“It’s not a tragedy if you lose a few places in the rankings”

15/Jun/2015

Antonio Loprieno is leaving the post of Rector of the University of Basel before the end of his term of office and will now return to the world of teaching and research. He believes that the Bologna reforms are misunderstood, that private sponsoring is necessary in the academy, and he is also critical of university rankings. By Roland Fischer.

(From "Horizons" no. 105, June 2015)

​Prof. Loprieno, when you look back at the last 40 years of your work in academia, would you say that you’ve lived through a major period of change, or is everything still as it was?

I do think there’s been a major change, probably even further-reaching than the changes that came with the student protests of 1968. The turn of the millennium saw a renegotiation of the values of a university.

You’re talking about Bologna. But wasn’t this primarily about increasing mobility and harmonisation, not about the university as a whole?

That’s a marvellous cultural misunderstanding. To be sure, there was a dual aim here: on the one hand to overcome the chasm between Eastern and Western Europe, and on the other hand to bring studies closer to business – students were to be made more ‘fit for the market’. At least, that was at the back of the reformers’ minds.

And didn’t Bologna achieve this?

There is a striking contradiction here. Because in order to achieve these goals, they chose the worst possible curriculum model: the Anglo-American model. With its Bachelor and Master, it really functions along the lines of: first education, then training.

Isn’t the Bachelor intended as a rapid passage through to practice?

In essence, no. In the Anglo-American model, the Bachelor was intended to prepare the elite for their future tasks in society – and also, perhaps, in the scientific field. It was about educating people to be ‘good citizens’.

And this is what the continental Europeans took on?

In formal terms, yes. But here we were accustomed to a cumulative process in education, not a sequential practice. This was Humboldt’s magic formula. This very different model saw education, subject-specific abilities and the preparation for societal tasks all being conveyed at the same time. But what did we do with Bologna? We simply distributed this old content across the Bachelor and Master levels. Especially in Switzerland, where the Masters remains the standard qualification.

So didn’t Bologna change anything really?

Oh yes, it did. There was a systematic disturbance that triggered a positive discourse. But as a result of this, many things were turned into problems, things that perhaps didn’t really have anything to do with Bologna.

For example?

Along with the Bologna reforms, the European universities also underwent a whole series of structural developments that can be summed up as ‘autonomy’ and ‘globalisation’. They resulted in new challenges and adjustments that are mostly considered to be part and parcel of Bologna because they cropped up at the same time, but that’s not actually the case.

With regard to globalisation, you’re an Egyptologist, and you’ve spent a lot of time in the USA researching and teaching. For many people, the USA is the El Dorado of science. Why did you come back to Europe?

You know, it’s a little ironic. The reason I returned was because I’d had enough of that very same rigid Bachelor/Master system. And as I was beginning to get involved in things here in Switzerland, the Bologna reform promptly happened. I’ve since been identified with this Bachelor/Master system myself.

How big is the difference between the USA and Europe today?

It’s become less significant, undoubtedly, but not because of Bologna. Instead, you have to recognise that the Anglo-American university model has taken on a hegemonic role – the whole world is orienting itself toward it.

And this is demonstrated by the primacy of the rankings?

You know, taking a stance against the rankings has almost become a sport. But it’s not as though they don’t have anything to measure.

Just not necessarily the quality of a university?

Not necessarily. Strictly speaking, rankings measure the degree to which a university has adjusted to the hegemonic, Anglo-American model.

Haven’t you had difficulty explaining this stance, for example in conversation with education policy makers?

Yes, there’s pressure on us to explain this. But it’s the duty of good university managers to explain to our politicians that it’s not a tragedy if you lose a few places in the rankings. We also have an educational function in this. We have to explain that we also want to have subjects like sociology at a university, even if these don’t necessarily help to get you top places in the rankings, like physics or life sciences do.

But we’ve not yet reached a point where a university could explicitly state its opposition to moving up the rankings, have we? You could also say that we need more pluralism on the university scene, not further adjustments to bring us in line with the Anglo-American model.

That’s an interesting thought. The most important value of a university is undoubtedly its strategic autonomy. In this sense, every university is an independent republic. Where contentment is greater, quality will also be better. And you have to make a decision: Do you want to play with the others in the Champions League, or to stay in your national league? Both are OK, but you’ll orient yourself differently, according to which you choose.

What do you think personally about this trend towards less pluralism?

As a citizen I regret it – and in societal terms, it’s certainly a loss. But whether or
not it’s regrettable in scientific terms is a very different question.

What do you mean by that?

Well, to illustrate, let’s consider the respective advantages of linguistic diversity and
of a lingua franca for science. Naturally, we’re proud of our various languages in
Switzerland. And just as naturally, it’s part of our locational advantage. But the lingua
franca of contemporary science is a different language altogether, regrettably.

The author and psychoanalyst Peter Schneider recently published a controversial piece in the Tagesanzeiger in which he spoke of the ‘rampant de-academisation’ of the university. What do you say to that?

As a means of describing a general sense of discomfort, it’s certainly not incorrect. It’s
also possible that he’s glamorising an old model of what a university is supposed to
be. But today the university finds itself in a process of change caused by new developments, such as the digital revolution, which are affecting many aspects of our lives. I’d rather speak of a process of removing localism. Where professors used to have to be there to convey knowledge, today we have direct, digital access to knowledge. Universities have to adapt to this. In any case, the boundaries between school, university and the labour market have become more fluid. And that’s a challenge.

This brings us to another current challenge: where the money’s supposed
to come from. There’s more and more private money involved. Doesn’t that pose a threat to the autonomy of universities?

To answer this question, I’ve got to point to another contemporary shift in our vision
of the university: the move from having teaching universities to having research universities. Bologna actually targeted teaching – but fifteen years later, everyone’s talking mostly about research. The costs of research have also risen. If you want to engage in top-quality research, then you’ve got no other choice but to seek out new sources of financing it. So the trend is inevitable.

Don’t you see any problems in this?

Look, we’re all subject to a cultural prejudice: the idea that public money has greater
inherent legitimacy than money that comes from private sponsors. I don’t really
see any difference here, and I believe that we’re pursuing a misunderstanding of
what Humboldt really meant.

All the same, there have been several disturbing cases in recent years of universities and large companies signing agreements giving the latter a great deal of influence over the former. And these contracts weren’t even made public.

Some of the details were indeed questionable. But I’m still in favour of keeping
such contracts confidential – for the simple reason that there would otherwise be
an even greater degree of privatisation in the research sector. Without confidentiality,
there would be fewer collaborations between universities and private companies,
and research would be increasingly delegated to the laboratories of private industry.

So in future Switzerland will see a lot more endowed chairs?

I don’t really think so, because universities in principle aren’t very easy partners
for the private sector. The trend is instead towards other forms of collaboration like
the so-called hubs where joint research projects are developed by several partners.

You’re now moving to the Faculty of Business at the University of Basel in
order to pass on your experience of university management. As an academic,
aren’t you sort of changing sides?

No. I remain a cultural historian. But one who’s developed something of a sense for
quantification.

So do you think that the cultural sciences are on the cusp of a paradigm shift?

They’ll certainly have to undergo a process of renewal along these lines. However,
I’m convinced that empirical researchers should undertake excursions into the humanities and their hermeneutic culture. I still believe in the power of qualitative
thought.

Roland Fischer is a science journalist based in Bern.