Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Problems encountered during my studies at FUH


In February 2010, I received a letter from Fernuniversität Hagenw (FUH), where I did my second Master, requesting that I participate in a survey concerning (among other things) my impressions of the quality of the education provided. Rather than to fill out this survey, I decided to write a more specific textual response (see below). This response (as a reference to this page) was sent per email to Christine von Prümmer, who was responsible for the survey, with CCs to the principal (Prof. Dr.-Ing. Helmut Hoyer) and the dean of the faculty I studied at (Prof. Dr. Rutger Verbeek).

To understand some references below, it is important to note that FUH is specialized in distance education. (However, it is a perfectly legitimate, state-run university—not a “diploma mill” or one of the high-school level distance educators, like e.g. Germany’s ILS.)

Some earlier pages on my website contain related discussions of education and qualifications (the discussed main event in the latter article refers to FUH).

My response

Dear Ms. von Prümmer,

I have received your survey with the accompanying letter dated January 2010. Rather than completing this survey, I will give some textual feedback, in the hope that you have an honest interest in improving matters—not just in having completed a neat survey or having gathered data for statistical purposes.

This text is written in English because it is intended for the dual purpose of helping you and to extend my internationally oriented website (the contents fall in well with some other discussions concerning e.g. problems in education). Should you wish to reply in German, I have no objections and will have no problems understanding you. If you wish parts of such a reply to be published together with this text, however, I strongly recommend that you use English.

As background information: I completed a Master in Computer Science at the Fakultät für Mathematik und Informatik (Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science) with a “sehr gut” (highest mark). The work of the FUH and my overall impression of it, as asked for in your question 10, is regrettably in the border-area between “ausreichend” and “mangelhaft” (two lowest marks).

Below I discuss some of the issues I encountered.

Study texts

The courses were almost exclusively taught through cheaply printed, FUH-specific materials of highly varying, but often disappointing, quality—be it with regard to content, structure, logic, ... Typically, each study text was broken up into several A4-size volumes of roughly forty pages, with a spine consisting only of glue (similar to some low-end tear-off calendars). It would have been highly preferable to use the plenitude of high-quality books available from third parties.

Using books would not only increase the average quality considerably, but also bring a number of other advantages for the students, including:

  1. Texts that are better suited for re-use (e.g. for reference purposes or fact checking in professional life, or for citing facts in communications with someone else).

  2. Uniformly present indices and TOCs would have been guaranteed—and present in one place, not spread out over several volumes (as was the case with some courses).

  3. No problems with disintegrating volumes.

  4. A format more suited for e.g. travel or reading outside of the normal study area. Further, one taking less book-shelf space and allowing easier identification of texts in the shelf.

  5. The option to buy the book in advance and prepare for a course during e.g. the summer holidays.

I note that my first diploma, the Swedish equivalent of “Diplom-Ingenieur”, was based almost exclusively on books, and that this worked extremely well with regard to course contents (contrary to naive objections). Further, that the costs for the students were in no way prohibitive and were more than outweighed by the value-added through having a high-quality book—in particular as the extra costs for ring-binders and other anti-disintegration methods did not occur. (It is conceivable, however, that the situation is different in some of the more literature-heavy soft sciences.)

Yet another: The sizable writing and printing operations of the FUH could be stream-lined considerably—in a few years likely even entirely removed, with the own texts still needed either being electronically distributed or being published as regular books.



A large part of the course work consisted of exercises to be sent in and corrected for marks. There were numerous problems here, starting with the fact that many exercises were formulated in a highly ambiguous manner, where it was not clear what was wanted, or where vital assumptions were left unstated—forcing the students to make their own assumptions.

To give a hypothetical example (unrealistically simple to ensure wide understandability, but illustrating the principles):

Who is the greatest German tennis player of all times?

This question is both ambiguous and in need of additional assumptions: Should women be considered? If they are, should players be measured by absolute playing strength (Becker would destroy Graf) or by their strength relative members of the same sex (Graf is far above Becker)? What measure of greatness is used? (E.g.: Who beats whom when both are at a life-time best? Who beats whom on an average day? Success in Grand Slam tournaments? Success on the world ranking?) Is it a trick question asking for who is physically the largest? (If so, by weight or by height?) Say that we use the criterion “success in Grand Slam tournaments”: What can we assume about the relative value of a victory in 1950 and 2010? Should they be valued equally, overlooking that the competition is harder today? Should later tournaments be valued higher, discounting the possibility that the winner would still have won in harder competition? Are fewer victories on multiple surfaces worth more or less than more victories on just one surface? (Etc. The point should be clear.)


