From Hamburg to Hong Kong


Liberal arts education continues to inspire non-Americans to hold debates about alternative purposes and practices of higher education. Tim Hoff from ELAI recently attended two of those and is happy to report on this on-going conversation about undergraduate higher education.

Campus Innovation & November Expert Days, Hamburg (#CIHH17 #NEXD17)

The University of Hamburg hosted a small conference called “Campus Innovation & November Expert Days” (#CIHH17 #NEXD17). The event took place on 23rd and 24th of November, attracted over 800 participants mostly from German universities, and was organised by Campus Innovation Hamburg and Universitätskolleg Hamburg; you can see the programme here. While the first day was devoted to digital learning and openness, the second day had a particular focus on innovation in higher education. Starting off with a keynote by Google‘s Chief Innovation Evangelist Frederik G. Pferdt, the audience was encouraged to embed creative thinking in their workaday life at university. Afterwards, two panels discussed different new approaches to (undergraduate) higher education with a focus on liberal arts education.

Teun Dekker, Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Vice-Dean for Academic Affairs at University College Maastricht, reflected upon the almost 20 years of liberal arts university colleges in the Netherlands (Teun himself studied for his B.A. in liberal arts and sciences at University College Utrecht in 1998-2001, and thus counts among the brave first cohort of UCU alumni). Emphasizing their focus on individual freedom and academic community, Teun analysed the systemic opportunities and educational possibilities of liberal arts programmes of study. Unfortunately, the recording of his keynote is not yet available, but those interested might watch Teun elsewhere.

Adding to the list of opportunities and possibilities, Ursula Glunk and Wolfgang Freitag presented the liberal arts and sciences B.A./B.Sc. programme at University College Freiburg. They presented an overview of their alumni’s activities after graduating from the programme which ranged from international M.A.- and Ph.D.-Programmes to employments in various fields of society.  

Andreas Vaterlaus from ETH Zurich and Klemens Störtkuhl from University of Bochum talked about their individual approaches to broadening students’ curricula that are not enrolled in liberal arts programmes. Both presented various elements such as implementing structures for elective models or contextualising students’ studies through field trips where knowledge from different disciplines needs to be applied in real-world settings.

The president of the hosting institution, Dieter Lenzen, together with Silke Segler-Meßner, pointed out the need for a broad education that caters to the various dimensions and purposes of “Bildung”, not just the vocational side. Silke Segler-Meßner also elaborated on ideas of introducing a “Studium Generale” at University of Hamburg.

While the level of innovation in undergraduate education differ significantly between these institutions - for larger institutions it is clearly more difficult to implement programmes of study that do not follow a (mono-)disciplinary logic assigned to certain faculties - it became evident that there is an impetus for changing and adapting higher education. Germany might sound like an unlikely candidate for a broad shift towards the liberal arts - see for example a commentary by Volker Balli from Leuphana University - but timely potential for more incremental developments in the spirit of liberal arts seems to be building at many German universities. We at ELAI will keep track of them.

World Education Research Association (WERA) Focal Meeting & Hong Kong Educational Research Association (HKERA) International Conference 2017, Hong Kong (#wera_hkera2017)

Moving from Hamburg roughly 13 hours flying time to the East, another conference on (higher) education where ELAI was present took place. The World Education Research Association (WERA) and the Hong Kong Educational Research Association (HKERA) hosted their International Conference 2017 themed “Innovation, Reform and Education Change in a Contemporary World” at the Education University of Hong Kong (#wera_hkera2017). Its aim was to give education practitioners, researchers and policy-makers throughout the globe a platform for interesting and stimulating discussions and exchange of research-based knowledge, so as to stay vibrant and work strategically for the promotion of innovation, reform and education change. With participants from all over the world, the sizeable conference was well organized in strands ranging from Early Childhood, Primary and Secondary School Education to Higher and Teacher Education, Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment and Policy, Language and Literacy, Education Leadership and Management and much more.

Throughout the conference it became evident that there are quite a few liberal (arts) education initiatives in Chinese higher education - e.g. Lingnan University in Hong Kong, Yuanpei College at Peking University, Fudan University, Tsinghua University’s Xinya College - including international coverage of these initiatives: read for example here or here or here. But those developments operate in the context of pervasive emphasis on STEM-related research and education. Accordingly, the great majority of papers from Asian colleagues at WERA_HKERA conference dealt with advancing STEM-subjects und -teaching in (higher) education.  

In contrast to the disciplinary-focussed STEM presentations, Tim Hoff’s talk on “Liberal (Arts) Education in Europe” sparked some different debates about the content and purpose of higher education. After briefly introducing the context and characteristics of liberal arts education in Europe as well as explaining ELAI database and institutional diversity of liberal arts programmes in Europe, Tim invited the audience to discuss different rationales of undergraduate education more broadly, emphasizing the complexity and fluidity of societies we live in, where graduates with a narrow disciplinary focus might not be well equipped for their future lives - not only as employees but as citizens. Different questions were raised ranging from whether graduates of liberal arts programmes that focus on “21st century challenges” (global warming etc.) are likely to solve these contemporary problems in this century, to the connection of liberal arts in Europe and in Asia. While the answer to the first question had to be rather speculative, the later one relied on some recent research literature that we have also feature here.

2017 might be drawing to a close, but we hope that ELAI is just getting started. As became evident in Hamburg and Hong Kong, discussions relevant to liberal arts education can happen all around the globe and in markedly different traditions of higher education. For some reason, the ideal of broad, engaging and meaningful education continues to be, as Grant and Riesman put it, “The Perpetual Dream” of our colleges and universities.

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *