substantial contribution to the field?

After years of working with the same ideas, it is easy to understand how they can lose their freshness and no longer seem exciting.

In an attempt to be reassuring and to offer a practical solution, I suggested that he think through ideas when walking to university and then again when walking home. He looked rather bewildered (and maybe thought that I too was going mad in a kind of folie á deux). But I genuinely believe that a great deal of very useful thinking can happen while walking.

The best advice I ever received as a doctoral student myself was to try and keep the idea I was working on at the front of my thinking all the time - while waiting for the bus, while doing the washing up, while watching the photocopier, while doing any other mechanical, mundane task (not cycling or driving!). The point is to keep turning the idea over and over in your mind until the pattern or connection appears.

This has been extended to walking in my own circumstances. There is something about the soothing rhythm of walking that seems to aid thinking - it needs to be fast enough to get the blood pumping, but not so speedy as to take up all your concentration.

For me, this is much more effective than sitting staring at the computer and drinking yet more coffee, nibbling on yet more dry-roasted almonds (or, preferably, chocolate sultanas).

So you can imagine how pleased I was to come across a recent study by Oppezzo & Schwartz that provided some serious evidence for what many of us have suspected for a long time: walking outdoors really does stimulate creative thinking.

Even Nietzsche is supposed to have said that “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking”. So I advocate walking and thinking as a regular part of academic life.

Last week was mental health week in Australia, and everywhere we’ve been reminded of the importance of maintaining our mental health, encouraged to take up moderate exercise and do enjoyable things to help cope with the stresses of modern life.

This is a timely reminder when there is a parallel discourse about the apparent increase in mental illness amongst academics and doctoral candidates. So, I’m forced to consider how my advice fits with the recommendations to exercise but perhaps licenses obsessive work patterns by focusing on an idea and constantly it turning it over in one’s mind.

On balance, I hope that these two approaches to doctoral writing create a manageable equilibrium. Not everyone is fortunate enough to be comfortably mobile, but those who are should be grateful and make the most of it.

Have any of you tried getting off the bus a few stops early and striding briskly to your desk when your thinking is stuck? What advice have you given to students stuck in this space?

Nietzsche, F. (1888; 1998) Twilight of the Idols, Or, How to Philosophize With the Hammer. Trans. D. Large. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Scholarships are Decisive in Bringing New Blood Into Teaching, Finds Research

English: Teaching and Learning
Teaching and Learning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by , Schools Improvement Net:

The TES is reporting that new research suggests scholarships to train to teach shortage subjects have been successful at bringing people into the profession who would not otherwise have considered it.

One in four applicants for scholarships in shortage subjects said the award was the decisive factor in prompting them to train to be a teacher, according to a survey. And one in five said they would not have applied if scholarships had not been available.

Students with a 2:1 or first in physics, maths, computing and chemistry are eligible for scholarships. The awards, offered by the professional bodies in each area, are worth £25,000 for trainees starting in 2015/16.

Smaller bursaries are also available in a range of subjects, which include languages, design and technology and religious education. The scholarships were introduced in 2011 and the research, carried out for the National College of Teaching and Leadership, aimed to examine their impact on graduate recruitment.

And the findings of the survey of all applicants throughout the first three years of the awards - both successful and unsuccessful - suggest they have attracted new recruits into teaching … 

I guess it remains to be seen whether these scholarships are bringing the right people in, but interesting results. Your thoughts? Please share in the comments or via Twitter…

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Say it Once, Say it Right: Seven Strategies to Improve Your Academic Writing

English: Oxford University DPhil graduand, wea...
Oxford University DPhil graduand (Wikipedia)
by Patrick Dunleavy, Impact of Social Sciences:

Whether writing a research article or a grant proposal, it can be difficult to pinpoint the sections and areas that need further improvement. It is useful to have a set of tactics on hand to address the work.

Patrick Dunleavy outlines seven upgrade strategies for a problematic article or chapter: Do one thing well. Flatten the structure. Say it once, say it right. Try paragraph re-planning. Make the motivation clearer. Strengthen the argument tokens. Improve the data and exhibits.

I guess every researcher and academic writer has often faced the task of trying to upgrade a piece of work that just will not come out right. Sometimes it’s clear what the problem is, and colleagues, friends or supervisors who read the article or chapter can make concrete suggestions for change.

But often it’s not so clear-cut. Readers are cordial but obviously unenthused. There’s nothing massively wrong, but the piece feels thin or unconvincing in some diffuse way.

Sometimes too the problem occurs well before you want anyone else to read your text. If it is a one-off piece of research then maybe it can just be filed for later reconsideration.

But often the research plan in a grant bid, or the book contents page crafted a year ago, or the PhD structure devised two or more years ago, mean that an article or chapter just has to get done.

Here an unsatisfactory first draft is not just much less than you’d hoped for at the distant planning stage, but instead a depressing roadblock to completing a whole, long-term project.

At times like these it is handy to have a set of standard things to try to improve matters - familiar strategies that you can frequently use, deploying them quickly because you’re deliberately not treating each article or chapter as sui generis or unique. Everyone has their own moves for coping with the upgrade task. Here are my top seven, in hopes that some of them work for you.

1. Do one thing well

Many writing problems stem from trying to do too much within the same few pages, causing texts to inflate beyond journal length limits (often fatal for passing review), or just introducing ‘confuser’ themes that referees love to jump on. ‘I’m not clear if the author is advocating X, or trying to do Y’. Keeping it simple (within well defended boundaries) makes things clearer, so long as your paper is also substantive i.e don’t go from this point to try and ‘salami slice’ a given piece of research across multiple journal articles. A nice blog by Pat Thomson puts this point alongside other common mistakes.

2. Flatten the structure

All articles in social science should be 8,000 words or less and most chapters are similar or verge up to 10,000 words. Given the attention span of serious, research readers, you need a sub-heading about every 2,000 words or so - that’s just four or five main sub-headings in total. They should all be first-order sub-heads, at the same level, and preferably dividing the text up into similar-sized chunks, that come in a predictable way and have a common rhythm. If you have two or three tiers of sub-headings in a hierarchy, make it simpler.

