Bold reforms on the wish list

Swedish universities have tended to slide in the international rankings in recent years. This is due to various reasons, of which the most significant is the lack of clear national strategies and prioritising within higher education.

There is no correlation between education and research of high quality and how the two are integrated when it comes to what the rankings measure. The rankings do not paint a complete picture – particularly when you bear in mind that our universities play different roles on a national basis. Hopefully, once a new government is in place in the near future, a number of vital reforms can be considered.

I would like to highlight three areas that are crucial for the university sector where changes must be made to lift Sweden as a knowledge nation:

  1. Increased basic funding for research and third-cycle education

A report by SUHF  shows that the system with external funding corresponds to a quality degradation of 10-20 percent and in monetary terms, between four and eight billion kronor less per year. Increasing basic funding would reduce the time researchers have to spend fundraising, time that they can dedicate to research instead.

In addition, an increase in basic funding would also mean that universities and researchers themselves can develop and profile research areas rather than having their hands tied by political and societal forces in terms of what research should be pursued. When external government financing bodies make announcements, this often concerns areas where the international research front has already reached the commercialisation stage. Bold new ideas are given less room.

  1. The education and research infrastructure

Infrastructure in the form of laboratories, computers, equipment, instruments etc., is the very life blood of high quality education and research. As we now move towards universities having to finance much of this infrastructure themselves without a corresponding increase in funding, this puts the quality of education at risk.

Much of what is sometimes called research infrastructure is extensively used in education. Our students must be given the opportunity to learn with modern equipment. How will the digitalisation of society be managed if students are not able to use the latest technology in this area during their studies? This infrastructure is also highly relevant for continuing and further education (lifelong learning).

  1. The role of universities and their ability to achieve high quality

Most politicians are prepared to agree that Sweden should be an internationally prominent knowledge nation. However, there are certain consequences with this. For example, one can then start to question whether it is reasonable for all universities to have the same role and how many universities and colleges there should be. In Sweden, only a small handful of universities are ranked in the top 100-200 positions.

These rankings are an indication of international visibility and they show where Sweden stands as a knowledge nation on the global stage. To my mind, the new government must think about how the university and college sector should be changed in order to become stronger.

Our neighbouring countries have already done several changes. In Denmark for example, many universities and institutes were merged several years ago. Reforms in this direction have also been implemented in Finland. The latest is a merger of a new Tampere University .

Proper solutions call for proper research

Following one of the major highlights of the scientific community’s annual calendar in Stockholm City Hall, it is traditionally time for the Public & Science Survey. This shows that confidence in research is once again on the rise.

It is extremely pleasing to note that 75 percent of survey respondents have very high or pretty high confidence in research. The corresponding figure last year was 60 percent.

As we all know, confidence is a perishable commodity and something we need to both earn and protect on a continuous basis – especially during times of sweeping generalisations and the brushing away of facts as though they were a speck of dirt on a jacket. Which is why I am so impressed by KTH researchers who continue to assiduously assert their right to analyse, review, examine from every angle, and then re-examine theories.

This can often be a long and laborious process, that requires stubbornness, resources and focus. At the risk of appearing somewhat verbose, a great deal of research is not just about creating a better society but also about creating a possible future. AI, urban planning, work environment, medical technology, information and communication technology in the form of Sweden’s first 5G network (link) that was officially launched on the KTH Campus, are examples of areas that can help us and that hopefully, can make life easier for many people.

In the last few months, a whole host of climate change alarms have emerged one after the other, and here, universities, the enterprise sector and civil society have a wide-ranging responsibility – not just in terms of finding specific and actual technological solutions but also in showing that a possible solution is also possible. Or as Swedish diplomat and former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Jan Eliasson expressed it at our Innovative Engineers for a Sustainable World seminar, a toolbox to repair the world.

The Public & Science Survey also showed that a majority of respondents felt that far too little use was made of scientific facts in this year’s General Election campaign in Sweden, while very few, one in ten, of the young respondents said a clear yes to a future as a researcher.

