Great faith in engineering

Innovative and intelligent. These are characteristics associated with engineers – creativity is another.

This is naturally both flattering and stimulating. But perhaps even more important is faith in our ability to tackle the major social challenges we face – with the help of technology.

These findings were presented just a few weeks ago by opinion and social research institute SIFO’s survey that the Swedish Association of Graduate Engineers had carried out on their behalf.

Of the 1,000 engineers aged 18–79 interviewed in the survey, over 80 percent view engineering as a profession of the future.  They have great confidence in engineers identifying solutions with the help of technology. Such solutions include treating wastewater, generating sustainable energy and building sustainable cities. New technology can provide us with things such as clean drinking water and sound medical care.

Just under 85 percent of those surveyed also consider that technological development is crucial to Sweden’s competitiveness.

Swedish engineering has always been closely interlinked with development in the business community and the welfare state. Innovations and industrialisation have gone hand in hand.This interaction is, if possible, even more important in an increasingly globalised market. This applies to exchanges of both personnel and experiences at all levels, with knowledge and expertise constantly needing to be matched with both reality and the labour market.

The attitudes reflected in the survey are very clear and show the importance of KTH’s role as a seat of learning in the field of technology. There is a great deal of trust to safeguard and live up to in this area. During this term, many studdents have been awarded degrees at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, and it is always exciting to follow them as they enter the global labour market.

By choosing an engineering programme, many opportunities open up to pursue a range of interests, from artificial intelligence in Silicon Valley to contributing to technological development in agriculture in Africa.

After having been president for six months at one of Europe’s foremost seats of learning in technology, it feels fantastic to see the solid research and education being conducted and the huge potential inherent in our organisation. I look forward to taking the next step in the autumn.

But first I would like to wish everyone who has made a contribution towards making KTH a little better each day – researchers, teachers, students and administrative staff – a really pleasant summer.

The blog will be back again in the middle of August.

Different programs need different resources

At last! This is what many might say about the launch of the government inquiry into how universities and other higher education institutes are governed and how resources are assigned to them.

Today’s system was introduced around the same time as the universities reform in 1993, and there has been no collective attempt to address these issues since that time – this despite the fact that society has undergone major upheavals in terms of globalisation and digitalisation over the 25 years that have passed. The landscape in which the seats of learning now operate is a very different one indeed.

Although the inquiry Styrning för starka och ansvarsfulla lärosäten (Governance for strong and responsible seats of learning) has been long awaited in many quarters and its arrival is welcome, it is important to point out areas of concern.

The systems it will look into are very large and they take time to modify and develop. This is why we need to safeguard the things that work well, and in this respect there must be financial and autonomous elbow room to allow for changes in direction – not least for the major universities. A central premise of a new resource system must be that different areas of education require different things where learning conditions are concerned. Architecture and engineering programmes, for example, require infrastructure, which not only supports learning but also prepares students for professional life. A new resource system needs to take this into account. Attention has frequently been drawn to the fact that there have been repeated demands for education to be expanded but without cost coverage and with grants being undermined, but this point is worth making again. (https://www.sulf.se/app/uploads/2016/03/skrift-fortsattutbyggnadfortsatturholkningwebb.pdf in Swedish)

Another key component is to meet the need for clear and comprehensible models that are easy to navigate among and follow, particularly where third-cycle studies are concerned. Make it easy to do things correctly.

The inquiry will also be looking at lifelong learning. The inquiry’s task includes proposing “how governance should be developed to ensure that the educational needs of different groups can be met, especially when it comes to opportunities for lifelong learning”. This is of course positive, but the time horizon is disconcerting because it will probably take some time before the inquiry, which is to have been completed by the start of December next year, is translated into practical reality in the seats of learning.

The issue of ongoing skills development for professionals to meet the needs of the labour market and the surrounding world cannot wait any longer and it is important that the provision of resources in this area is not based on the same premises or reliant on the same funding as ordinary education.

Expectations of universities – are they excessive?

As representatives of higher education, we increasingly face an expectation to solve many problems related to a changing labour market, with greater requirements for retraining and more of a focus on lifelong learning.

