B/orders: Interview with Ms. Petra Weber

This interview was conducted on November 3, 2014 in the International Office of the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany, on the border with Slubice, Poland. In this interview, Ms. Weber discusses the role of the International Office in Viadrina’s internationalization. She also provides insight into the recent history of the community, the ERASMUS program, practical aspects of European de-bordering and university administration, and the evolving mission of the Viadrina. This interview has been edited for readability.

J. Aaron Waggoner: Ms. Petra Weber, could you please start by telling me a little bit about your department?

Petra Weber: I think the setup of the International Office of the Viadrina is a bit unusual, because it has areas which are not commonly placed within international offices in Germany. Our standard, our call word, is really the exchange programs. We also have responsibilities like international offices in the states do, for example, for recruitment of international students, but also advising and taking care of incoming degree-seeking students. We are also working in the area of recognition of credentials for two faculties of the Viadrina, Business Administration and Cultural Sciences. Then we have a number of projects, which could be partly research, but sometimes are also structural projects. For example, we are dealing with projects towards double degree programs with the faculties where sometimes we can negotiate the whole project on our own. Basically, for the Business faculty we have that responsibility, which is quite unusual, but we do the same thing for all faculties in terms of the advising for the logistics and sometimes also about the setup of the programs… We have at the moment, I think, nineteen double degrees in place, which is a very high number, also in comparison to some other larger universities in Germany. We have a benchmarking with some of the really big institutions, for example Dresden and Vienna. And Vienna has not nearly the number of double degrees we have.

Waggoner: I also imagine that for a university this size the number of international students is pretty impressive.

Weber: It’s very high in comparison. We have about 25% international students at the moment. Usually in Germany the rate is between 8 and 10%, I’d say.

Waggoner: So is that including Polish students?

Weber: Yes, that’s including Polish students as well.

Waggoner: Ok. So in my class that I’m teaching, “La Frontera in a Global Comparative Framework,” which is taught in English for the Cultural Studies Faculty, I’m shocked and surprised and impressed and amazed and confounded by the fact that I have something like 24 students. Of the 24, I have something like 18 nations represented. And I’ve never in my life experienced something like that. I realize that many of them are on this Erasmus exchange programme. Could you tell a little more about that?

Weber: The Erasmus program, or now Erasmus Plus, is an EU project aiming towards increasing mobility within European countries. It basically aims at the harmonizing of the educational systems within Europe. And the means to bring it about is through the mobility of students, also PhD students, academics, and administrative staff. It’s a whole range of mobility. The Viadrina was one of the first universities involved in the program, and it has a very large number of exchange partners within Europe. Even with all the partners we have, I think 80% are in Europe, so the largest number of incoming students are still within European countries. The largest incoming groups this year were –they usually are actually– Poland, Turkey, and France. This year the highest number is Polish; Last year it was Turkish; and France is usually third or fourth. There are also many Russian students, which are, of course, not within Europe.

Waggoner: And the Russian students are participating in the program?

Weber: No. They are participating in regular exchange programs.

Waggoner: So, I wonder if you think the Erasmus program is part of maybe a bigger effort to create, not just harmony in the European educational system, but also a kind of pan-Europeanism.

Weber: I think that’s an appropriate assessment. I don’t know whether it works that way, but I think it could. It could potentially, because, students or staff are moving to other places and bringing their cultural background with them. They also take something, maybe diversity or other ideas, back to their home countries. I once had a Turkish student who was really impressive, because he had lots of ideas about Germans and how they were supposed to be. After studying here he said that he had made a lot of friends here, Germans as well, and he now could imagine living nearly anywhere, or working for the EU, and understanding a more “common house” Europe. I think he got an impression of what Europe can be about, if we’re not only talking about finances, but other things.

Waggoner: I think in any kind of international exchange program, the student is able to imagine other cultures as also being human, fundamentally. So that seems to be an admirable step. We talked a little before about the pushback the program has received. I don’t know if you’d care to address that… There had been some articles about the Erasmus exchange being expensive and not achieving its goals, but obviously it’s doing good things.

Weber: I think it’s an unjust evaluation of the program. Of course there are students who are not really aiming at a better education through Erasmus exchange, but rather doing something for themselves, perhaps improving their language skills. Of course they have a lot of fun in Spain or wherever they’re going, but they don’t have to focus only on the academic. I think that’s the gist of the critique: that’s it’s more fun than academics. But I think, from the evaluations we get from our students, that’s an unfair assessment.

Waggoner: If the purpose is to humanize one another and to imagine a broader community, instead of a nation-state based community solely as humans, that’s a more difficult thing to measure, instead of grades or the number of ETCs credits earned.