Activism may stir some people, but that is not enough; without solid education and proper research, we are going to come up short when it comes to finding solutions to many of the major social challenges we are facing. That forming a new government still appears to be a long way off is very worrying in this context. Decisive politicians that are prepared to get to grips with increasing basic funding for education and research, lifelong learning and similar, that is absolutely vital for the world of academia and Swedish competitiveness.

See you again in the new year.

KTH important player in Horizon Europe


For KTH, the European dimension is mostly about keeping a close eye on the various funding programmes for higher education and research. On 30 November, EU research ministers reached an outline agreement on the next European research programme.

Horizon Europe 2021-2027 (pdf)

Towards the end of last week, I went on a networking trip to Brussels and to find out more about what is happening with the EU 2012-2027 research programme. While Horizon Europe builds on the existing Horizon 2020, it also contains plenty of new developments.
The schedule for my two-day visit was pretty much booked solid, with visits to the EU Parliament, the Swedish Representation to the EU, the joint Vinnova and Swedish Research Council office, plus the Directorate for Research and Innovation.

KTH should gradually become better placed to compete for new projects. We are currently involved in 201 projects within Horizon 2020, more than any other Swedish university. However, in terms of funding, KTH receives less than two other Swedish universities.
There is still a fair way to go before the programme is finalised and there is a big push to conclude negotiations and reach decisions before the EU parliamentary elections in May 2019. This is mainly due to uncertainty concerning the likely composition of the new parliament. There is a risk that groups more negatively disposed to research will gain an increased mandate.

So far at least, the Horizon Europe research programme has been given a somewhat higher budget and if Brexit actually happens, this will be managed as smoothly as possible.
Compared to the current programme, the 2021-2027 programme will be implemented through three pillars:

  1. Open Science
  2. Global Challenges and Industrial Competitiveness
  3. Open Innovation.
    One new element is missions, several of the people we met said these would be 5 or 6 of these, while others interpreted the discussions as meaning several more missions would be added. Although these missions will be broader than the current flag ships, there appears to be uncertainty as to whether both will feature in the new programme.
    On the education side, the EU proposes to double funding for Erasmus+. This would be good, even though this and other budget increases are not supported from the Swedish side. Sweden is opposed to increasing funding to Brussels from the current 1 percent of GDP to 1.11 percent as a consequence of when/if the UK leaves the European partnership.
    This is something I agree with, particularly as Sweden has not managed to recoup the sums earmarked for research that we pay to Brussels.

Being an expert on evaluation panels and attending workshops and seminars in Brussels are ways of learning more about how to be successful in winning EU projects. There is a constant need for evaluators and forwarding your candidature to participate is a good move. I myself have been an evaluator on the Co-fund project, which was very instructive. Naturally, cutting edge research and impact, plus an international presence, put you in a better position to win EU funding.

We need to understand and discuss events in Brussels in more detail, and this is especially the case when it comes to what is happening in the EU Parliament. We lack this kind of coverage in Sweden, something I was reminded of after my two-day visit.

There are many access paths to activities in Brussels. KTH’s participation in networks such as Caesar and Cluster is one important gateway. By taking on a higher workload and adopting a greater presence, KTH will be in a good position to influence the direction of the coming Horizon Europe.

Is open access to research results in line with the rest of the world?

The seeming conflict between academic freedom and open access to research articles is worrying. Or at least according to an opinion piece in Svd. But is this really the case?

Many Swedish research funding bodiesalready require research findings to be made available to the public today and not just in the form of publication in scientific periodicals that are behind a pay wall. There are also recommendations from the EU that member states should be able to provide open access to research results and data. A tightening is now coming into force via the so-called Plan S that is to be the standard from the year 2020. Many Swedish public research funding bodies have already signed up to this. That any research that has been paid for out of tax revenues should also be made available to taxpayers is one line of thinking, another is that research that is freely distributed can help additional research that is based on available findings.