I hear complaints about slow processes in higher education, unwillingness to work with validation and assessment of actual competence, and the view that the seats of learning themselves have decided to work solely with programmes.

These and similar claims should naturally be addressed, but we can also view them as a means of developing our universities. Offering high-quality education, research and collaboration is key. Maintaining the things that support this work is necessary, but we also need to reflect on why we do things a certain way. Do our processes mean that what we do is inefficient and not necessarily of high quality? In that case, we need to be prepared to rethink and do things properly.

The results of our efforts depend on other state agencies in many instances. This applies, for example, to emergency response positions within the state and to work experience for newly arrived immigrants and disabled people. When this actually works, it turns out very well.

Over the years, there have been many good examples of courses for different target groups that do not necessarily need to pursue a complete programme of education. One such course is Sfinx which is aimed at people with a foreign engineering degree. These individuals are offered courses in Swedish, the opportunity for advanced courses in their area of speciality, and knowledge of Swedish professional life. The programme has been a success for the almost ten years it has been in existence.

Another good example based on own initiatives at KTH Royal Institute of Technology is programming for newly arrived immigrants (https://campi.kth.se/en/nyheter/it-utbildning-for-nyanlanda-igang-1.700710). This also seems to be going exceedingly well.

Being ready to discuss lifelong learning and skills development requires that we at KTH defend our main task: that of educating the architects and engineers of today and tomorrow. KTH has received 29 percent of all applications in Sweden in the architecture and engineering fields for courses and programmes starting this autumn. That’s the proportion of applicants wishing to educate themselves at KTH!

But what we can do better is to consider how prepared we are to meet the increasing need for skills development. There are a whole range of educational methods in this area, from distance learning and specially commissioned courses to MOOCs. There are many opportunities available but dialogue with KTH’s client, namely the Swedish Government, will be important. Because if we work more on lifelong learning, we will have to work less on our main task – in any case, with the present allocation system. And that, after all, is not the object of the exercise, is it?

KTH in the world

Last week, KTH Royal Institute of Technology was named one of the three best seats of learning in Sweden in terms of internationalisation. This is proof that all the work that is being and has been invested in making KTH more international has produced results. This is very pleasing.

Joint publications, researcher and student exchanges, and collaborations with strategic partner universities are a few of the many important pieces of the puzzle that now places KTH more firmly on the map.

But to be able to see how we are doing in relation to our global competition, ranking is an important means of measuring value – another unscientific and extremely personal yardstick is the reaction you get when you say you come from KTH Royal Institute of Technology when elsewhere in the world. The fact that KTH is well known at Harvard and MIT is clear, but we still have some way to go in making an impression in other industries.

Americans have greater confidence in the military than in universities, according to a survey referred to by Times Higher Education. Out of a sample of around 1,000 Americans, only 14 percent of them said that they have great confidence in universities, compared to 26 percent for the military, according to the survey. However, the percentage for the scientific community in general is somewhat higher, at 19 percent. The study also demonstrated major differences in views depending on origin, ideology and religion. This may seem worrying but also slightly difficult to understand when you have had the opportunity, during a study visit, to get a glimpse of the American scientific community.

KTH can benefit more greatly from the image of Sweden than it does at present. In the US, people are curious about a lot of things from Sweden. They have observed that Sweden is an early adopter of technical solutions, particularly digitalisation. We saw, for example, that the American banking sector has major strides left to take. This is why it would be good for KTH to talk more about how it turns research into benefit and how we work with innovations from research. It is well known in the US that Sweden continues to be a major player in innovation.

When we visited a number of innovation hubs, where I spoke with some people from start-ups, I saw that we at KTH can be incredibly proud of the results that KTH Innovation has had. This is yet another thing to bear in mind when talking about KTH beyond the university campus.

International inspiration for the future

Regularly orienting ourselves in the surrounding world is necessary in order to compare how we at KTH match up to the competition and to gain inspiration for new ways of doing things. In other respects, it’s easy to be impressed by things in the US because they are so good at communicating. This is something we can learn from.

I spent last week in the US at the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences’ Royal Technology Mission 2017 (RTM17). The focus of the week’s visits was digitisation in a broad sense and its impact on various areas – from a visit to IBM and a demo of Watson to Google, JP Morgan (major US bank) and NIH (National Institutes of Health), NASA and AstraZeneca.