In other fields, length limits are much less - e.g. just 3,000 words for medical journal articles. So the numbers of subheadings needed here will be correspondingly reduced. Each of your section headings should be substantive (not just formal, conventional, vacuous or interogative). Ideally they should give readers a logically sequenced set of narrative cues, about what you did, and what you have found out. You can add a short Conclusions section with its own smaller kind of heading. Also, never label the beginning bit of text ‘Introduction’ - this is already blindingly obvious.
2349631689_74ff09cfa4_zImage credit: Nic McPhee (Flickr, CC BY-SA)
Many structural problems and inaccessible text are caused by people using outliner software to create overly hierarchized sets of headings at multiple levels, made worse still by adding complex numbering systems (e.g section to ‘help’ readers. At an extreme, an analytic over-fragmentation of the text results, with sections, sub-sections and sub-sub sections proliferating in bizarre complexity. The text can become like the traditional British tinned desert called ‘fruit cocktail’, which contains many different kinds of fruit, but all in small cubes and smothered in a syrup so thick that you cannot taste at all what any component is.

The writing coach, Thomas Basboll, shrewdly remarked that:
A well-written journal article will present a single, easily identifiable claim; it will show that something is the case … The [typical academic] article will consist of roughly 40 paragraphs. Five of them will provide the introductory and concluding remarks. Five of them will establish a general, human background. Five of them will state the theory that informs the analysis. Five of them will state the method by which the data was gathered. The analysis (or “results” section) will make roughly three overarching claims (that support the main thesis) in three five-paragraph sections. The implications of the research will be outlined in five paragraphs. These are ball-park figures, not hard and fast rules, but “knowing” something for academic purposes means being able to articulate yourself in roughly these proportions.
3. Say it once, say it right

Nothing is so corrosive of readers’ confidence in a writer than repeating things. Academic readers are not like soap opera fans - they do not need a thing previewed, then actually said, then resaid, and then summarized. So it a bad idea to take one decent point and fragment it across your text in little bits. If your current structure is forcing you to do this, recast it to make this problem go away.

Simple, big block structures are generally best. Complex structures, with points developed recursively on in frequent discrete iterations, are easier to mess up. Close to every nuance of your own argument, you may well feel that you are thematically advancing, embroidering and extending your arguments each time you come back to a linked point. But readers will just see repetition. So, say each point once - and say it right first time.

This motto also has resonance at the micro-level. Fellow scientists or academics normally do not need points to be so hammered home that every tiny scintilla of meaning has been triple-locked in case some doubt remains. This way lies turgid prose (as Voltaire shrewdly remarked: ‘The secret of being a bore is to say everything’).

4. Try paragraph re-planning, as discussed in my separate blogpost.

This is a great technique for really helping you understand what you have done/got in the existing draft of your article or chapter. Rachael Cayley has a similar approach, which she calls ‘reverse outlining’. The core idea is to start with your finished text and then to resurface a detailed, paragraph-by-paragraph structure from that. Looking at this synoptic view of your whole text, you should find it easier to come up with an alternative Plan B sequence for your text. Unless you are a genius writer already, re-modelling text is an inescapable burden at multiple stages of securing acceptance by a journal.

5. Make the motivation clearer

Give readers a stronger sense of why the research has been done, why the topic is salient and how the findings illuminate important problems. Researchers who live with their topic over months and years often lose track of why they started, why they shaped the study as they did, and what the significance of their findings is for a larger audience. If a text is not working, or not quite working, the author is often too close-up to the detail of the findings, too convinced that the study could only have been done this way and that its importance is ‘obvious’. Being unable to write an effective conclusion is a good ‘tell’ for this problem - an apparently separate symptom that is actually closely linked. Trying to achieve a high impact start for an article (or a clean, forward-looking beginning to each chapter in a book or PhD) can help readers to better appreciate a motive for reading on. A quick start usually helps readers commit to learning more.

6. Strengthen the argument tokens

At research level every paragraph draws on ‘tokens’ to sustain the case being made - which might be literature citations, supportive quotations, empirical evidence, or systematic data presented in charts or tables (see point 7). On citations, quotes or evidence it is usually worthwhile to ask if your search and presentation could be made more convincing - for instance, by multiplying references, showing evidence of systematic and inclusive search, more methodical evidence-gathering, or simply updating and refreshing a literature search that is now a little dated. People often do a literature search at an early stage of their research, when they only understand their topic rather poorly - but then neglect to do a ‘top up’ search just before submission, when they are likely to be much better at recognizing material that is relevant.

7. Improve the data and exhibits

This works at two levels. First, at an overall level it is important to design effective exhibits that display in a consistent way and follow good design principles. Second, at the level of each chart, table or diagram, make sure you provide full and accurate labelling of what is being shown, and that the data being reported are in a form that will matter to readers - not ‘dead on arrival’.

This piece was originally published on the Writing For Research blog and is reposted with the author’s permission.

To follow up these ideas in more detail see my book: Patrick Dunleavy, ‘Authoring a PhD’ (Palgrave, 2003) or the Kindle edition, where Chapter 5 covers ‘Writing clearly’ and Chapter 6 ‘Developing as a Writer’.

There is also very useful advice on Rachael Cayley’s blog Explorations of Style and on Thomas Bassboll’s blog ‘Research as a second language’.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

Patrick Dunleavy is Professor of Political Science at the LSE and is Chair of the LSE Public Policy Group. He is well known for his book Authoring a PhD: How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral dissertation or thesis (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

Saturday, October 25, 2014

How Running Around More Can Help Children Do Well at School

Calhan, Colorado high school physical educatio...
School physical education equipment (Wikipedia)
by Josie Booth, University of Dundee

Children who do more physical activity are likely to improve their health and it might also help them improve their school grades.

Those are the findings of recent research from Sweden which suggest that doubling the amount of time spent doing physical education at school has an impact on children’s academic achievement.

Schools and parents are often urged to do more to improve children’s physical activity - and the growing body of research on the links between PE and success at school might be just the carrot they need.

Physical inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide, an issue which urgently needs to be addressed. Current recommendations state that children and young people should be doing at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day at an intensity which is enough to increase the heart rate.

Generation of inactive children

But around the world, the number of children achieving these recommendations is low. A 2012 survey conducted by the World Health Organisation found that only 23% of 11-year-olds were doing the recommended levels of physical activity, a figure that varies greatly between countries.