That publishers charge for publishing articles today (including owning copyright) and also charge for being able to read them is and always has been strange. This in itself can appear odd in that researchers that have done the work themselves then have to pay a subscription to be able to read their own results. In the latter scenario, the researcher pays a fee for an article to be made available to everyone via an open publication process. Digitalisation has opened up opportunities for digital publication, that is to say, a publisher is no longer needed to publish periodicals.

Naturally, open access is the way forward, in a researcher community without borders, but it is a case of thinking pragmatically and not simply in terms of principle – not least from the perspective of the individual researcher. What happens in the case of privately funded research and what is the difference between the two? How does this affect the individual researcher and the merit that follow from publication in a highly esteemed periodical and future allocation of funds from the respective university? Today, openness clashes with meritoriousness, and in terms of peer review. It is easy to open a digital periodical and many researchers have already been persuaded to submit research findings where peer review is, in principle, totally absent.

There are highly ranked periodicals in many research areas where it is necessary to publish for reasons of both tradition and merit. Appearing in corresponding open access channels is unlikely to happen overnight. Traditions within the science fields are often varied which makes the rapid timetable for OpenS somewhat worrying. To regulate in exactly which periodicals a researcher may publish infringes on academic freedom. The assessment one makes as an individual researcher when new findings are to be presented, is based on a number of criteria. Sometimes, the most important thing is that other researchers in the same field can access the findings via publication in periodicals everyone reads. In other cases, the current merit system is what drives publication in highly ranked publications such as Nature and Science, even though, one knows that colleagues will perhaps not read these in the first instance.

The publishing strategy ought to be changed and gradually, open access will mean that more research findings will become generally available. But perhaps this will not proceed as quickly as is thought outside the research community. What will the rest of the world do? It can be somewhat odd if we in Europe now have a very rapid timetable for Open Access while the rest of the world has a different schedule. Ultimately, research findings are international, and as such, the ways of making them available also need to be global.

I have a certain sympathy for the logic that tax funded research should be made available to everyone (worldwide?). But on the other hand, I fail to see the logic of fee paying education, why is this, which is also tax funded, not freely available to everyone?

 

Internationalisation even more important in a changing world

That internationalisation and cooperation across borders are necessary to meet the challenges the world faces ought to be self-evident. In Sunday’s Sydsvenska Dagbladet (https://www.sydsvenskan.se/2018-11-11/vi-ser-med-stor-oro-pa-den-vag-av-nationalism-och-populism-som-sveper-over-sverige-europa-och-manga-lander-i-varlden), several colleagues and I write about this in an opinion piece on this very subject and that our research and knowledge society should be open and accessible. This is particularly important at a time when narrow-minded, fact denying mindsets tend to give the impression that the world should and ought to shrink.

As a small country, Sweden has managed to assert itself in global competition by both educating students and attracting skilled researchers from all round the world. Via close cooperation between industry and the engineering sciences, many Swedish companies were able to become internationally established in the early years of the 20th century. However, there is much more still to be done here if Sweden is to be able to continue to have a place in the international arena.

This is something that appears to be the thinking behind the government inquiry “Increasing the Attractiveness of Sweden as a Knowledge Nation” that has just been published (https://www.regeringen.se/rattsliga-dokument/statens-offentliga-utredningar/2018/10/sou-201878/). With the help of a number of measures, it should be easier and more attractive for both international students and researchers to come to Sweden. By establishing a presence abroad and vice versa, for example, international freedom of movement, the aim of the inquiry, should increase in both directions.

The inquiry proposals include keeping a closer eye on what is happening outside Sweden and creating an organisation to boost Sweden’s international presence. These proposals are good if they also give universities greater freedom to further develop existing partnerships with foreign partner universities via university branches.

I welcome the call for a greater focus on higher education and research such as via research and innovation offices and TeamSweden.

From my own experience, I know that Swedish ambassadors around the world are a big help when universities want to organise activities. However, in addition to this, more knowledge and expertise are required for Swedish higher education and research among the echelons that work to raise Sweden’s profile. This can only benefit Swedish universities.

