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Mohammed Seyam

Mohammed Seyam is a Computer Science doctoral student in the College of Engineering. Seyam received his Bachelor’s degree in Information Systems from Mansoura University and his Master’s degree in Information Systems from Cairo University, both in Egypt.More about Mohammed ...

Generally speaking, students and faculty have freedom and independence when it comes to expressing their views and concerns regarding policies related to university or the country. This – in part – can be explained by the unique political system of Switzerland that gives every citizen the right not only to express their opinions, but to actually request an action to be taken by the government, or to even request overriding government decision.Mohammed

People tend to think that the “other” systems are doing better than “ours”, and that we should “follow” what the other successful systems are doing so that we can succeed. This remains the case until someone goes and actually studies the “other” systems, and then it becomes clear that every system has its successful and not-so-successful sides. Therefore, I learned that one can’t just “copy” what’s claimed to be successful; one should study different systems and then decides what can work for the institution under consideration.

During my past years in Virginia Tech as a PhD student, I’ve been very interested in exploring as many aspects of students’ life and university structure as I could. There’ve been many reasons for me to do so, one of them was for me to be able to evaluate the higher education system in my home country (Egypt) based on external factors that the US system uses. However, it was clear that the higher education system in VT and in USA in general has many problems that need to be worked on! Therefore, the #GPP2016 program was an excellent opportunity to study what the “others” in Europe are doing, and then return with some lessons learned that would help us make our institution a better place for all of us.

My main topics of interest, which I wanted to explore during my visit to Europe, were: how graduate students are engaged with university governance systems, and what it is like to be an international graduate student in European universities. After visiting 7 different European universities in Switzerland, France, and Italy, I came back with tons of notes and observations that would definitely help me both on the personal and the professional levels. Below I’ll try to summarize the highlights of my observations, which will be grouped into two main categories: university governance and international students.

University Governance:

On the very first visit to a European university, which was University of Zurich (UZH), the first slide of the speaker’s presentation stated: “People of the Canton of Zurich are on the top of the university governance structure.” Although US public universities are also funded by the tax payers, the governance structures here are usually topped with boards of visitors/trustees/regents. It means a lot that UZH (and other universities) recognizes how they owe the people who are paying taxes to fund the universities and the whole education system. When I requested some information about the funding model, I was surprised to know that only 2% of the university budget comes from tuition! This is different from the budgeting model in most of the US public universities where a large portion of the budget comes from student tuition and fees. Our visit to University of Basel (UniBasel) also made it clear that the university is committed to serve the community, which was phrased by one of the speakers as: “the main stakeholder for the university is the taxpayers/society.”

When we went into deeper discussions on university structures, it was clear that student participation in governance is limited to undergraduate students. The term “graduate students” doesn’t mean what we mean with when using it in US. Basically, PhD students are not seen nor dealt with as “students”, but rather they are seen mostly as junior scientists/researchers. This has direct impact on two main issues:

  1. The “stipend” they get is actually a salary that’s being paid to an employee. Therefore, they don’t need to work on anything other than their research, since they are covered by their main salary as PhD students.
  2. If PhD students want to participate in university governance, they join faculty organizations, not students! As mentioned above, since they are regarded as junior scientists and early career researchers, they are considered part of the faculty capacity and they are represented by faculty organizations. This is absolutely different from the case in US, where graduate students (both Masters and PhD students) have their own representative organization (Graduate Student Assembly in the case of VT).

As an example, VAUZ is the UZH’s association for doctoral students, postdocs, and scientific staff. As the name suggests, PhD students are in the same category as postdocs and the scientific staff in this representative organization. VAUZ president explained that they collaborate with students (meaning undergraduate student organization) and administrative staff organization to work on political and governance issues. By political, they mean politics that’d affect not only the university, but Switzerland politics in general. Based on the discussions with UZH and UniBasel groups, there were two important notes:

  1. Postdoctoral researchers have representation in university governance (VAUZ as an example). This is something that US universities have been struggling with since it’s hard to engage postdoctoral researchers in governance without having their own representative group.
  2. Since faculty and student organizations are involved in politics both inside and outside of the university, it’s a huge time commitment for whoever want to be a leader in such groups. An example was presented that showed that the president of the undergraduate student organization usually takes one or two semesters off to be able to lead the organization. This position requires travelling or staying for long times in Bern (capital of Switzerland) for better communication with the government and to participate in the activities of the national student association. It has also been showed that it’s a very prestigious position and would help whoever hold it to advance in political careers if interested.

Generally speaking, students and faculty have freedom and independence when it comes to expressing their views and concerns regarding policies related to university or the country. This – in part – can be explained by the unique political system of Switzerland that gives every citizen the right not only to express their opinions, but to actually request an action to be taken by the government, or to even request overriding government decision. The case with the universities we visited in France and Italy was quite different, but the level of freedom and independence seemed to be the same on the levels of both faculty and students.

International students:

There are two main points that need to be clear when discussing international education in European universities:

  1. Being an international student can simply mean you crossed the border between Germany and Switzerland, or from Switzerland to France, or from Italy to Switzerland… etc. All of such situations can mean that a student travelled for less than 100 miles to join a university in another country! It’s so different from the US, where being an international student means that one could travel 10,000+ miles to join a university in US. Thus, the requirements for international students in Europe are quite different since the issues they face are different from what international students are facing in US.
  2. Most of the activities in European universities towards “internationalization” are directed towards sending their students abroad for exchange programs and collaboration with other universities in multi-campus programs. Universities in Europe don’t seem like they are putting the same effort put by US universities to recruit international students from different countries. This, again, can be related to the fact that countries are very close to each other and it’s very easy for students to move from one country to another.

Having noticed such two observations, our discussions with university representatives led us to figure out how the environment for international students is different from what we have in the US. For example, UZH has a population of over 5000 international students, but there are no activities or organizations designed specifically to support such students. The only programs that are geared toward them is language courses for those who need. In most of the universities visited, there were no “special” orientation for international students, and the only orientation that takes place is for all new students no matter where they came from. In some universities they have one specific activity for international students, which is an international day/week, where students from different countries show their cultures through art, food, and community activities.

Housing is either provided to everyone, or to no one! Domestic and international students usually get the same privileges and have the same responsibilities. Some universities provide on-campus housing, but it works more like hotels where students can live and eat. We couldn’t find the US role of resident advisor. Some universities provide facilities with “common rooms”, where students can gather and get into some social activities. However, such activities are fully organized by students and they are responsible for everything about it.

The observations shared throughout this report is by no mean comprehensive nor detailed. It’s meant to shed the light on some issues that EU universities handle in a way that’s different from the US way. The goal isn’t to show that there’s a system that’s better than the other, but rather to highlight such differences so that they can work as points to start conversations from when it’s time to discuss approaches to make our universities better. We have learned a lot from the EU groups and speakers, and they also learned from us about the US system. It’s been clear that some good ideas from EU can be applied in US and vice-versa, but it was also clear that some other ideas can’t work because of the differences in geography, demographics, cultures, and resources.

I also tried to stay away from “best practices” in this report, as I wanted it to provide a bird’s eye view on how it looks like in EU universities when it comes to governance and internationalization. I’d recommend that, for whoever is reading this report, to deal with the points provided above as discussion starting points, and then move ahead with whatever ideas that can come up after considering the different environments and contexts between EU and US.

To sum up, and as mentioned in the beginning of this report: there’s no “ideal system” for education. Rather, there are “other” systems which we can always learn from to be better. It’s important to notice that learning doesn’t necessarily mean that we should “follow” what the others are doing, but it also means to learn what we “shouldn’t” do after watching the others doing it!