Italy was one of the worst-performing countries, where 10% of boys and 7% of girls reported doing at least 60 minutes of physical activity, compared with Ireland, the top performer, where 43% of boys and 31% of girls reported doing at least an hour a day.

The beneficial impact that physical activity has on our health has been well reported, so it’s surprising that so few young people are meeting the recommendations. As well as the health benefits, research has found that physical activity can have a positive impact on psychological factors such as depression and self-esteem in both adults and children.

Research has also shown that physical activity is beneficial for academic success. The recent Swedish study published in the Journal of School Health, reports that increasing the amount of physical activity school pupils were doing led to improvements in academic achievement.

Improving success rates

The study conducted by Lina Käll, Michael Nilsson and Thomas Lindén, involved all pupils of an elementary school taking part in “play and motion” activities run by a local sports clubs. Two sessions of activities lasting 30-45 minutes were embedded into the school schedule in addition to the two hours of physical exercise a week that was part of the regular timetable.

The researchers examined information about the number of children at the school meeting national learning goals in Swedish, Maths and English over a four-year period prior to the exercise programme starting and then five years after the programme started.

The performance of the school was then compared to the performance of three other schools from areas with similar socio-economic characteristics in terms of education, average income, unemployment and foreign citizenship.

The results suggest that pupils at the school who took part in the exercise programme were twice as likely to meet the national learning goals in all three subjects, compared with pupils at the schools which did not increase physical activity. So doubling the amount of physical activity during school time increased the proportion of pupils achieving these academic goals.

This is an exciting finding given the need to encourage increases in physical activity - and it is one which echoes other research in this area. But the study does have some limitations. Importantly, the amount of physical activity that children were doing outside of school was not examined either before the programme started or during it.

This is a problem because the levels of physical activity may have been particularly low prior to the programme starting for example, or may have decreased in the control schools. The gender composition of the schools was not taken into account either.

The Swedish study does however highlight that dedicating more time to PE in schools is certainly not detrimental to attainment, a finding which has been reported consistently.

Recent work by myself and colleagues has demonstrated the long-term impact of higher intensity physical activity. Increases of roughly 15 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity at the age of 11 were related to increased performance in academic subjects five years later.

Yet this finding was in the context of relatively low levels of physical activity and differing patterns emerged for girls and boys. These factors should therefore be taken into account when planning further school-based interventions.

Keep PE in the curriculum

Schools are under increasing pressure to raise attainment of pupils, but unfortunately in many school systems this has meant reducing time spent on PE so that more time is available for academic subjects. Demonstrating that increases in PE can also be beneficial for academic success lends support for arguments against cutting it out of the timetable.

Further research is needed to fully explain the reasons why physical activity can lead to improvements in attainment, but increasing evidence now supports this positive relationship. Perhaps this is the catalyst needed to make meaningful and sustained increases in physical activity by young people.
The Conversation

Josephine Booth receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and The Waterloo Foundation.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

5 Tips for Managing Unruly References

by Edit 911:

As authors research information to help support the work in their paper, they spend a great deal of time reading references.

All too often we wind up with a stack of papers or computer files full of references.

These references are important so that authors can cite the information from other sources that they wish to use to either support, acknowledge, or contradict their research. How do we organize and choose the correct references?

In this blog we share five easy steps for managing references. 

1. Sort your references into categories

Most papers have an introduction, materials and methods, results, and conclusion/discussion section. It is best if you sort your references into those categories.

The introduction should use references that provide historical information relevant to the paper topic. References used in the materials and methods should help the reader know why the author decided to use particular methods and how those methods are best utilized.

When we select references for the results, they can be sub-categorized into those that support or contradict the data. The conclusion/discussion section draws once again on references that support the historical context necessary to understand the work and these references must also aid in the discussion of the relevant data.
editing proofreading service references

2. Use quality references

It is important to use the most original reference possible. Additionally, authors need to use up-to-date and reliable references. The authors want to use references that have been peer-reviewed by leaders in the topic field. Peer-reviewed references have been checked for errors by knowledgeable reviewers well-versed in the field being studied. 

3. Select references that are easy for people to access

As our ever-expanding world of technology makes more information available, this is an easier step to manage. Still, we most often should select references that are in the same language as the paper being presented and easy to access by everyone with either access to the internet or a library.

editing service references writing

4. Keep the references to a manageable number

Unless you are writing a review article and need to tie in the information you are sharing with an extensive number of other papers, select only the most pertinent sources. If a point needs to be validated by external references, this is most often accomplished by referring to three or four sources from unique author sets.

Using a few select but widely accepted references that trace back to experts in the field will help readers of the paper being presented better understand the importance of this new work to the field of study. 

5. Have all your references printed or in electronic format and easy to access

In this new day and age there are multiple electronic programs that can be used to sort, catalog, and manage references. All too often people focus on getting the references into these bibliography programs and forget that it is the content of the reference that is critical.

Authors need to have the abstract and a few notes about the paper easily accessible and a copy (printed or electronic) of the complete paper should be available. By having the information readily available, it alleviates improper citations and the possibility of plagiarism.

Follow these five suggestions and you will find that managing your references becomes less of a chore!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Hooked on the Classics: Literature in the English Curriculum

Flickr/Jeannie Fletcher, CC BY
by Stewart Riddle, University of Southern Queensland and Eileen Honan, The University of Queensland

The National Curriculum Review was released this week, with the reviewers calling for a greater focus on “Western” literature in the English classroom.

As former high school and primary English teachers, we were left wondering what reviewers Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire think our students are reading in classrooms across the country, if not Western literature.

What exactly is “Western” literature?

The call for an emphasis on Western literature is unsurprising, given in the past Donnelly has argued that
no amount of politically correct clap-trap about the importance of indigenous and Asian texts can erase the fact that central to English as a subject are those enduring literary works that are part of the Western tradition.
So what is the literary canon according to Donnelly? Alongside Shakespeare and Dickens, the Bible takes centre stage. Students already engage with a broad range of Western canonical and contemporary texts, both from Australia and abroad.

For example, the NSW Curriculum suggests using texts from authors such as Dickens, Eliot, Hemingway, Kipling and Orwell in Years 7 to 10. When Victorian Year 12 students study for the VCE, they are expected to engage with Western canon greats such as Shakespeare and Bronte.