A particular annoyance: Many exercises could be answered/solved in a quick and unexpected manner. In some cases, this was because the professor deliberately used a trick question, and the student who found this answer got full marks; in other cases, it was an oversight, and the student received a 0—possibly with an additional remark about being a smart ass. How should the student know which was the case in advance?

Consider, in another hypothetical example, the exercise to write a program that outputs the first 200 digits of pi: One way is to use some known algorithm or formula to calculate and output the answer—another is to look the result up somewhere and hard-code it in a print statement. (Speaking as software developer with extensive experience, the latter is not only a smart/smart-ass way, but actually preferable in a vast majority of all practical situations.)

Alternatively, consider a version of the light-bulb riddlee asking for the minimum number of room changes needed to find the solution: Is the answer “one” (starting in the switch-room) smart or smart-ass? Is “three” a better answer?


The corrections done were very often poor, regularly abysmally poor—in fact, so poor, that I saw myself forced to include a separate printed page with some standard disclaimers and instructions for the correctors... Consider that these in many cases knew less about the subject than I did, that they went blindly by the guide-lines provided by the professors (including e.g. rejecting solutions with perfectly plausible assumptions that happened to be different from the unstated assumptions of the professor, cf. above, or rejecting correct solutions that followed another road to the solution), or that even a minor slip-up leading to an incorrect answer generally lead to a 0 instead of a number that corresponded to how good or bad the solution was. (Generally, in theoretical subjects, it is not the result that matters, but the road to the result—how well the student has managed to understand the problems involved, whether the steps taken are allowable, make sense, are individually correct, etc. Naively going by just the end statement is pointless.)


You may now be tempted to raise objections along the lines of “These assumptions/solutions may have been plausible to you, but the more informed eyes of the correctors saw that they were not.”. Do not bother: While I am far from infallible, I am also very highly intelligent and well-read, have studied on four universities in two countries, have worked as a TA myself, and tend to reach a far deeper understanding than the average student. As a consequence, I can judge these situations sufficiently well to rule out that these were legitimate deductions for naive blunderings on my behalf; and also to recognize poorly done corrections when I see them.

I certainly did blunder every now and then (and far from all deductions, be they for blunders or for other types of errors, were invalid), but nowhere near as often as the correctors.

Many correctors failed to indicate what they deducted/awarded points for; thereby ensuring arbitrariness, making it impossible to identify faults in the corrections, and reducing the pedagogical value of the corrections to nil. Notably, the main focus of the exercises should be to help the students learn—not to test them. The latter should be viewed as a killing second bird with the same stone. What good is saying, “You made an error in exercise 4.” (indicated e.g. by a point reduction)? No: A good corrector informs the student what he did wrong, where, and what he should have done instead (typically, three words in the right place would suffice—often even three letters: -1p).

Undue leg-work in easy courses

A particular problem was that the exercises for the easier courses often took longer to complete than those of the harder courses: The harder courses required intense thinking followed by limited leg-work; the easier, little thinking followed by massive, uneducational, boring, and time-wasting leg-work. (On several occasions, I actually found myself writing a program to do the leg-work for me: This was both faster and more educational than doing it manually, as the course actually intended.) I can only speculate that the authors had an idea that exercises should fill a certain number of hours and tried to compensate for the reduction in needed thinking by increasing the leg-work. To call this misguided is to be kind.

Attitude of the staff

Far too many of the staff (taken to include e.g. correctors) had a highly archaic attitude towards the students, who were implicitly considered in the same role as a first-grade pupil towards his teacher. This leads to poor teaching and a lack of responsibility in the staff, and is also unacceptable in principle: Not only is a university education something that takes place between adults, but the university is also a paid service provider—and should, as such, treat its customers with a corresponding amount of respect. The staff may (professor) or may not (many correctors) know more about the subject matter than the students, but that does not justify a haughty or self-content attitude, certainly not a presumption of “knowing better” outside of the course work. Similarly, a physician who does not treats his patients as adults and give them due respect will achieve worse results and be less accepted than one who does—even if he happens to know more about medicine than the patients. Further, a university should, by its very nature, be careful to use arguments ad rem and not ad verecundiam.