What’s more, the inquiry appears to have taken a proper look at how the process for foreign students that pay to study here can be made easier and who could easily get caught up in a maze of public authority contacts. This is welcome, to enable student visas to be granted more quickly.

Something else that the inquiry wants to see is more grants to enable students to finance their studies and living expenses etc., in Sweden. Student voices and student rights that should also apply for foreign students are also named in the inquiry. This is already the case today with the barriers that exist being mainly language-related.

However, I would also have liked, as I wrote when the interim report was published, a clearer and more pronounced strategy concerning which parts of the world we should target. The problem for such a Swedish internationalisation strategy is that we live in a changing world, however. Nonetheless, international cooperation, student and knowledge exchanges are imperative for academia and vital for positive social development.

 

Good position for further cooperation with China

Compared to other Swedish universities, KTH has a special relationship with China, thanks to investments over a 15-20 year period to establish close cooperation with leading universities in the country. This almost two decade partnership with students moving in both directions and joint research projects, puts us in a strong position for further partnerships in China.

I returned from an intensive tour of China about a week ago. The programme included a visit to Shanghai Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, one of KTH’s key partner universities. While there, I also gave a lecture to some 200 students on the subject of the Swedish model with regard to education, research and innovation, and attended an event arranged by the Shanghai alumni chapter. From there, I headed to Hangzhou where I visited Zhejiang University, another KTH key partner university and also took part in the official opening of Westlake University, the first private university in China.

China, along with Southeast Asia in general, is making enormous investments in knowledge and as part of this, in universities and colleges. Several universities in China have moved up the international rankings very swiftly in a short period of time. Within areas such as AI, China is the world leader, alongside the USA. This has helped persuade internationally active researchers and teachers to return. The newly opened Westlake University is looking to recruit 300 people for faculty services in the next few years. There is a clear strategy that also means major investments in education and research infrastructure.

A report published recently ( https://www.regeringen.se/artiklar/2018/10/sverige-och-kina–starkt-samverkan-for-en-hallbar-framtid/) describes developments within research, innovation and higher education in China and presents proposals for how Sweden can strengthen cooperation with China. One point that was raised is that Sweden needs to build up know-how about China at all levels and that long-term relationships are important. The report also says that there should be a specific focus on cooperation concerning sustainable development and Agenda 2030. This puts KTH in an excellent position for continued relationships as we have gained a good reputation over our two decades of cooperation, where KTH alumni have proved splendid ambassadors. The KTH pillar of sustainable development integrated into education and research creates a good foundation for continued development in partnership with China. Cooperation ought to be both open and mutual, while never forgetting the benefits for the development of KTH and Sweden.

To summarise, I can say that I was struck by what an open and friendly reception I received during my visit and that the core academic values are clearly in place, even though it is incredibly difficult to assess the political dimension. The other day, I read an article in http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20181101082011396that paints a different picture of academic reality, however.

This, in turn, made me pause to reflect on the importance of Swedish universities in general needing much better knowledge of conditions in a country or region and the challenges (as were named in the report I mentioned above), and that we need to take a common stance on when we should cooperate and when we should not do so. Academic core values are worth defending and if KTH and Sweden can contribute to positive development in the world, this would be good.

However, now and then, it is important to bear in mind that Sweden is a small country in northern Europe, so our penetration and our visibility do not always coincide with our self-image, perhaps?  As such, strategic alliances that enable us to punch above our weight on the world stage, are very important.

 

Dedicated doctoral students could need support

Being able to explore a specific area in depth and build solid knowledge and experience by joining a research group is appealing. The competition to be offered a place on a doctoral course is tough. Once you have gained a place, it’s then all about hard work where work encroaches more and more into your outside work time.

I remember from my own days as a doctoral student when I also became a parent for the first time. My doctoral studies and family time merged into one. Having said that, it was a fun time, at no time since have I had the same opportunity to delve deeper into a subject area. Naturally, you face demands during your time as a doctoral student, some of which are framed into a competition with yourself.