Barry Spurr, a Poetry and Poetics Professor at The University of Sydney, was chosen to review literature in the English curriculum. Some of his recommendations have made it through to the final report, including a
greater emphasis on dealing with and introducing literature from the Western literary canon, especially poetry.
Spurr believes that an
over-emphasis on 20th- and 21st-century texts produces an unbalanced curriculum, and certainly not a rigorous one, with regard to the discipline at large.
He goes on to declare that:
the range of study must extend from Middle English lyrics and the works of Chaucer to the present, with acknowledgement and experience also of ancient texts from the classical world and of the Bible - sources that, through the centuries, have had an inestimable influence on the development of literature in English.
The reviewers endorse this position on page 159 of their report, claiming that:
knowledge of the Bible is vitally important for an appreciation of Western literature.
Donnelly has previously argued that we need the Bible in our schools, prompting the question whether the review is free of ideology.

Choosing quality literature in the English Classroom

Currently, there is no prescribed literature in the Australian Curriculum. In its advice on selecting literary texts, the curriculum authority (ACARA) explains:
Teachers and schools are best placed to make decisions about the selection of texts in their teaching and learning programs that address the content in the Australian Curriculum while also meeting the needs of the students in their classes.
The Australian Association for the Teaching of English submission to the review commended the current situation, where
schools have the professional freedom to implement the curriculum with texts that they assess as being suitable for their own student cohorts.
The submission made by the Primary English Teaching Association Australia also endorses the curriculum’s flexibility for teachers to have control over context-appropriate literature selection.

Schools know best what students should study. Flickr/Roberta Cortese, CC BY

Calling for an emphasis on the Western literary canon makes the curriculum more, not less, prescriptive. This runs counter to the government’s rhetoric on school autonomy. This kind of prescriptive approach to text selection is the focus of the so-called “culture wars” and has previously been focused on secondary schooling.

What is different in this review, and perhaps most troubling, is the suggestion that this “historical study of literature” should begin from the Foundation year, where memorising and reciting the texts will assist students in ingesting
the flavoursome vocabulary of the simplest Medieval lyrics and the inventive conceptions of traditional fairy stories, myths and legends.
It’s questionable whether reciting and memorising Medieval poetry is appropriate for six year olds.

A call for more literature and less imagination

While the current English curriculum is not perfect, there are some groundbreaking and innovative features that seem to have become lost in the tired fights about phonics, skills and ideological warfare. One of these is the intertwining of three strands of content - Language, Literature and Literacy.

The Australian Literacy Educators' Association submission to the review commended the curriculum, saying:
The central place of literature in the English curriculum ensures learners are immersed in rich language and that excellent models of written language are used to inspire student writing.
However, the reviewers claim that:
during the early years to middle years of primary school, there should be less emphasis on children creating their own literature and more on becoming familiar with literary texts - both fiction and non-fiction - as exemplars of high-quality writing.
This begs the question whether the NAPLAN Writing Task will continue to be sat by Year 3 and 5 students. After all, the composition of narrative and persuasive texts is a clear example of children creating their own literature.

In his analysis, Spurr declares that:
the idea of pupils as ‘creators’ of literature in English needs to be kept firmly in check.
This position has been labelled by the South Australian English Teachers Association president, Alison Robertson, as “crazy”, with text comprehension and composition going hand-in-hand.

Teachers should be given the professional respect to understand the learning needs of their students and to select appropriate literature for inclusion in their English program. The curriculum already supports this.

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Number One Tip Against Stress in Your PhD

effectwandelcoachingby , Van Sijl Counseling and Training:

Be honest: as a PhD or PostDoc, how often do you get to work outside, somewhere green, where you can feel the sun shine, the wind blow, hear birds, smell flowers or fall leaves? When do you get to see and experience some nature? 
For most of you the basement lab, the library, or even your computer screen define your daily working environment.

I have noticed the beneficial effects of leaving your normal habitat on many walks with clients in the woods of Amelisweerd, to the east of Utrecht. Taking a physical distance creates a lot of breathing space for work-related issues.

But there is more to it than that. Did you know that coaching in a natural environment brings mildness and acceptation and raises your confidence and awareness?

At the “wandelcoachfestival” in Rhijnauwen I got a preview of scientific research showing these effects. Prof. Agnes van den Berg investigated the effects of coaching in nature on health in case of issues of work related stress. I was very glad to see my personal observations and intuitions in this respect confirmed by her findings.

So my number one tip for all PhD’s and PostDocs: go into the woods to get out of the woods!

So next time you find your mind running in circles chasing a fleeting idea, feel depressed at another failed experiment, or stressed for the weight of your teaching load: get out! Even half an hour in the park may work wonders.

Start by calmly walking, breathing deeply. Turn your attention to your feet and the steps you are taking. Slowly direct it upwards through your body.

While keeping in touch with your breath, let your senses one by one guide your attention outwards and become conscious of the feel of the air, the smells, the sounds, and lastly lower your pace and look around. Notice details: shape and color of the leaves, a cloud, a puddle … and enjoy!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Time and Schedule Planning for PhDs: People Plan, and Life Laughs

I did complete all of those tasks.
I did complete all of those tasks (Wikipedia)
Today I have the pleasure of inviting Adam Feinman to discuss his academic schedule. 
Adam received a B.S. in Computational and Systems Biology from UCLA in 2008 with a minor in Mathematics. 
He is currently jointly pursuing a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering and an M.S. in Electrical Engineering. 
He is characterizing and optimizing the use of surface electromyography (sEMG) to control devices. These projects are intended to have broad applications in various clinical uses, such as creating prosthetics or analyzing sensorimotor impairments. 
Aside from blogging, he writes and plays piano in the free moments between classes, teaching, research, and family. His personal blog can be found at 
The title of my post is the politically-correct version of an old Yiddish saying: "Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht", "man plans and God laughs". We should probably remember to laugh too, because life's too serious as it is!
Whenever you read posts about how people manage to be productive, they usually turn out to be written by people who are extremely disciplined, whether by nature or by training. For example, I once read this article
I know that people other people like him (such as my wife!) who can schedule down to the minute and execute it, but I have a great deal of trouble relating to their advice. 
Discipline, sticking to schedules, and estimating how long tasks take have never been my strong suit. While I have generally found the practice of scheduling my activities (be they professional or personal) a very useful practice, at least for now I'm not capable of running as tight a ship as he does, and I don't think being so disciplined is a requirement for success in life. 
Success comes from playing to your personal strengths and finding ways to compensate for your weaknesses. My strength is being flexible without being entirely structure-less, but for me, too much structure leads to important things falling by the wayside.