Regardless of the field of research, knowledge about big data, automation and machine learning are central to handling large amounts of data and explaining complex problems. The theme of the trip was also how to make research beneficial to society in general and how innovations and entrepreneurship contribute to social change.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning and the internet of things are also in focus at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The school, probably one of the smallest at Harvard, has recently received a large donation, enabling it to grow. Despite it being a relatively unknown fact, it has been possible to study engineering subjects at Harvard since the latter part of the 1800s. Like us at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, the school at Harvard is considering how to tackle interdisciplinary social challenges such as climate, water scarcity and energy. I was thinking instead about why Harvard, with its world-leading education and research in disciplines such as the humanities, economics, law and medicine, should focus on engineering when it instead could forge closer links with MIT?

MIT’s MediaLab showed how an environment was created to enable optimal creativity in practice. It is internationally renowned and has now reached the age of 30. For me, this was yet another reminder that KTH’s engineering and architecture disciplines need to constantly safeguard infrastructure and lab environments so that we don’t forget the second part of our motto, “science and art”. ‘Art’ in the sense of the art of engineering, which applies to the greatest possible extent to educational settings.

Another exciting visit was that to Janelia Research Campus, a research centre founded in 2005, where we also met one of 2014’s Nobel Prize winners in chemistry, Eric Bretzig. With support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, it has been designed with research as its sole purpose. There is no tenure track but researchers are evaluated every 5 years (to be changed to every 7 years) and are allowed to continue at the research centre if they produce results. It was extremely clear that highly ranked publications, impact and the ability to demonstrate research that had come about through teamwork were valued. This method of regularly measuring achievement can certainly be used in Sweden but may instead take the form of a stronger and systematic component of performance appraisals and pay reviews.

While visiting some innovation hubs, MassChallenge Boston stood out as being really exciting. The entire operation is financed via donations or through sponsors and they offer free support in developing individuals’ ideas all the way up to start-up. One positive element is that these sponsors also offer expert help, such as legal assistance when writing contracts. Running innovation offices through sponsors that additionally contribute their expertise on various issues has proved to be very successful.

Our visit to Congress in Washington and the opportunity to listen to reflections on the economic situation in the US and the new president added that little extra to the week.

The crucial dialogue

Today, there are a large number of research teams, centres and networks in which ideas, results, problems and solutions are brainstormed, bandied around and discussed. Academic dialogue is in full swing throughout KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

The results are most likely greater than if each person sat in their room and considered things in solitude – that is, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, which is usually summarised in simple terms by one plus one equals three.

Paradoxically enough, the individual researcher does not always benefit from working with others in large research environments. For example, it can look better on your CV to list qualifications that you have achieved by yourself in the form of individually granted research funding and publications in which you are cited as the main author. Building a culture that does not permit this CV and grant frenzy to overshadow the need for collaborative thought is crucial in terms of creating a successful and fruitful research environment.

Placing too great a focus on your own qualifications entails a risk of cultivating silence instead of discussion. An academic environment in which thoughts are not expressed aloud or where ideas are not contrasted with each other has a negative impact on both the work environment and the desire to work. After all, the researcher as a lone genius has most commonly proved to be a myth and been replaced by an image in which great discoveries result from teamwork. There is often an idea in the air that several people have touched upon – some even claim that the same train of thought can arise in several places simultaneously in different parts of the world, a concept known as synchronicity.

Academic freedom, which is all about being at liberty to choose what to research without external influence, along with the fact that, for example, a professor with an external research grant determines the nature of their working life more or less independently of others, does not necessarily mean by definition that you have to work alone. Can academic silence lead to significant research results falling by the wayside? Hopefully not, but it has been evidenced that environments in which there is vibrant discussion are often the most successful, and this message is important to convey when educating the next generation of researchers. Apart from thinking aloud together, this can involve sharing contacts, daring to speak up when you see that somebody is on the wrong track or helping in some other way.