Weber: Maybe, but all of our students have to take courses to get the credential for the study abroad. At the Viadrina, I can’t say that they are going just for fun, because they have to take academic courses to make it worth studying abroad. Also, it’s usually an obligatory part of their studies at the Viadrina, so they have to get the appropriate credential from their stay abroad. Students do encounter difficulties, and some think that the educational systems are not as good as the German system. That also depends on the students, and some of the systems are very different in Europe, in terms of the set-up and the hierarchical structures. Some students find it difficult in France, for instance, because it’s so very different from the German system. The Polish system is also quite different.

Waggoner: So there’s also the Collegium Polonicum across the river, and I understand it is a collaboration between Viadrina and a Polish University. How, exactly, does that work?

Weber: The root of the whole thing is that the founding of Viadrina was on the basis of an agreement between Poland and the state of Brandenburg, which is quite unusual. It was in regard to the difficult border situation between Poland and Germany after the Second World War, and the Viadrina really aimed to bridge towards Poland in the very beginning. That’s still a very important part of the Viadrina, and the Collegium Polonicum is certainly one of the most visible examples of that. It’s a joint venture between Adam Mickiewicz University and the Viadrina where the finances are spilt between them, not evenly but along certain guidelines, and aided by EU money. I can’t say that it’s easy, because the systems are very different. In Poland, for example, the system is far more hierarchical than in Germany, so it’s hard to negotiate certain things. It’s hard to find the right counterpart, because things usually are top-down, and that’s not always a useful approach in Germany.

Waggoner: There are also lots of students who are primarily attending Viadrina, but they are crossing the river to take classes at the Collegium Polonicum and vice versa. How exactly does that work?

Weber: Much better than it used to! In the beginning there was a real border between Germany and Poland, and we had this cooperation before Poland entered the EU. It was very difficult, indeed, for students to even cross the border because of long lines. Students could pass the lines without showing ID, but it caused real problems with all the people standing in lines. Also, because Poland was not in the EU all levels had difficulties regulating certain things. It was, however, sometimes a benefit for Viadrina. Degree-seeking students admitted through Mickiewicz University, for example, got special access to the Viadrina. After Poland joined the EU we couldn’t do that anymore, because we are supposed to treat all EU countries the same. That had been a specific treatment, easy entrance, for Polish students. It became more difficult to organize that, and you had to regulate everything very specifically.

Waggoner: Now I had heard that there was some specific percentage, or something like that, of the Viadrina that had to be Polish…

Weber: No, but the Viadrina was always aiming to have the highest number of Polish students as possible. In the beginning we had a far higher percentage of Polish students than now, despite all our recruitment efforts in Poland. There are several reasons for that: Access for Polish students to the Viadrina is not so easy anymore. They are in competition with all the European students and non-EU students entering. It’s also now easier for Poles to travel to Great Britain, for example, where the job situation is still far better than it is in Germany. It’s changing slightly, but in the last years, they have found jobs easier in Ireland, Great Britain, and some other northern European countries. Regulations in Germany are very rigid for non-Germans to find jobs.

Waggoner: But with an EU passport?

Weber: With an EU passport it’s theoretically easier, but I think it’s still more difficult, because of availability and, I think, some other factors that make it hard to access the labor market. There is also a generation gap in Poland, and fewer kids, so we don’t have as many students going to university. The development of the education system in Poland is far better –well, at least more diverse–. There are a lot of private institutions in Poland, and many more opportunities for Polish students to stay in Poland, rather than study somewhere else. There’s perhaps less necessity to leave the country, and it’s always easier to stay in your home country to do your education.

Waggoner: I have one last question for you. So you know that I’m trying to think about borders, and I’m wondering… I was shocked and fascinated by the idea that the EU could make it more difficult for Polish students to enter the Viadrina. It seems counterintuitive. I wonder how Viadrina imagines itself, because I’ve noticed a kind of tension between looking towards Berlin and looking towards Poland and the border. In some ways it feels like a kind of bedroom community of Berlin.

Weber: It is a problematic situation. If a university is not in the center, in a major city, it is always more necessary to define a specific profile, in order to fare well in competition. And the competition is not only within Germany right now, but on an international level. So you have to be visible somehow on an international map.

Waggoner: Hence the borders thing.

Weber: Yep. Hence the border thing. And the border thing has always been there; it has featured quite highly in the profile. It has been added and amended with regard to the Weimar triangle, which is this political connection between France, Poland, and Germany. Two presidents back, Gesine Schwan, introduced the Weimar Triangle as a profile of the Viadrina, where we’d rather have a France-Poland-German focus instead of a bilateral approach to Poland and Germany. But it changes with every president and every different ruling body of the Viadrina. Still, I think the border is a very defining part of the Viadrina and always will be, because of both the proximity and the mission of the Viadrina towards the East.

J. Aaron Waggoner is Visiting Scientist in B/Orders in Motion at the European University Viadrina and Doctoral Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Texas at El Paso.

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