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Review strengthens KTH’s research for the future

Outside perspectives are important and beneficial, and they develop quality for the future. Our latest Research Assessment Exercise, RAE 2021, in which experts evaluated our research, is an excellent example of this.

With nine subject panels using self-assessment and three interdisciplinary panels for impact, sustainable development and research infrastructures, 90 experts have taken the pulse of the quality of KTH’s research where the RAE is part of our overarching quality system.

Following a meticulous process and strong commitment both internally and externally, we have now arrived at a result and a final report. A big thank you to everyone involved in any way under the leadership of Vice President Annika Stensson Trigell.

Comprehensive quality assessments of this kind can put a strain on day-to-day operations when time is short, but they breathe new life into things and are absolutely crucial to moving forward. Consequently, we should see them as a natural, integral part of our organisation. With so many people’s insights into operations, the observations are bound gradually to make a mark on e.g. new recruitments and/or changes in the direction of a particular field.

RAE 2021 demonstrates for instance the high degree of impact and societal relevance of our research, as well as its ability to contribute to sustainable social development.  Even so, much development remains to take KTH to the next level. The experts noticed various areas where things could be even better. For instance they suggested an increased focus on infrastructure and a stronger strategy for scientific publication, among other areas. They also mentioned that a broader interdisciplinary approach is one way of broaching the field of sustainable development on an even deeper level.

We have already responded to several of the suggestions with various processes and initiatives to glean from the reports – one for each area – what we should focus on around KTH moving forward.

If KTH is to remain an internationally viable and relevant university, collective insights and views of this kind are vital.

Whatever happened to critical thinking?

Sometimes I wonder whether scientific research’s all-consuming, cathartic drive for results and quality should also be applied to other sectors. At least to some degree. Or can you claim just about anything?

In answer to this rhetorical question – yes, of course, though sweeping, unsubstantiated statements, not to mention blatantly fake news, do concern me. To discredit someone who is neither in a position to speak out nor to defend themselves is not only unfortunate, but dishonorable. I never cease to be amazed, despite my nigh-on 40 years in the sector, by how surprisingly often untruths – possibly owing to envy of others’ positions or titles – risk destroying the internal culture.

Simply hitting each other over the head with our h-index is an all too brusque measure of academic achievement, something I write about in a debate article (in Swedish). Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but I’ve seen it happen enough times to see an unhappy pattern emerge where talented people begin doubting themselves, start feeling discouraged and choose to refrain from accepting various challenges.

With academic freedom and the free academy also comes a certain responsibility. A responsibility to find out what the facts are and to put critical thinking into practice, something that we proudly tell our students to apply themselves to. Otherwise, there’s a real risk that some will forgo taking the next step in their career rather than risk being the subject of academic spats and envy. If untruths and threats are allowed to remain unchallenged, then the university and higher education world is at risk of being quieter and more afraid.

Scientific research results are meant to be verified, repeated, and to rest on a statistically reliable basis, and finally to be scrutinized by an expert. Perhaps similar steps might be used in other contexts to benefit a more nuanced and honest description of real life. And if we want to broaden recruitment both to and within colleges and universities, I think it is important to protect all kinds of talent.

KTH’s holistic approach to future education

Sometimes you get the impression that study programmes at KTH have always looked the way they have done for the last five, ten or one hundred years. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Our programmes are always being continuously developed. Partly because our researchers are also teachers and are accordingly able to incorporate the very latest findings into their courses, and partly thanks to collaboration with society and the enterprise sector around us, where discussions about what know-how and knowledge will be attractive, sought-after and necessary to meet the ever more complex challenges facing society and to make sure KTH and Sweden are on the map when it comes to global competition.

Digitalisation, globalisation and how technology is being developed at breakneck speed impose new demands on education becoming more fleet-footed.

But it is also about adapting courses to job market needs, especially if these are clear enough. In Denmark, they have introduced a kind of dimensioning model where universities are required to adapt the number of places on a course to what demand or alternatively unemployment looks like within a certain category. This is perhaps a practicable way even though KTH engineers are much sought-after on graduation, including on the global job market.

When I took up the reins as President almost six years ago, I maintained that for a study programme to be both viable and sound, three things were crucial: culture, quality and infrastructure. Culture includes an important enough attitude and view of learning as such, and not least the active role of students. Quality can be summarised as study programmes should contain both the latest research findings and the necessary fundamental solid knowledge. Infrastructure is vital in translating theory into practice in experimental environments and in so doing also learning crafts for the future. The latter, namely a solid infrastructure, gives students at KTH added value during their time here, and is something we are keen on as it gives us a competitive and excellent educational environment.