During the course of last year, just over 200 doctoral positions were advertised at KTH for which we received 14,788 applications. Around a third of the applicants accepted onto a doctoral course were KTH graduates. Around half had a degree from a country other than Sweden. There are various forms of financing available to doctoral students at KTH, grants or industrial scholarships where the company for whom the doctoral student usually works pays their salary.

This means that circumstances vary for the group of around 2,000 doctoral students at KTH today.

The road to a thesis and doctoral gown means hard work. A survey performed in the spring by the ST union, shows that being a doctoral student can put you in a vulnerable position. High ambition and tremendous commitment are naturally both good and necessary attributes for a researcher, but it can sometimes be difficult to set sensible boundaries for your work.

Stress, unclear future job prospects, far too few hours of supervision and very extensive individual responsibility can sometimes make it difficult to take a dispassionate look at your third cycle studies. It is therefore important to spot danger signs at an early stage.

According to the survey, 30 percent of the 229 doctoral members who responded to the survey, said that they had not known what was expected of them and around half said that they are unable to complete the work they need to do within normal working hours.

These are worrying tendencies. And something we are actively addressing at KTH.

Naturally, our doctoral students have the right to a good work environment. Self-evidently, principal supervisors and assistant supervisors should allow sufficient time for each individual doctoral student. Having said that, if you are studying to become a researcher, you need to possess initiative and independence. However, there is an unhealthy culture that is of the view that unless you dedicate all your waking hours to your “calling”, you are not a good enough researcher or research student. This culture stifles creativity. Creativity can surely blossom when you give your brain the occasional chance to rest.

 

 

 

 

 

Flexible employers wanted

The other day I was asked what the future global job market will look like, what employers are going to want. But why not turn the question round? What will an employer need to live up to in the 2030s, to be able to attract the best talents and be attractive to new engineering and architecture graduates?

I think it is going to depend very much on seeing the individual behind the CV and to really determine what skills you need beyond the bog standard “flexible”, “stress-tolerant” and “socially adept”.

Despite a range of sophisticated tools that sift out the golden nuggets amongst all the applicants in the employment process, I think there is a risk of missing out on talents that, at first glance, do not appear to match the accepted mould.

It’s not always the case that the one that promises the most, best delivers. Perhaps the exact opposite is most often the case? Nor that there is a perfect age or that an optimal talent or background has a certain look about them.

My guess is that a future employer must be able to see the individual, their specific circumstances that change during the course of their working life and offer flexible solutions that suit the individual’s life situation here and now. Then, as now, opportunities for  development will be important.

Here, as I have written about earlier opportunities for lifelong learning will be one crucial competitive advantage. Employers that offer their employees time and opportunities to update and broaden their skills sets, when this is necessary, will be a step ahead when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. Here, KTH as a university is ready to lend a helping hand provided we are given the associated weighted resources.

Rapid technological development in the form of AI, digitalisation, robotisation mean that society and with it the job market will be radically changed. Half of all jobs will be automated within 20 years according to a report published a few years ago.

That the rate and speed of social change is increasing is something everyone is concerned about and implicit in this is the notion – “hang in and keep up”. But this does not mean that we can therefore race past analysis, consideration and questioning when it comes to the know how shift that is in progress.

Here, the enterprise sector and academia must think aloud together and ,not just merely deal with, but  take responsibility for this development.

 

Digitalisation is opening new doors

With appropriate timing as we approach the application deadline for spring 2019 to KTH and other universities on 15 October, a report has been published showing where jobs of the future will be found.

Anyone studying to become an engineer should be sought-after on the job market on graduation. This is hardly surprising but pleasing nonetheless to see that as usual, our programmes lead to employment for individuals that in turn, generate benefits for society.

According to the Swedish Public Employment Service, engineers within electronics, civil engineering and IT are on the list of professions that are easiest to find jobs in on a five-year view.

