The Expert Lecture in Problem-Based Learning

IMG_2867By Michael Shackleton

In Problem-Based Learning environments such as the one in Maastricht, lectures by “experts” or “practitioners” are often considered to be of great added value. But what can the practitioner actually offer to students in a university environment? It is a question that has been a source of constant curiosity to me who worked for most of his career inside the European Parliament as a civil servant. For years now, I have given lectures to Maastricht University students about the nature of the relations between Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and the officials who serve them.

The temptation is to claim that I have specific insider knowledge that is not available to the student audience and that this alone justifies my presence in the lecture theatre. It is a temptation to be firmly resisted. This is not to say that I do not illustrate what I have to say by information gathered across my career. Rather it is a question of using that information to illuminate an argument.

Let me illustrate this with the example of one of my lectures.

The classic question about the relation between the civil servant and the politician is: do civil servants implement what the politician decides or does the politician do what she is told? The dichotomy is a place to start a debate, not to end it. How then do I try to get the students to get to grips with the tension between the worlds of officialdom and political competition?

I ask them to consider a real situation, namely whether I should wear a tie when invited to meet a member of the European Parliament for the first time. The answers are various: for some, it is a question of political affiliation (‘Greens are more relaxed than Christian Democrats’), for others it is a matter of generation (‘does anyone under 50 wear a tie?’).

The importance of the question is not the answer, but the realisation that the decision was determined by the reaction I anticipated and the impact it would have on my subsequent relations with the MEP concerned. The precise boundaries of the relationship are never entirely clear cut for reasons that I explain in my lecture:

First, MEPs are not a monolithic group. The Budgets Committee, for example, is obliged to choose between the priorities of other committees. Hence, as a civil servant in the committee, to act in favour of other committees would be to undermine my credentials as a “budgeteer”.

Second, MEPs and officials are drawn towards each other’s worlds. Politicians want to influence the shape of the administration, stressing their nationality or political family. Officials can be tempted to enter this battle to further their own career; at the moment, which British official would not want MEPs to protect their career?

Third, there is a mutual interdependence between the two worlds. MEPs rely on officials as the memory of the institution: ‘what did we do last time?’. In turn, civil servants are aware that their ideas stand a much better chance if MEPs have given them a favourable hearing.

Fourth, MEPs rely on the administration to implement their decisions and in the process, the open-ended nature of many decisions becomes clear. Of course, officials have to justify what they have done and can be disavowed if they have not taken great care to acquire a political blessing.

Finally, the two groups are tied together by an institutional loyalty vis-à-vis other institutions. The Parliament negotiates with the Council and the Commission in a way that encourages politicians and officials to find a way of maximising the influence of the Parliament.

The relationship between officials and MEPs is thus subject to constant renegotiation as MEPs move on and tasks change. One thing remains clear: be careful what tie you put on!

The purpose of raising these five issues is not to solve the question of where power lies, but rather to encourage students to use the particular perspective that I acquired as an official to think about why the relations between politicians and civil servants in the European Parliament are so diverse and not reducible to a single template.

Here, the expert makes a valuable contribution to student learning. An expert lecture is not a place to show off that one knows better than the audience, but, as Malik and Malik (2012, 200) write, a place to ‘share your personal experiences. This is the information only you can provide; students cannot find this knowledge from anywhere else. It will help to sustain students’ attention and help them to comprehend the concept under discussion.’ Because the expert lecture provides students with the opportunity to hear about the “real world” and to “experience” the concepts of the course, it stimulates the type of deep learning and critical thinking that are core to the PBL philosophy.

About the author

Michael Shackleton has been Special Professor of European Institutions at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of Maastricht University since 2008. He joined the Secretariat of the European Parliament in 1981. Over the years, he was on the secretariat of the Committee on Budgets, Head of the Secretariat of the first parliamentary Committee of Inquiry, Head of the Service responsible for conciliations under the co-decision procedure, and was responsible for the establishment of a European Parliament web TV channel. He has published widely on the EU, and has been giving many lectures both inside and outside the European institutions.