For the past year, KTH has been working with Future Education as a framework for how we can and wish to develop the education we offer with 13 fundamental principles to take education to the next level. With lessons from the pandemic to draw on, there is plenty to get our teeth into.

To name a few of all these elements, these principles include – a developing education culture, regular skills development for teachers, broader recruitment, a developed lifelong learning, and greater flexibility when it comes to study paths. The list is naturally long, as it should be, where the fundamental approach is to take a holistic grip and also develop system thinking – where one thing hangs together with and is dependent on the other.

Fittingly in time to mark the bicentenary of KTH in 2027, this substantial revamp as a whole will be very apparent to students, teachers, researchers and even administration staff as they make their way around our campuses. Already today, KTH has taken various steps along this path and changes will be implemented gradually.

Support in line with our mission

The war in Ukraine has been going on now for over a month. A long and difficult month for all those who are fighting so persistently and bravely to defend their country and their democracy.

The commitment and willingness to help is great and there are many initiatives being taken at KTH. The focus for us as a university is on trying to help students and researchers from Ukraine as much as possible – in line with our mission and according to what we are able to do.

In an increasingly uncertain world, when we have finally been able to at least partially breathe a sigh of relief after the pandemic, where globalisation is under pressure, it is even more important to safeguard the free movement of research and knowledge in the world. As always, it is also absolutely essential in these times to distinguish between person, country and system. KTH has a few collaborations with Russia that have been frozen for the time being.

In light of this, the work that KTH, Lund University and KI have done on responsible internationalisation is also useful as is the willingness to always ask one more question in order to make sensible assessments about partners.

The Association of Higher Education Institutions has also started a specific group to handle and analyse issues concerning higher education institutions and their collaborations around the world. The group includes KTH represented by Stefan Östlund, our Vice President for Global Relations.

In accordance with a decision made by the President, KTH is strengthening the resources that go to Scholars at Risk at KTH which will be dedicated to research environments for guest researchers and to help those who have fled the war. Through fundraising and a call for support for researchers from Ukraine we also hope to be able to raise more money, mainly for scholarships for guest researchers. Anyone who wishes to contribute is welcome to do so.

The power and willingness to do something is great and very gratifying – like many other universities, institutions, business and organisations. But it is important to think beforehand while we look for the best possible solutions.

As always in times of crisis, conspiracy theories emerge, if not by a letter in the post, then in some other way. While the hype and the falsehoods compete for space, we have a scientific backbone that keeps us optimistic and hopefully gives us the confidence that knowledge and research can be the way to a safer and truer world.

Equal working environment – crucial for the academy

He has such potential. An expression that is often used by men about men but that is by no means an overwhelming endorsement. Perhaps when young and promising is but a distant memory?

In yet another report on how it is not a level playing field for men and women when it comes to pursuing an academic career, the Swedish Association of University Teachers (SULF) in Med ljuset på jämställdhet – när osäkerheten överskuggar allt  (In Swedish) describes what the obstacles and differences can look like – from precarious employment conditions to research funding and promotions.

In numbers between male and female professors, the proportions change slowly but slowly, but the difference is still great. Of KTH’s 335 professors, 270 are men and 65 women according to the latest annual report.

Qualifications are what should determine your position. But what should count as qualifications? Is it solely your publications and your H-index? Or is it the capacity to collaborate with the enterprise sector and the world outside? Or of being mobile and daring to develop by changing university?Or getting work to proceed more smoothly in the research group, involving yourself in work groups, arranging series of seminars, being seen in debates or developing programmes?

All the above take time away from research and publishing and this sometimes falls under the concept of “academic housework”?

Work that someone has to do and that is often most clearly noticed when it is no longer being done and that tends to be done by women to a greater extent within an organisation where time is often in short supply. This work is necessary to be able to find the finance to both cover the costs of and develop research projects.

There is a big risk that this system will be self-perpetuating in a closed circle where the more resources, the more research and the more qualifications. Even though KTH has come a fair way along the road when it comes to weighing in different aspects of qualifications, we have plenty to gain from expanding the way a researcher is viewed today.

The system is also reflected in what I said about potential in my opening sentence. The expression suggests that this is someone that has not done that much so far, but it is only a matter of time and he has his whole future ahead of him to deliver on his promise. Women on the other hand, often have to do a great deal and ideally quickly in the form of publications and expert adviser assignments before they can even be considered for an assignment.

Creating good conditions to be a teacher and researcher at a university is almost a matter of fate. It must be attractive to work at KTH in a good and developing working environment and conditions to do your best. If anxiety, worry and stress take over, the potential teachers and researchers of the future will choose a different career. It does not benefit KTH’s development in the long run. That is why we work so focused on gender equality and equal opportunities for women and men.