In academia, we already have the strong tradition of examining the quality of articles to be published – through peer review, in which your work is scrutinised by an expert in the same field of research. Perhaps a version of this manner of reflecting, presenting arguments and providing constructive criticism could also be useful at an earlier stage of the process?

The role of academia in our open society

A new week, and things will never be the same again in our daily lives. Yet some things remain constant. After the terrible events in Stockholm on Friday, I am more convinced than ever that academia plays a key role in our open society.

It is always crucial not to depict the world in black and white, but instead to use the manner of analysing and acquiring in-depth knowledge of problems and solutions that is typical in research. But this is even more important when a tragedy occurs such as the one on Drottninggatan, when singular ideologies with contempt for life claim to be in possession of the sole truth. Knowledge and facts represent an important vaccine against perilous and irrational anti-intellectualism, which often seethes with particular contempt for knowledge.

Methodically peeling away, questioning and finally reaching the solid core of knowledge is made possible by starting out with several alternative solutions in mind. As a researcher, seeing things from an external perspective and from several different angles is crucial, as problems, solutions and reality are often complex. This is the basis of both education and research, with knowledge and research results capable of being measured, tested, verified, structured, analysed and repeated.

But academia not only provides knowledge that is conveyed to society and our students, the architects and engineers of the future. We are also to a large extent involved in, with the help of research and innovation, identifying specific solutions for safety and security, urban planning and effective information technology, for example.

As an engine driving development in society, a thriving academic sphere guarantees that false doctrines and irrational denial of the facts will never prevail.

I believe, quite simply, that with knowledge and compassion for our fellow citizens, it will also be possible to cope with tomorrow’s or next week’s reality.

Medieval meetings no longer in fashion

Nothing seems to be able to match a face-to-face meeting with another human being. Exchanging thoughts, ideas and experiences is, of course, necessary – especially in the global and boundless world of research. Physical reality is hard to surpass when it comes to the ability to see how problems, questions and solutions look in practice.

But we need to try to think differently about how often this is reasonable and judicious – in order to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and ensure a sustainable future. One of the three pillars on which the activities of KTH Royal Institute of Technology rest and should be characterised by is sustainable development.

In actual fact, we are still behaving as people did in the Middle Ages – when they travelled around to different seats of learning to meet each other, even if the most common means of transport at that time were slightly different, such as the horse or boat. Despite the fact that, with the help of innovations and new technology, the world has changed in a way that is almost incomprehensible, there is sometimes a great deal of human inertia when it comes to embracing new solutions to replace face-to-face meetings in academic contexts.

It is perhaps the case that being there just because “everyone else is there” is not always a watertight argument for a conference trip involving flights.In such cases, there is no clear right or wrong approach, but it is important to begin to reflect on and question whether there are other ways of travelling and meeting each other. KTH can lead the way in terms of practising what we preach to the greatest extent possible.

The research community can also draw inspiration from the way that students quickly embrace new methods and platforms by seeing the benefit of them regarding the issues of flexibility and individualisation, for example.

The lecture evolved as a format because students could not afford or did not have access to their own books; instead, they gathered together to take notes while the literature was being read out loud. Much has changed in this area.

Through different types of e-learning such as MOOCs and what are known as flipped classrooms, students can follow lectures or take entire courses from home online, or combine this with being present at the seat of learning to take exams and attend seminars.

According to the Swedish Higher Education Authority, just over a quarter of students in Sweden are participating in educational courses and programmes via the internet. The Swedish Higher Education Authority will be drawing up criteria in a European working party that will also enable them to quality-assure e-programmes – something that is obviously very important.

Where KTH is concerned, e-learning is also an important step in the internationalisation process and in ensuring that it is able to compete in the global university market. Vision 2027 states that KTH’s virtual campus should be on a par with the physical one.

Hopefully, increasingly developed and refined technology will make it possible to travel more selectively – without missing out on important encounters.

Upgrade the academic teaching proficiency

The principal tasks of universities and institutes of higher learning are education, research and collaboration. Almost 400,000 students are enrolled at Swedish seats of learning. Education is thus a key task for these institutions. Students invest time and money in their education. Sometimes, however, it feels as if more attention is paid to the task of research than that of education.