I recall one particular TA who appeared to be employed full-time and was responsible for both constructing the exercises and being the main student advisor for two courses I took. These had in common that the quality of both the exercises and the corrections were by far the lowest of all courses I encountered—and that I met no other professor, TA, or corrector who appeared to have such a distorted sense of his own value and his role vis-a-vis the students. Looking at merits and qualifications, I was at least his equal (including having served as a TA in Sweden) and, judging by his work and behaviour, was his superior in IQ, maturity, and competence by a non-trivial margin—yet, he persisted in talking down to me as a strict father to a child. Certainly, the other way around would have been far more appropriate.


This is a very common problem: Great incompetence and a greatly exaggerated self-estimate go hand in hand disturbingly often.

Consider, alternatively, a course where I had to withdraw from the written exam due to illness: When I contacted the professor to get information on how to proceed, e.g. if I had to retake the entire course or just do the exam in the following semester, my inquiries first went unanswered and, after repeated reminders, were met with a barrage of “How should I know!” and similar statements—including even refusing to give a sensible answer to the question who would know... In a particular telling statement, this professor claimed to be so busy advising the students of the course that he did not have time to answer the few very simple questions I had asked—in effect, he was so busy advising students that he did not have time to advise students...

Lack of flexibility in schedules

There were several mechanism working together to artificially limit the flexibility of the private study schedules of the students, which puts the students at disadvantage in that they cannot plan their studies according to what they know works best for them (the variations from person to person are enormous, and a “one-size-fits-all” usually ends up as “one-size-is-barely-adequat-for-the-average-and-poor-for-the-rest”), and are unable to adapt their studies with regard to external events and similar factors (e.g. the wish to set aside four weeks of one semester for a common extended vacation with the family—compensated for by studying harder at other times). Personally, I prefer to focus on one or two courses at a time (say giving them 1–3 weeks of intense attention) and then switch to the next few courses (for another 1–3 weeks), and so on, in a circular schedule; the use of this well-tested system was severely hindered. Similarly, those reading on a part-time schedule, who might prefer to intermingle periods (within one semester) of full-time and no study are prevented from doing so.

Firstly, most courses delivered the materials, both exercises and study texts, in portions as the semester went along, preventing students from studying parts of the course earlier than scheduled. This is just idiotic: It should go without saying that the materials are all delivered in a batch at the beginning of the semester. (There may be legitimate exceptions where the staff has not had time to complete everything; however, for a mature course, this should only apply to the exercises—delays of the actual texts are only excusable the first or second time a course is taught.)

Secondly, the exercises typically had a fix schedule, which did not allow postponing the exercise work (often amounting to a considerable number of hours) and by implication made it hard to post-pone the actual theoretical study. This had, I admit, some justification, in that allowing one student to post-pone would also require delaying delivery of the official solutions and the correction process; however, workarounds are available, e.g. to not make exercises mandatory, but only to use them for extra credit in some form (say, by allowing the student to skip half of the questions on a written exam, if he has been successful enough on the exercises). Another variation is to have a “solve three exercise sets out of six with at least a grade of x” criteria, which both tests knowledge and allows flexibility. Notably, the extreme amount of exercises is something that I only know of from FUH and presume is a (misguided) attempt to compensate for the reduced interaction between university and student.


I broached the subject of the artificial schedule on an earlier occasion (possibly towards the nightmare TA mentioned above), and was met with a highly patronizing answer that amounted to “We know best.” and “We cannot change the system for everyone else just because it does not fit you.”—both missing the point and providing further proof of the unsound attitudes discussed above.

To avoid your stumbling into the same trap of reasoning, I emphasize, again, that there are large individual variations, that a “one-size-fits-all” approach is highly naive, and that the implied changes increase the flexibility of the system—no-one who is comfortable in the current system needs to change his study habits; those who are not, can.

Poor scheduling of written exams

On repeated occasions, I had scheduling problems with written exams, when several courses had examinations in the same time-slot or in different time-slots on the same day. While this cannot always be avoided, it should be a priority to minimize such collisions; and the students should be informed in detail of the schedule before they register for the respective courses. Should collisions occur, the option of an oral exam for one of the courses should always be available.