I think everyone, myself included, can inculcate more discipline into their life, and benefit thereby. If it doesn't come naturally to you, how do you ensure you are doing your utmost to accomplish?

"Schedule" has a baby sister, and her name is "List". The thing that keeps me going is having my List that I update every week. I hesitate to call it a "to-do list" partially because of how much that term makes people cringe, but also because it doesn't only contain tasks.

On my List is everything I need to accomplish, and everything I desire. There is no need to simplify on "the List"; if anything, I use it to get every detail I care about down on paper. And with the advent of The Cloud, I've found it useful to copy-and-paste the current version of my list and only update the copy.

Being able to trace the progression of tasks allows you backtrack and see when things were accomplished, if necessary. And any time you're feeling blue, you can look back to the beginning and see how many things you have accomplished and the turns your life has taken. Thanks, by the way, to Laura Shum (@lauracshum) for that nugget of wisdom!

I tend to organize my List like an outline. For example, I will usually have a number of headers for work-related things-to-do. So each experiment will get a header, and sub-tasks will have one indents, details will have two indents, etc. Here's a recent example:

My List example

This is an old List, and even though it was a month and a half ago, bears little resemblance to the things I'm up to right now. Looking at it and seeing how much things have changed in a scant six weeks inspires me to keep pushing.

At the bottom, you can see there's a header for "personal items". For obvious reasons, I didn't include that part of my List in this post; it's personal! But I can tell you that some of the things include: build exercise into my week; practice piano; set times to socialize. These are all things that, when I schedule them and do them only at the scheduled times, life is better all around.

There is no way to have a realistic discussion of scheduling without touching on the issues of work-life balance. Most people in the world, even if they love their work, desire and pursue a life more complex than work-eat-sleep. There will be elements of life that cannot fit into a rigid schedule, the most obvious of these is family.

No matter what makes you feel loved, whether it's getting attention or having tasks-to-do taken off your plate, it takes time, and can't always fit a schedule. And kids! New babies demand attention entirely impulsively, so you might have to be prepared to throw rigid scheduling out the window.

Even when they get older, they are still emotionally dependent on you, so you can't always wave a schedule in their faces. But if you provide your life (and their lives) with zero structure, you're essentially being productive when you feel like it, and that's not a recipe for success.

There are always some things that you can plan on doing on a weekly basis. I tend to find that with my List and a weekly template in hand, you can do a lot to identify reasonable work hours, fit in the things you want to do, and plan time to relax. Here's an example:

Schedule Template

The things on my template for the semester in green are non-negotiable except for emergencies. Red are work tasks; they need to happen but are the easiest to move around. Blue are personal, and I'll be more willing to shift around the red than the blue usually.

As you can see, there are LOTS of holes in the schedule. Those holes have to be filled in on a weekly basis. It allows me to account for what's going on in life, what tasks need priority, and who needs my attention. It allows be to factor in the need to rest the mind and the need to socialize without losing track of productivity.

At the end of the day, you have to be clear with yourself from the outset that schedules are merely a game plan, and life will play jokes on your plans. And when life plays jokes on you, just say "Oh, silly you!" and start rearranging your puzzle pieces.

Life, productivity, family, planning, it's all one big game, really. Even the best batters only hit the ball 30% of the time. All we can really do is our best, and that has to be enough.

Call to Arms for Shaking up Social Sciences Relies on False Premise That Science Alone Can Solve All Social Problems

The Maths and Social Science Building at the U...
Maths & Soc Sci Bldg, Uni Manchester (Wikipedia)
by Will Davies, Impact of Social Sciences:

A new form of ‘interdisciplinarity’ may be emerging but has so far failed to devote equal demands on the natural sciences, as well as on the social sciences.

Will Davies responds to the calls for a social science shake-up by questioning the status of the social sciences in 2014 as something other than mere understudies to the natural sciences. 

The shared terrain of the two, he argues, seems to rest on various acts of forgetting on the part of the social sciences, but no acts of learning on the part of the natural sciences.

This is part of a series of posts ahead of the event on Tuesday 21st October, Do We Need to Shake Up the Social Sciences #LSESocialSciences. You can find our interview with Nicholas Christakis which kicked off the debate here.

Imagine someone establishes a new think tank within the UK government, perhaps like the Strategy Unit which existed in the Cabinet Office for a few years. It finds its feet, develops a reputation, struggles for funding occasionally, but gradually develops a sense of identity and purpose.

Part of this is to reflect on the nature of policy, to provide a space in which the instruments of the state can be questioned.

After a few years, the Ministry of Defense comes knocking on its door, accusing it of being too conservative and not sufficiently ‘inter-departmental’. “So what should we be doing instead?”, the small think tank pleads. “Well you could help us with these nuclear submarines for starters,” comes the reply.

The charge that the social sciences have become too ‘conservative’ and insufficiently ‘interdisciplinary’ is a persuasive one. But one has to pay careful attention to what is being proposed as a solution.

For Amanda Goodall and Andrew Oswald, applauding a recent polemic by Nicholas Christakis (interview here), it appears to mean one thing only: the social sciences must become not only cognizant of the natural sciences, but actively supportive of their research agendas.

Only this way can the social sciences connect with major policy problems such as climate change, and overcome their stultifying resistance to change.

According to Goodall and Oswald, the subject matters which should be imported into the curricula of the social sciences include:
modern brain science, the geophysics of climate change, the hormone cortisol, the biology of skin resistance, the genetic polymorphism 5-HTTLPR, the life-cycle happiness of great apes, the physiological effects of oxytocin or the nature of herd behaviour in zebrafish.
Meanwhile, Christakis seems to have grown bored of the traditional subject matter of social science:
I’m not suggesting that social scientists stop teaching and investigating classic topics like monopoly power, racial profiling and health inequality. But everyone knows that monopoly power is bad for markets, that people are racially biased and that illness is unequally distributed by social class.
Progress, apparently, would lie in looking to new forms of ‘interdisciplinarity’ with the natural sciences.