In cooperation with the enterprise sector and society in general, our programmes are up to date with what is in demand on the job market and in terms of breadth of subject areas and content.

On the same day, which appeared intentional, a report was released on Swedes and the Internet by the Internet Foundation In Sweden. This explains how we use technology and answers questions such as who, when and how people surf, shop, play games etc., online. Most people in the 15 to 45 age group do so via a smartphone and half the population have things like watches, fridges and cars connected at home. A day without going online is a very unusual day for the vast majority of the population.

Digitalisation is opening new doors not only for people who are studying and researching, but also the way in which it is possible to do this and publish information on results, test applications and usage areas, which is in line with our development plan. “KTH should, with its know-how in the area, be a leader in the digitalisation of education, research, cooperation and education and research support.”

Many of the KTH programmes utilise mixed forms of education, both traditional direct teacher-student meetings and internet-based homework and digital teaching material. In research, digitalisation has become naturally integrated, while data analytics offers new ways to analyse complex processes and create new understanding. Various administrative processes have already been digitalised or on course to become so. Irrespective of the current situation, it is absolutely vital to stay a step ahead, not least when it comes to understanding and developing digital solutions and artificial intelligence that offer opportunities for innovation. Having said that however, a deep rooting in ethical issues is also necessary.

Since KTH gained its fourth leg, digitalisation, along with equal opportunities, sustainable development and global relations, the grounds on which we stand are more stable than ever before. Since being appointed a year ago, our  Vice President for Digitalisation has been dedicated to developing KTH’s role in this area.

 

 

The importance of academian freedom

It is now three weeks since the general election in Sweden and we are still none the wiser when it comes to forming a government. Is politics important for higher education in Sweden? My answer is obviously yes. Although universities and colleges have a more independent stance than most other government authorities, we still work on behalf of taxpayers.

Over the years, a long line of private financing bodies, such as various family foundations, have appeared that support research at our universities.

However, one thing I do know is that a high-quality university sector that works well is something that all politicians ought to consider as the highest priority.

Several issues are of utmost urgency for the incoming government. Some of these are related to being successful on the international stage, others concern increasing basic funding for education and research. It is crucial that basic funding is increased for education, otherwise being able to maintain high quality will gradually become more and more difficult.

Our universities have a relatively high degree of autonomy, (something I can appreciate) not least in my role as a board member of Vinnova when I see the monthly reconciliation process between the Director General and the Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation.

This is not the case for a university president. As President of KTH, I have tremendous freedom to develop KTH to the best of my ability and that of our employees as well.

Freedom of research is enshrined in the Universities Act and the Higher Education Ordinance, more specifically with regard to the free choice of the research subject. Within the Swedish higher education community, we increasingly talk about the need to also give education the same status. At the same time, KTH, as with other government bodies, must adhere to fundamental government values,  that in part concern objectivity and free opinion building.

The development of the scope of universities to ensure we work in an optimal way for the benefit of Sweden and society, is a continuous process. Being able to act on the international stage and sign agreements between KTH and international parties is a kind of freedom that calls for a certain degree of innovation.

The most recent Times Higher Education (THE) rankings  show that many Swedish universities have fallen down the rankings. One important question in this context is whether Swedish universities have the right platform to be an international presence. Having said that, I think it is becoming increasingly difficult to relate to a more troubled world. What is right and what is wrong when it comes to international cooperation is not always crystal clear.

The same applies to cooperation in general – of regulating in contracts how research findings that are the result of a joint project should be utilised, can sometimes be difficult precisely because universities are government bodies.

We in the university sector are often pretty inward looking and believe society and the enterprise sector know as much about our issues as we do ourselves. This is rarely the case. We need to take greater responsibility in inviting involvement in issues that are important to us and explaining and entering into dialogue on these issues.

A proper understanding of academia is necessary in order to be able to make wise political decisions on higher education and research. By being open and transparent and sharing our knowledge, we can contribute to good political decisions. KTH can then continue to offer programmes that impress employers and in so doing, compete on an increasingly competitive university market.