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【Beijing Forum 2010】Interview with Ulrich Teichler: Higher Education in Knowledge Society

NOV . 15 2010

Peking University, Nov. 13, 2010: With his bright smile and his humorous words, Professor Ulrich Teichler from University of Kassel, Germany, is one of the most popular scholars at the plenary session of “Education Reform and Research in the Era of Transition: Responsibility and Future” held on the afternoon of Nov. 5 in Four Seasons Hall of Diaoyutai State Guest House. In this session, Prof. Teichler delivered a speech entitled “Universities between the Expectations to Generate Professionally Relevant Competences and Academic Freedom: Experiences from Europe” in which he talked about educational changes in a knowledge society. During the coffee break, Prof. Teichler readily accepted our invitation for an interview.

Journalist: Prof. Teichler, you suggested in your presentation that higher education should make necessary changes in
current transitional phase. I am wondering if the educational changes in Germany and other European countries were made in response to pressure from a professional society.

Prof. Teichler:
Well, not necessarily to a professional society, but to a certain extent, to a knowledge society where
everybody thinks that knowledge is more important. If knowledge is so important, then a large proportion of the population has to have an intellectually demanding training. That’s why the knowledge society needs large numbers of higher education institution. The call for more higher education, however, is only one of the arguments in the discourse about the knowledge society. A second argument is widespread as well. You do not just have more knowledge, but there is a demand for really useful knowledge. Some experts believe that knowledge will become more relevant, if we move towards more professional specialization. Some argue that universities should do whatever employers expect. Others argue that higher education should do more to foster the personality of the students and to enhance their general “key skills”. I believe that we always will observe such a broad range of interpretations around needs of higher education in the knowledge society, because nobody knows for certain what is needed. Employers do not perfectly know what the economy needs, and governments as well as the university professors are uncertain as well.

In Germany, the majority of university graduates respond in surveys about their employment and work that they are
relatively well prepared in specialized knowledge need for their work. And they believe that practical work experience during the course of study is helpful to understand the world of work. In Germany, two thirds of students are taking internships during their course or study – some of them as mandatory element of the study program and others voluntarily. Also, the majority of students in Germany work during the course of study in order to a have a small income. On average, they work eight hours per week. Thereby, the majority chooses work which is related to their fields or future occupations .This means that a student in engineering will not sell McDonald burgers or carry newspapers. He might work as a car mechanic, which will enhance his technical skills and understanding. It’s not just finding a job, or getting money for anything, but the majority tries to do work which is related to their study.

But employers believe that students do not acquire enough “key skills". Students should know more about how to run a
team or to act as leaders, and they should have rhetorical training in order to be good speakers. There were many efforts at German universities in recent years to introduce courses for fostering the training of key skills. This is a call for competences not based on a single discipline, but it is viewed as being more useful than general education.

Journalist: In Chinese universities, we have similar courses that focus on key skills, but sometimes they are not very
useful and professional. So I am curious about the key-skill-training courses in Germany. Can you tell us more?

Prof. Teichler:
In Germany, professors in engineering almost all worked for some years in companies before they became
professors. A typical career for a German professor in engineering goes like this. They would get a degree in a university and finally a doctoral award; then they would go to industry. They might be supervisors of construction or might work in the research and development department. So they know very well what the practical task of an engineer in the company is. Certainly professors are better equipped to reflect the professional relevance of study, if they know what students do afterwards. We advocate in Germany that professors of all disciplines should know about what graduates are doing. And students should not only absorb knowledge, but also learn professional problem-solving, i.e. how to move systematic knowledge to the work place. There is an old joke in Germany. We say that the applied engineer can construct a bridge but does not understand why the bridge is holding, and the theoretical engineer cannot construct a bridge, but he knows why a bridge collapses. (Laugh) This is an old joke about the theoretical versus the applied engineer. But in reality, we want something in between---an engineer with knowledge of theory who can teach students how to move systematic knowledge into work. This is what we call “practice orientation” of higher education.
Journalist: You have just mentioned that some students will find internships or work related to their fields. I think
for students of humanities, like philosophy or literature, they actually have little opportunity to find related work. Some people think that humanities in universities are not useful; they do not pay off. What’s your opinion about this?