Most social scientists probably share some of the anxieties expressed in these articles. The sense that the journal system has become a self-perpetuating oligarchy; the sense that career incentives mitigate against transgression of boundaries (though these include managerial and political boundaries as much as ‘disciplinary’ ones); the sense that too few social scientists are driven by the most urgent needs of the present.

Yet social scientists are already developing ‘digital methods’ and trying to engage with ‘big data’, albeit with a sometimes skeptical eye. Many of them lack the job security, confidence or the freedom to disappear into their pejorative ‘ivory towers’ any longer. 

And the case against knee-jerk hostility towards the life sciences has been articulated compellingly by the British sociologist, Nikolas Rose (interview here).
WEIZAC, the first modern computer in the Middle East - Image credit: Wikimedia, Public Domain
However, there are a number of grave problems with Goodall and Oswald’s call to arms. Firstly, it is entirely ahistorical. Being ahistorical may not matter if you are a dealing with the ‘life-cycle happiness of great apes’, but it does matter if you’re dealing with ‘racial profiling’.

There is a simple reason for this: if great apes do history themselves, then we are not able to understand it, whereas races and racial profilers have histories, which they can articulate and which influence how they act. To overlook this is to deny oneself the possibility of simple interpretation of other people’s lives.

Goodall, Oswald and Christakis demonstrate scant curiosity about what the social sciences are, or where they came from. The unspoken implication is that they are simply a junior off-shoot of a naturalist project which began around the time of Francis Bacon. Is it not significant that they emerged in late 19th century Europe, in the context of the collapse of Victorian liberalism?

Would it not be useful for one of their neuro-economists to know that the aspiration to ground decision-making in the physical body has been a repeated obsession of behaviorists over the past century, which has run into a pattern of familiar failures and crises during that time?

Viewed this way, it might be possible to ask about the status of the social sciences in 2014, as something other than mere understudies to the natural sciences. A new form of ‘interdisciplinarity’, possibly a new vision of experimentation, may be the welcome result.

The difficulty is that this would involve placing demands on the natural sciences, as well as on the social sciences. And this seems to be the one thing that Goodall, Oswald and Christakis cannot countenance.

The shared terrain rests on various acts of forgetting on the part of the social sciences (a forgetting of history, a forgetting of the reflexive nature of human beings), but no acts of learning on the part of the natural sciences.

It involves no searching questions regarding the natural sciences - such as their status within the American military-industrial complex - but merely encouragement to the social sciences that they should become equally co-operative. Is this really what we mean by interdisciplinarity?

Much of what gets tagged as the ‘conservatism’ of social science might otherwise be understood as ‘sympathy’ for the concepts and language which research subjects (or research users, such as policy-makers and business) employ and understand.

It is important to understand the ways in which behaviorism and manipulative experiments blow up, both ethically and scientifically.

There are critiques of neuroscience, such as Bennett and Hacker’s, which help to understand precisely when and why this discipline occasionally seems to veer into the nonsensical use of language.

In an age of unnerving Facebook emotional contagion experiments, and an economics discipline still largely modelled upon 19th century physics, the idea that the social sciences can best serve society by closing their eyes and straining even harder to produce knowledge resembling biology or chemistry, seems almost perverse.

Goodall and Oswald take it for granted that the way for social scientists to do “their job of helping humans to understand the world and improve life” involves reaching out to the natural sciences, with no offer of reciprocity.

Christakis takes it for granted that social science means spotting patterns in behavior. These assumptions aren’t even acknowledged let alone justified. We should count ourselves fortunate that Thomas Piketty does not share their premises, or we’d have been robbed of one of the most exciting and ambitious pieces of interdisciplinary social science of the last thirty years.

There is scope for change, and the stakes are high. On that, most people are agreed. Goodall and Oswald’s example of global warming as a challenge to the social sciences is a compelling one. But it is surely an even greater challenge to our political institutions.

Political scientists and anthropologists could therefore collaborate to understand how effective policies run into the ground. Economists and sociologists should work together, to understand how the needs of finance have come to trump all other notions of the global public good.

All of this would need communicating better, outside of journals. But it also requires firm resistance to the idea that ‘science’ can solve problems which are outcomes of institutional, cultural and political history, and not simply matters of nature and technology.

This is part of a series of posts ahead of the event on Tuesday 21st October, Do We Need to Shake Up the Social Sciences #LSESocialSciences. You can find our interview with Nicholas Christakis which kicked off the debate here.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

Will Davies is a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is convener of a new BA Degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, and Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Centre.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Time Neither Stretches nor Shrinks

by Eva Lantsoght, PhD Talk:

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Natalia Sali, who shares with us her academic schedule. 

Natalia is a second year part time PhD student at Royal Holloway University of London, College of Social Work. Her research is on parental mental health of parents from Black and Minority Ethnic community. 

She studied in Centro Escolar University (Philippines), University of the Philippines, and University of Westminster. She has a degree in Social Work, MA in Social Work, and Diploma in Health and Social Care Management. 

She works full time as manager of Contact a Family in Southwark, and has been working in the voluntary sector for more than 20 years. Natalia also volunteers with the Southwark branch of the London Vegan Society.

How often do we hear people saying they have a thousand things to do, and have very little time?

As PhD students, we sometimes feel this way. When one is working, has a family, and has other interests - having to read dozens of books and articles, to write long essays, conduct field work, transcribe, attend seminars and conferences, and meet our supervisors – seem to be overwhelming.

My personal view though is that time is constant. There will always be 24 hours a day, and it will never be a surprise to know we only have 24 hours a day. I am however only in my second year and I know that my experience is different from the rest who are already in the middle of their research. Nevertheless, there might be some principles here that one can take.

Catch that early sunshine

It helps to be an early riser. I wake up at 6am to eat breakfast, catch up with emails, read academic blogs and tweets, and prepare for work. During autumn and winter, I squeeze in 45 minutes of jogging (from 7am to 7.45). During summer, I run after work. Being physically fit boosts the energy, and waking up early means we can accomplish a lot.

Don’t neglect your ‘bread and butter’

The 9 to 5 job, five days a week use up almost half of my week. But work pays the bill, and the tuition fees! When I enter the office, I am on work mode.