In particular, qualification systems are designed with a higher emphasis on the number of articles produced and their impact is given more attention than equivalent criteria associated with teaching development. In general, tenure track systems offer detailed criteria for comparing and assessing qualifications. Unfortunately, the level of accuracy is not always as high when it comes to measuring basic university teaching qualifications and teaching proficiency (Högskolepedagogisk utbildning och pedagogisk meritering som grund för det akademiska lärarskapet (University teacher training and teaching qualifications as a basis for academic teaching development), SUHF 2017).

The university ordinance of 2011 was amended so that it no longer prescribed that university teacher training was necessary to be qualified for employment as a lecturer or associated professor. This has meant that differences have evolved between the way seats of learning manage qualified university teacher training and teaching proficiency. The requirements differ between seats of learning, and in some cases, there is no requirement whatsoever for such teacher training. In many cases, there is also no definition of what teaching proficiency is, which makes it difficult to set criteria against which to make assessments.

A good learning environment means providing adequate conditions for student learning. The university ordinance already states that higher education is based on scientific principles and reliable experience. Academic teaching development is a key component of laying firm foundations for student learning. Being a researcher without having undergone postgraduate studies is something inconceivable for all of us working in higher education. On the other hand, we do not seem to attach the same importance to the teaching staff being prepared for their teaching role.

Qualified university teacher training, along with scholarly qualifications, provide the basis for academic teaching development; this is a quality factor. It is always important that those interacting with students in learning environments have the opportunity to develop skills in their teaching role and are given time to reflect on learning. It is high time that we assessed and acknowledged good teaching. A particularly crucial aspect is that digital developments have changed the face of learning. This requires a great deal in terms of digital competence among teaching staff and their ability to interact with students in various types of learning environments. The Association of Swedish Higher Education’s recommendation on goals for qualified university teacher training (http://www.suhf.se/publicerat/rekommendationer-standpunktspapper in Swedish) is a starting point; after that, continuous access to skills development in university teaching is required. In addition, it is necessary to acknowledge positive initiatives in education in the same way as we acknowledge scientific achievements.

Complex role needs clear frames

Research studies involve complex and inspirational work and of course KTH cares about its PhD students and wants them to get the most out of their studies – which is also doubtless what happens in most instances. But I believe it is important to always be prepared to perform analyses so that we can improve things.

The survey of PhD students Doktorandspegeln, produced by UKÄ (the Swedish Higher Education Authority), came out before Christmas. This national survey is the third in a row – the two previous surveys came out 14 and 9 years ago, respectively. The survey makes for interesting reading and shows, in the form of a questionnaire, how Sweden’s PhD students view their lives in a range of different areas.

The vast majority of them, 77 percent of the 4,751 students who responded to the questionnaire, were very satisfied with the quality of the courses. This is, of course, positive, but it emerged that many have experienced deficiencies in other areas. This includes feeling that they are not involved in their workplace (30 percent), or that they do not consider supervision to work effectively. One in four PhD students stated that their research results were used without them being cited as author or originator.

To have the courage to look a little closer at traditions that are specific to certain seats of learning but are no longer relevant. I think in many cases it is a question of leadership, or perhaps rather a lack thereof – when things do not work as they should.

Unfortunately, there is sometimes a tendency towards an old-fashioned and outmoded culture in which PhD students are viewed as lab assistants, or perhaps as apprentices who are to imitate the professor, rather than as resources with thoughts of their own. As a supervisor, your responsibility is not solely for the working environment –you are also a pedagogical leader. Academic leadership includes, as I see it, creating effective and distinct frameworks for PhD students.

While it is important for a student who is also employed to understand what employeeship means. It is complex to be a student and employee at the same time, and our students need to understand that it is the employer who manages and distributes work.

However, it is important to break away from the master-apprentice mindset, because that type of structure is at risk of being reborn. On many occasions, cultures that are less conducive to the desired environment are passed on in this way. The PhD students may gradually in turn become supervisors themselves and, in the worst cases, bring with them a vague and antiquated view of how collaboration with students may look.

 The quality of postgraduate studies is not only important for the PhD students themselves and their future – it is also crucial to the development of knowledge and society. In this area, leadership and employeeship are important in terms of creating positive work environments.