New ways of learning and studying in Europe

Imagine designing your own course by choosing which programme you wish to read and where you should study – virtually or physically at KTH and/or other universities in Europe. That can become reality within the next eight years. Future students can graduate with a very competitive European degree in their hand.

The thinking behind this possible future is the European Universities Initiative  in the European education and research environment to raise the quality, capacity and competitiveness of university education and research. KTH is a member of one of the networks that will consist of 17 European universities in the first instance.

This is very much in line with KTH’s already existing excellent partnerships and efforts to further develop our programmes and learning environments.

One trend in recent years for example, is that fewer and fewer students are choosing to go to lectures. I hope and believe that this is not so much a sign of a lecturer’s ability to capture the interest and attention of students and more about the format of simply sitting and listening feeling a bit dated, perhaps. When access to books was almost non-existent and lecturers therefore shared their knowledge by standing at a lectern and explaining what the book was about was an entirely different time.

Today, you can choose to take a course via the internet and listen and watch a lecture at a time and place that suits you. This offers enormous opportunities and via the European Universities Initiative, universities will be able to stimulate each other to cooperate around other new models for learning.

In time this could also offer scope for lifelong learning  – where adding to your skills set and updating your knowledge could be done within one European university where sought-after, specific and fresh knowledge can be expected to be found within the European Universities Initiative.

European Universities are also expected to also generate more mobility among researchers and staff. And while KTH has very much been an international university for many years, we can and will take further steps in this direction. Developing and honing state-of-the-art knowledge within both research and education can undoubtedly gain from increased European cooperation.

At the same time, the need for critical thinking has probably never been greater; to be able to absorb and evaluate knowledge and then to extract what is important for a certain position or to build new knowledge from the combined knowledge accrued, will be future virtues.


A budget without visions

When the Budget Bill  was presented two weeks ago. I was not especially surprised, more like worried. The funding may well have been as expected, but the proposal presented by the government to parliament shows a lack of vision.

According to the proposal, funding for education at both first cycle and second cycle for 2019 has increased slightly. This increase includes previously resolved investments such as the expansion of engineering programs.

When it comes to research and development at researcher level, funding has also been slightly increased such as for an investment in the research area of IT and mobile communications, that was notified in the research proposition published three years ago. It feels good that we can now move forward in the work we are doing with these initiatives.

But having said that, the SULF report from last summer still notes in no uncertain terms that payment for higher education has continuously shrunk and continues to shrink. This is when compared with how much was invested in education in the 1990s.

This is very much at odds with the fact that we face numerous major challenges when it comes to social development that will require educated people along with innovative and in-depth research, not least within KTH’s area.

In a discussion piece, Swedish National Union of Students  show how demands for greater efficiency are forcing cutbacks and vice versa. The so-called productivity funding reveals in no uncertain terms how universities and colleges are viewed, as something more akin to a production line where the employees also don’t need any pay increases. An over reliance on making education more efficient without setting any boundaries is risky.

Naturally, we are continuously working on quality development to maintain and develop attractive learning environments to create the best possible foundation for student education. Having said that, new methods require time and energy, the gradual hollowing out is also adversely affecting this.

Students are students – then as now – with the right to and an equally big need for good lab environments, good teachers and adequate education. Simply the fact that there are more students and we have information technology does not necessarily make everything less expensive. From this aspect, the budget proposal is disturbing for a university that trains the engineers of the future.

The mix makes the difference

As an engineer, you can work with almost anything. A study programme at KTH opens the door to a variety of career paths and an opportunity to really make a difference within pretty much every sector of society. That whatever their gender or background, individuals should have the chance to be part of building the future should be self-evident. How hard can it be?

However, both a recent report  from The Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA) and excitable social media threads over the years present a different picture.

The number of female applicants to engineering courses is still on the low side, around 25 to 30 percent, while the proportion of women who choose to study medicine, law or business administration, for example, is over 50 percent. Around 67 percent of applicants offered places at KTH are male and 33 percent female. And the higher up the academic nomenklatura, the more distorted the balance. Around 80 percent of all professors are male.

Many of our programmes have a good balance, while in computer engineering, information and communication technology and electronics and computer engineering for example, women are still underrepresented.

Why is it so important to do something about this? It is about trying to achieve “justice” or that grades are not counted, but quite simply a matter of quality. That women do not view all engineering areas as interesting enough to choose to study, is something I see as a failing in engineering programmes and engineering science. I am absolutely convinced that a broad mix of people, both women and men, contribute to areas developing more than if only one group is involved. Plenty of research indicates that a group with equal gender representation performs better than a single sex group. KTH activities aim to persuade girls and women to maintain the interest in engineering and technology that girls and boys possess at a young age rather than the tendency for older girls to lose their interest in secondary and upper secondary school.