Work mode to pre-study mode

It is important to set a boundary between work and study, and to train one’s self to do so. The moment I log out and turn my work computer off, I switch to non-work things. During summer and spring, I go for a jog from 5.30pm; followed by cooking dinner at 6.30 pm; dinner at 7.00pm; and do volunteer work where I write and respond to emails.

Study mode

At 8.00pm, I read books and take notes. I do an hour then take a break for 15 minutes; continue for an hour, writing down my thoughts on what I read, until I need another short break. I study for three hours. It is important to find that time of the day where we are most productive.

Easy mode

If I don’t have an essay to write, or have just finished one - I read leisurely. It is different though when I have an essay to write, in that I don’t read other books but only the ones related to my topic.

Sleep mode

At 12am, I lie down and read tweets or read/send messages to friends. I sleep at 12.30am.

Weekend miscellany

Contrary to what others might think about PhD students, we do have a social life. I visit friends, or go out with them. It’s also my time to go for a swim at our local leisure centre. I have time to shop for fresh veggies and fruits at the local market, and experiment on new vegan recipes. I do volunteer work - e.g. write articles for newsletters, or respond to emails.

On Sundays, I’d read some more, search university libraries online for good books, list them down so I can drop by the library the next time I pass by it. I also find online articles related to my research topic and save them in my laptop.

I know the time requirement in conducting a research. I did two try out interviews. For one interview - including setting it up, travel, the interview itself, and transcribing - took seven to eight hours.


1. Avoid time wasters. Social network sites are useful for non-academics but not for us. We learn more from reading online resources, academic blogs and tweets.

2. Book-on-the go. Always bring a book as you travel by public transport. Thirty minutes of reading helps a lot.

3. Cut travel time. On your way to meetings (work-related or not), and you are passing by your favourite library - you can always return or borrow books. This saves you time to specifically make the travel to the library. It will help if you have listed down the books you want to borrow. There might also be some shopping to do, so why not drop by your favourite supermarket on your way home?

4. Don’t procrastinate. Even if you are feeling lazy, don’t fall for it. Merely starting a paragraph or two, or a framework for your essay is a quick win. That first sentence is crucial, but once you have started it, ideas will flow. Finishing the work on schedule means you have enough time to proofread it, or find more information you might need to improve it.

5. Every little thing helps. When we are busy writing, someone has to do the dishes, or the laundry, empty the rubbish bins, and sort out the recycling; or simply listen to us when we get stuck on something. They might not be able to offer solution but they can always reassure us and encourage us to stay focused. We have friends with writing skills whom we can always ask for help. Our supervisors are always ready to help, so when we are stuck, give them a ring!

6. File it away! - Don’t underestimate the time you save by maintaining a good filing system - for both hard and electronic materials. I write details of the books I read on index cards so that I can always go back to them later (also for correct referencing).

And as Benjamin Franklin said, “You may delay, but time will not”. We need not delay. The more we learn to manage our schedule, the easier for us to finish that PhD.

Good wishes fellow students!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Final Year PhD: How to Balance Your Thesis Deadline and Job Search

With pressure building to have a job lined up post-submission, Victoria McGowan and Erika Brockfeld offer advice to final year PhD candidates on facing their fears - and the future.
After years of hard slog you've finally made it to your final year. 
When people ask you what you're doing, no longer do you launch into a monologue on how your research is going to save the planet; instead dumbing down your work into the shortest soundbite you can think of.

You're tired and wish that word count would just get far enough for you to call it a day. But your tiredness is accompanied by a fear so all-encompassing it tames your procrastination as you scramble to get those chapters finished. Not for the sake of your thesis, of course, but so you can claw back some spare time to begin trawling for the perfect (read 'any') job post-submission.

Is it possible to balance the two? You've spent the long PhD years not only conducting research but taking on a multitude of other duties to enrich your CV and increase the chances of landing your dream academic post.

However, as your deadline looms, the amount of time available to perfect the application form, prepare the presentation and attend the conference slips away. Obligations that were once tremendous opportunities now seem heavy, unmanageable burdens.

As final year PhD candidates ourselves, we are facing the fear head on. We currently attempt to write papers for publication, attend conferences, undertake outreach activities, edit journals, and write pieces for national newspapers among other things, all while finishing our theses. On top of that we're fully functioning adults with husbands, children, pets, friends, and even (limited) social lives.

We've lived in this academic bubble so long and finally peering through with the realisation that we will need work on the other side. Our funding is coming to an end and if we don't have a job lined up after we submit our theses we could be fighting the wolves from the door.

It's all too easy for common sense to leave the building during this moment of panic but our colleague Lauren Houghton, a postdoctoral researcher at the National Cancer Institute in Washington, brings us back to reality by pointing out the obvious: "Capitalise on your surrounding situation."

Houghton was able to secure a postdoc position with the institution that funded her PhD. "It was such a relief to know that I could focus on finishing my thesis and not have to worry about a new job, new home, new life," she said.

With the end of days upon us, here are four more points of guidance we've gleaned from supportive colleagues and mentors. 

Disseminate your research

If your department and/or university allows it, write your thesis chapters as individual manuscripts for publication and try to publish them before submission of your thesis or your viva. If your work has been through the peer-review process prior to examination it offers credibility to your research. Attend conferences and focus on topics in your research area. This can provide a much needed boost in times of writer's block and may even highlight the niche in which your work sits. 

Keep calm and collected

There are always stories in the press and online about the grim situation of newly graduated PhDs, but something will turn up. It might mean doing something unexpected - explore your surroundings outside campus for opportunities to do things the narrowly REF-focused UK higher education scene cannot offer. 

Give yourself a break

Don't spend seven days a week on your thesis. Make time for family and friends and avoid thesis topics on weekends to regain strength and feel refreshed when you go back to work. 

Take a holiday

It's actually okay not to have a job lined up immediately after submission - if your finances allow. You will need time and space to rehydrate from a mentally drained and socially dry brain-on-legs. After spending years trucking on a strict timeline, it's good to retrain yourself to slow down.

So, perhaps the future is not as bleak as our fear-riddled heads have made it out to be. The experiences of our mentors have calmed us and we're back to feeling up to the challenge. The challenge of finishing our thesis? Possibly. But we're more focused now on the sun, sand, and sangria we have waiting for us post-submission.