Prof. Teichler: I have noticed that in some countries a very clear distinction is made between “academic” and
"professional” fields of study. This is not our tradition in Germany. We have the assumption, of course, that some fields are more directly related to certain occupations. In explaining the results of my research on higher education and employment, I jokingly say that there are some fields which prepare you to sleep in a ready-made bed. (Laugh) If you study philosophy, you do not know what bed you will end up with.

I’ll tell you something about my own life. When I finished my high school, I wanted to study a field in university
which I did not know in my high school life and I wanted to study a field from which I did not know what kind of occupation I would get. My elder brother said, “Why don’t you take sociology? Nobody knows what students of sociology are doing afterwards. You did do not know sociology at school.” So I chose sociology, and I did not know what would happen. Now, you can see what has happened to a sociologist. Recently, a philosopher wrote a dissertation under my supervision about the employment of philosophy graduates and the relevance of their study for their job. We often note that students opting for fields of study such as philosophy or sociology are intellectually strong. We also note that companies say: we hire ten graduates who are well trained in matters of administration, finance or trade, but we also hire one or two persons for our company who think beyond the horizon of administration, finance and trade. I predict that an increased number of companies will move in that direction.

Journalist: So do you think that universities should produce thinkers instead of technicians?

Prof. Teichler:
Yes, universities should always produce a certain kind of people who do not want to go the normal
route. I’ve said in my presentation that every student should learn to be skeptical about what he normally does and be able to say “Could it be different?” In this way, universities are not just vocational high schools. They are producing this kind of questioning and skepticism. Universities should have some students who go completely different ways.

Journalist: As we know, Germany has very good vocational education while in China vocational education is not so
satisfactory. There is a big gap between demand and supply of Chinese labor market. Many employers cannot find matching employees, and graduates have a hard time finding jobs that are related to their fields. Some people think that this situation results from the fact that universities have enrolled too many students and overly produced graduates with high-level degrees. What’s your opinion about “over-education”?

Prof. Teichler:
It is really an interesting question to know what is happening if somebody goes to university and
later goes to a job which is not so high in status. I want to tell you a story. I was asked in Germany about 20 years ago, “Can you explain how is possible persons who sell cars in Germany often have only training in the vocational training system as a car mechanic, whereas in Japan almost every car seller has a bachelor’s degree?” I argued that this difference certainly was caused by the fact that higher education expansion started earlier in Japan than in Germany. As the number of vocationally trained people became smaller, Japanese companies took more frequently university graduates for such kinds of jobs. Now the interesting question is, “Do university-trained car sellers do the same as before the car sellers without a university degree?” I find that university-trained persons taking over a job previously held by a non-graduate immediately begin to change the character of the job. The university trained car sellers do not only talk with their customers about the motor and the speed of the car, but also about the life-style, the insurances, and the financial situation of the customer. The university-trained car seller understands that for the customer, the car is not only a technical entity, but also an economic and social entity. The technical thinking concerns functions and qualities of the car. The economical thinking is about the difference of prices and insurances, or something like this. And the social thinking relates to the impacts on social status, the role of the car for the family, etc. The university-trained car seller, thus, is not “over-educated”, but rather able, in principle, to combine these three dimensions in a more sophisticated way than the vocationally- trained car mechanic who sells cars.So, the most interesting question about the employment and work of university graduates is whether and, if so, how the graduates change the jobs themselves. “Over-education” is not determined by the job as such, but how the graduates react.

Journalist: Prof. Teichler, my last question concerns the role of the government in higher education. What role do you
think the government should play?

Prof. Teichler:
The role of the government, as I said in my presentation, is to be the guarding angel to support
something in higher education that you do not know from the outset that is useful because higher education is in charge of innovation, new thinking. Research and teaching in higher education has to be given room for activities which you do not know whether will be useful. We know that innovation is important. But nobody knows what it is. That’s why we have to invest in uncertainty. This cannot be done easily by private firms; also the students and parents having to investment into higher education might be afraid of too munch risk. The government is strong enough to take care not only for the about 90 percent of students choosing the normal tracks in life, but also for the about 10 percent of students who accept high-risk options. At the end, we might find out that some of the risk options were irrelevant, but others were creative. The role of government is to encourage risky and uncertain choices.



Extended Reading:

PKU News (Chinese) "Education Panel Session: Responsibility and Future in the Era of Reform"

【Beijing Forum 2010】Educational Challenges and Changes in the Era of Transition


Reported by: Chen Miaojuan, Li Nuoya
Transcribed by: Chen Miaojuan