I found the debates on what suits men and women respectively in the press this past summer that I followed, deeply disturbing. Various unscientific explanations that you may well have thought were long since thoroughly discredited re-emerged. Restrictive and biological definitions of how men and women behave respectively were presented as patronising explanations of us all.

KTH has, since 2015 , used the slogan “The future is too important to be left to men” in a campaign aimed at persuading girls to apply to computing, IT and electronics programmes. It has attracted a great deal of attention and there has been a certain negative reaction to it on the grounds that it discriminates against men. On the other hand, there have been long queues to get a tote bag printed with this inspiring slogan.

A great deal of work has gone into persuading more women to choose engineering and technology programmes. However, it is important to see the big picture and ensure that there will be attractive jobs waiting for engineering students on graduation. The target group is both younger girls and older females and activities revolve around sampling programmes and meeting students already at KTH. These are popular events and many girls have told us how they inspired them to enrol on a programme at KTH.

If KTH is successful in offering programmes that are attractive to women and men, this will help both the public and private sectors gain a more equal gender balance among their employees. Something we will all benefit from.

Quality is a perishable thing

High quality in research, education and collaboration. That sounds good – but what does it really mean? A systematic strategy, a way of thinking and high credibility.

Quality is about appealing courses that attract many applicants – of which the ones accepted have a big slice of motivation, curiosity and ability. Quality is also about the applicants showing good potential to succeed in their learning. This is a joint responsibility; that KTH creates excellent conditions in which to learn and that the students show strong commitment to their studies. Quality resides in the research that is pursued and in our social involvement in both the public and the private sectors. It also resides in the innovations that emanate from KTH.

Quality is measured via various ranking lists, which is good, but quality is also ultimately about something that is more difficult to measure. Namely credibility and trust. That we produce skilled graduates and deliver innovative and useful research and that we create confidence in society that KTH can solve the challenges of both today and tomorrow. Internationalisation, equal opportunities, digitalisation and sustainable development are other clear quality markers in everything we do.

The foundation for this lies in solid and systematic internal work which permeates everyday activities at KTH. But as I noted above, quality is very much a perishable product and we cannot rest on our laurels – or at least not for any extended period, despite a well-developed quality culture.

We will be the subject of several comprehensive quality surveys over the next 12-months that should keep us tuned when it comes to both our courses and our research. This autumn, Universitetskanslersämbetet (the Swedish Higher Education Authority or UKÄ), will inspect our system for the quality assurance of courses. Then in spring, it will be time for our third Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). Here, both national and international assessors will take a look at our research and how this can be further developed.

A quality culture and to continuously think new thoughts, to develop and perfect are vital if we are to remain an elite university.

New students and new pens

What I liked best when I went to school was the start of the autumn term. The smell of new books, a new timetable, new pens. Despite the arrival of darker days, everything exuded a sense of new initiatives. I feel the same way now – as president of Sweden’s largest university of technology – and with great expectations of the days to come.

KTH’s new students arrived last week and right now it’s freshers week. Many people, both students and staff, are heavily involved in welcoming the new students. A commitment that hopefully will infect the new students once they get stuck into their studies properly.

The reorganisation of KTH has now entered its third phase and I can see how, slowly but surely, we are reaching our goal of creating a more coherent and efficient organisation. Once again, I would like to take the opportunity to thank everyone for all the hard work that both the faculty and administrators have put in and are putting in on this. The continued development of KTH is something I look forward to this autumn.

Another area that is a constant fixture on the agenda is, of course, sustainable development. KTH, via things such as the climate framework , is working to find effective solutions and create new technology that support sustainable development. Materials research, energy and urban planning, to name a few critical areas for the future where sustainable solutions are now being developed. Added to which, we are working clearly and consciously to reduce the university’s own impact on the environment.

KTH should stand for scientifically based knowledge and facts in everything we do, not least when it comes to sustainable development, where emotions risk gaining the upper hand, which can sometimes lead to short-term solutions that can be worse than what we already have.

Sustainability was, for natural reasons, the most discussed subject at this year’s Almedal Week in early July. Although this Almedal Week had fewer seminars in total, many of the seminars themselves raised important and burning issues. Another area at Almedal Week – a perennial favourite – discussed was lifelong learning. Several discussions referred to Study Friday, a specific proposal that the enterprise sector, universities and Sveriges Ingenjörer debated in early summer. Next week, a few members of the Study Friday working group, will meet Matilda Ernkrans, the Minister of Higher Education and Research, to present the concept in more detail.

One clear common denominator for the above initiatives is collaboration. Another similar example that was presented in Almedal Week was Stockholm Trio – an alliance along international lines with KI, Stockholm University and KTH  that we launched at the end of May. We are going to take the next step this autumn, which will be very exciting.

Yet another thing that was obviously mentioned and intensely discussed, apart from AI, was the  Inquiry on Governance and Resources (STRUT), where many parties have recently submitted their comments. How much consideration will be given to these comments, many of which were of a critical nature, and how they will be amended, can become a key issue for academia.