Victoria McGowan and Erika Brockfeld McClure are both PhD candidates in medical anthropology at the University of Durham - follow it on Twitter @durham_uni

How Germany Managed to Abolish University Tuition Fees

* Karl-Heinz Gerstenberg (Alliance 90/The Gree...
Demonstration against tuition fees in Germany (Wikipedia)
by Barbara Kehm, University of Glasgow

If Germany has done it, why can’t we? That’s the question being asked by many students around the world in countries that charge tuition fees to university.

From this semester, all higher education will be free for both Germans and international students at universities across the country, after Lower Saxony became the final state to abolish tuition fees.

It’s important to be aware of two things when it comes to understanding how German higher education is funded and how the country got to this point.

First, Germany is a federal country with 16 autonomous states responsible for education, higher education and cultural affairs.

Second, the German higher education system - consisting of 379 higher education institutions with about 2.4m students - is a public system which is publicly funded. There are a number of small private institutions but they enrol less than 5% of the total student body.

Back and forth with fees

Until 1970-71, West-German higher education students had to pay tuition fees at the level of about 120 to 150 German Marks per semester. There were needs-based exceptions but basically these fees had to be paid by every student.

When they came to power in the late 1960s, Germany’s Social Democrats supported higher education expansion by promoting widening participation and equal opportunities and by increasing the number of higher education institutions.

From 1971 onwards, a system of state financial assistance for students was established and tuition fees were abolished. The assistance came first as a grant, later as a mix of half repayable-loan and half grant.

During the peak period of higher education expansion in the late 1960s, exclusive funding of higher education by the states became too much of a burden. New provisions were introduced for a framework law laying down the general principles governing higher education across West Germany. The first law, introduced in 1976, included a prohibition of tuition fees.

Despite a flirtation with the idea of re-introducing tuition fees under the conservative-liberal coalition government in the 1980s, a stalemate ensued over whether tuition fees would lead state governments to reduce their regular funding to universities.

Fees win out in late 1990s

The fall of the Berlin Wall and German Unification put all reform plans on hold for several years until the whole East German system of higher education institutions and academies had been evaluated and reformed.

A new discussion about tuition fees then started around the mid-1990s, with their re-introduction seen as a solution to a number of existing problems in the higher education system.

Around the end of the 1990s, the dam of resistance broke by allowing the introduction of fees for so-called long-term students: students who had been enrolled several semesters past the regular duration of their study programme and had not finished.

Those states with a conservative government filed a law suit in 2002 against the framework law of higher education, arguing that its prohibition of tuition fees was an illegitimate intervention into the legal authority for educational matters of the states. The Federal Constitutional Court upheld the complaint in 2005; immediately, seven states introduced tuition fees.

In 2006, the framework law was abolished under wider reforms of German federalism. Tuition fees were capped at 500 Euros per semester, but Berlin and all East-German states refused to introduce them.

Excellence and crisis

Yet the same reform of federalism led the states to reclaim complete authority and responsibility for their higher education. This led the Federal Ministry for Education and Research to refuse any further co-funding with states on higher education. And it left the federal ministry with a lot of spare money.

A large part of this was eventually invested into the German Excellence Initiative, a competitive funding programme launched in 2005 to support a group of universities to become global players.

But this also meant that the poorer states faced a funding crisis for their higher education institutions. The problem was aggravated by the fact the a number of the poorer states were located in East Germany, where all states had decided not to introduce tuition fees in the hopes to attract more students.

Gradual abolition

In successive years, as soon as state government elections have elected social democratic or green party governments, tuition fees have been abolished. The state of Hesse, for example, had tuition fees for only a single year. In the end only two states were left with tuition fees: Bavaria and Lower Saxony.

The conservative government of Bavaria gave into the mainstream and abolished tuition fees in the winter semester 2013-14, with Lower Saxony abolishing fees in the winter semester 2014-15.

But the heads of higher education institutions negotiated with their ministries, arguing that they could not properly do their job of offering high-quality student experience if the loss of income from tuition fees was not compensated one way or another.

So most states have agreed to compensate their higher education institutions with extra money - not quite covering the loss in fees though - which was to be invested exclusively into the improvement of the quality of studies and teaching. Most ministries decreed that students had to be involved in decisions about how and for what purposes the money was going to be spent.

How funding works now

The present situation is that all higher education institutions receive a budget from the responsible ministry of the state in which they are located, based on annual or biennial negotiations.

This basic budget is complemented by additional agreements between higher education institutions and the state concerning the intake of additional numbers of students and the money to compensate the loss of income from tuition fees.

There are additional funding programmes - some funded jointly by the states and the federal ministry - for supporting and promoting research, in the competition for excellence. Of course, most higher education institutions continue to feel underfunded. The pressure on academic staff to attract external research funding has increased, as has competition for such grants.

Still, compared to other countries in Europe, German higher education institutions continue to be rather generously funded by their states - an estimated 80% of their overall budgetary needs. There are also ample opportunities and considerable amounts of external research funding available.

Publicly funded, but for how long?

Despite the fact that competition for funding and accountability has increased in German higher education, there is still a general consensus that it is a public system and should be state-funded.

The abolition of tuition fees, even by conservative state governments, reflects this consensus too. In fact, the new Federal Minister for Education and Research, a member of the Conservative Party, recently announced a major increase in the levels of needs-based state financial assistance to students that will start in the 2016-17 academic year.

But funding varies considerably depending on different institutional and regional factors. The winners of the German Excellence Initiative have received and are receiving considerable amounts of additional funding in the hope that more German universities will be able to achieve better positions on world university rankings.

There were 12 German universities in the 2014-15 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, up from 10 the year before.

Higher education institutions in the poorer states (most of them in the east of Germany) receive less money and academic staff are being paid lower salaries while higher education institutions in the richer states (typically in the south) are better funded.

The debate about tuition fees - though dead for the moment - can easily be revived in the future. It has not been dropped from the agenda once and for all. Government policies continue to be in favour of tuition fees, most representatives of institutional leadership are as well, though for different reasons. But there is currently a lack of general public support.

Once this has changed - and influential advisory bodies and think tanks are working towards such a change - the idea of tuition fees will be introduced again.
The Conversation

Barbara Kehm is a member (and former Secretary) of the Consortium of Higher Education Researchers (CHER) and the German Association of Higher Education Research GfHf).

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.