Based on my somewhat vague recollection, I would even speculate that the scheduling was deliberately made to maximize the number of simultaneous tests, making allowances only for courses with a very high probability of being taken in the same semester (say those officially scheduled for semester x of the Bachelor). Even considering the natural wish to provide rooms and supervisors with a minimum of fuss and costs, this is hard to defend. Only courses that have very different target groups should be given the same time slots for examinations, say courses from different faculties or courses intended for, respectively, first and fourth year students.

Poor information in other regards

Other instances of far too poor information included a few courses that did not state up front that they were only available for examination in the bachelor program—something I only was informed of after I had already registered and paid the corresponding fees.


You may want to argue that the main reason to study is to learn—not to pass an exam. In principle, this is true; practically, however, I am fully capable of learning without a university, and the benefit of actually having paperwork backing me up (e.g. when applying for a new position) was the main reason I chose to go back to university, instead of the cheaper option of studying on my own.

Diploma/Grade overview

The system of presenting the student with one slip of paper for each passed course, and an overall diploma only mentioning the specific “Fachprüfungen”, is highly suboptimal. Compare this to the superior Swedish system: Each course result is kept in a central (per-uni or per-faculty) database, which allows to print an ordered overview of the credits earned, specifying the course name, number, points, whatnot, in one or two lines per course. Notably, a full such listing is provided together with the diploma. This would have been beneficial already for a Master—for, e.g., a full Diplom-Ingenieur, it is very highly so.


Let me finish by again expressing my hope that you (and FUH in general) will take my feedback to heart and work for improvements—and do not fall in the common trap of trying to preserve appearances, deny problems, and be more intent on silencing criticism than on fixing that which was criticized.

Kind regards,

Michael Eriksson

Answer from FUH

I have subsequently received a short response (by letter) from the Dean of Studies, Prof. Dr. Winfried Hochstättler. The core of this response appears to be that my feedback was too vague to be helpful (something I strongly disagree with), and that his opinion of FUH is higher than mine.

No specific objections were raised (nor clarifications made); however, the general tone was one of disagreement, and no future analysis of or counter-measures against the problems discussed above were mentioned.

I can obviously only speculate about what eventually will or will not be done, but I strongly suspect that this will be yet another case of “management denial”, were criticism is written off as unwarranted in a near blanket manner, praise is kept on the books, and everything remains the same—no matter what problems actually do exist. This is, indeed, what I originally suspected would be the outcome, but I also felt that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.


To expand on why I do not think that my feedback was vague (and why FHU may have disagreed):

Most people incorrectly assume that they have the big picture thoroughly under control and that they only need help with the details. (It could well be that all people who assume this are wrong; however, not all make the assumption in the first place.) A good example would be an author who gives a text to someone else for feedback, expects the other party to do the legwork of proof-reading, and reacts negatively when the latter points to errors in logic, understandability, or composition. It becomes even worse when the feedback is abstract, e.g. “Your writing is hard to understand and contains ambiguities, e.g. sentences A and B. You may want to re-write some passages with an eye on X.”. Instead more specific feedback, which incurs disproportionate effort for the reviewer (and often is less helpful, because it misses the big picture) is demanded, e.g. “Your sentence A is hard to understand, because Y. Your sentence B is ambiguous, because Z. [and so on.]”. (For reasons of diplomacy, other formulations may be better; however, the ones used suffice to illustrate the principle.)

This higher-level feedback, however, is more valuable than low-level feedback, because it allows a greater net-benefit when actually received with an open mind—potentially, far greater.

Notably, the worse the quality and the more intelligent the reviewer, the more likely abstract and big-picture feedback is: If I review something, then I typically wish to help others help themselves—I do not wish to do their leg-work for them. I do not merely want to see the current work improved, but that they also take some additional insight with them to the next work. Etc. Teach a man to fish—not fish for him.

The reasons why such feedback is often negatively received can include a too low ability to abstract, a too high self-estimate, an unwillingness to do ones own leg-work (as opposed to the leg-work of others, which the reviewer rightfully tries to avoid), and an inability to handle criticism. (The list is likely incomplete.) Notably, the received message after pointing out a misspelling is typically “You overlooked a detail in haste.”; whereas higher level criticism often (whether intended or not) is received as “Your thinking was not good enough.”—which takes a greater man to receive gracefully and constructively.