Category Archives: Education

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?

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

On the road to knowledge

What is the benefit and the point of a university education? Is it usable in purely tangible terms or is it mostly to look good on your CV?

Some people argue that you only really start learning something in the workplace, and that education is a platform upon which to build.

Others claim that the acquisition of knowledge is an eternally refillable resource in the life-long learning process.

A third argument, set out clearly in a book by an American economist, is that rather than increasing a student’s skill set, a degree simply signals various qualities associated with the person who has completed the program, to a future employer.

Higher education provides numerous things in addition to pure knowledge within a number of subjects. Even though this is probably not as revolutionary in a person’s life as learning to walk or to read. However, I think there are similarities in the sense that you gain a different perspective and there is a dividing line between before and after you choose to pursue further studies.

There are many aspects to take into account here, but for the sake of simplicity, I would like to use myself as an example.

  • It offers the opportunity for you as a person to follow and further develop your curiosity. This, in turn, offers the opportunity to see connections and associations in a new way, based on factual knowledge.
  • A university education helps you to find new ways to acquire new and even more in-depth knowledge.
  • It gives you the tools and the rigour to critically review and analyse theories, in a hopefully independent way. It also gives you solid self-confidence in the necessary art of inquiry – particularly usable in times of fake news and misleading manoeuvres from different directions and in different channels.
  • For someone like me, without a long-standing academic tradition in my family, a university education means a more equal position from which to both express myself and base my actions upon.

Knowledge is incredibly multifaceted. Our society would be much poorer if someone were to prescribe exactly which programs are useful and which are superfluous. Sometimes, it is simply impossible to know what breakthroughs are being made and by whom. A breadth of higher education programs creates many opportunities for both individuals and society. Freedom of choice in education is important to safeguard if we are to continue to be able to create new values for people.

Politics and principles

After four intensive days of Almedalen debates in early July, I can clearly say that none of the parties seems to be addressing university issues as part of their electioneering campaign. That these are not priority issues on the political agenda to debate and argue about is no surprise. But it is a pity and definitely something that ought to be discussed.

The fact is that high quality education and research are crucial for a country’s well-being and competitiveness. And when words such as skills training, skill shift and lifelong learning linger obstinately in the air, not just at seminars in Almedalen but also in debates, we need to take a closer look at them and nail down what they actually mean. A good and therefore in demand university programme is very important for both individuals and society. As President of one of the highest ranked institutes of technology in Europe, I think, perhaps not surprisingly, that this ought to be a higher priority, as education, in its various ways, not only concerns all of us but also Sweden’s place in the world and its well-being.

That people are talking about how the future job market will demand new skills and the increasing importance of us engaging in lifetime learning to keep pace, can only be a good thing. However, it is also something we have been seriously at odds about for a very long time. Now it is a question of building paths and education structures that actually work. In this context, it is important we get answers to questions such as: Who is going to foot the bill, who is going to make the decisions and who is going to take responsibility for this?

These seemingly short and simple questions beg answers that would enable us – universities, the enterprise sector and government bodies acting together – to give concepts such as lifelong learning and the future job market a specific meaning for people in the workforce today and to create the right conditions that will enable skills and demand to be well-matched in the future, too.

This autumn, several important inquiries will be published that will provide pointers to the direction higher education in Sweden should take. However, as already mentioned, there is a general election in the meantime and the wind can change. No matter what the election outcome, I would like to note the following:

The SULF (Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers) report on how compensation levels are falling behind in higher education, that was released in early summer, should be mandatory reading. It is headed Systems Error in the Knowledge Factory  (in Swedish)and compares  the kind of resources that were invested in the early 1990s and today. For example, in the case of courses within technology (plus science and pharmacy) costs exceed revenues by 42 percent, the report claims.

This is untenable. And something that many of my colleagues have likewise been pointing out for years. It’s not only a matter of needing to increase basic funding for higher education, we also need to look at what type of education we are talking about and let the differences be seen – science and technology programmes with important lab facilities must be allowed to cost more if we want Sweden to remain a leader in terms of education, teaching and research in this area.

An increase in basic funding is an important issue of principle that would address how existing resources for higher education are used. Should research grants be available from a number of different research funding bodies to which researchers have to apply in competition with each other? Or should the money be allocated directly to the education institutes within the parameters of an increase in basic funding. Research suggests that a high proportion of basic funding leads to higher quality research that has a greater impact (https://campi.kth.se/nyheter/mer-basanslag-ger-bast-forskning-1.809969 ). It would therefore appear not to be the case that competing for research resources per se, leads to the most effective research systems.

An increase in basic funding (education and research) is also discussed in the model proposal that was presented in early July from Styr- och resursutredningen (STRUT) (Public Inquiry into Management and Resources ). This should therefore be an urgent issue for politicians that often emphasis the role universities and colleges play in the image of Sweden and Swedish competitiveness to address.

The autumn semester is about to start at higher education institutes in Sweden. We at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm will be welcoming new students on our civil engineering and architecture programmes and new international students on masters’ programmes. All these students will be taking high quality courses that lead to benefits for society. It is therefore vital that the financing system enables us to continue to offer high quality education, teaching and research. The rate of change is accelerating all around us and if we universities are to keep up with this, the financing model for education and research must give us the necessary support to be able to do so.

 

 

Students are a reflection of their time

At the conference Current Priorities and Future Challenges: Higher Education in the Nordic Region, organised by the Swedish Higher Education Authority, the discussion covered subjects such as digitisation, quality and gender equality linked to higher education. Student representatives from the Nordic countries gave their views on what higher education needs and what it is lacking.

It was inspiring and thought-provoking and was also to a certain degree recognisable to anyone who has ever been a student.

In Sweden today, 400,000 people are studying and 40 years ago, that number was around 10,000. The fact that increasing numbers of people are gaining access to higher level studies is naturally positive. But a recurring view was that both resources and status in education have been undermined, and that expectations are not matched with the relevant resources or tools.

Doing something about this is a matter of urgency.

The student panel painted a fairly gloomy picture of reality, where today’s students are rushing through their respective courses and study programmes with the aim of adapting to the demands of the labour market, and are viewed more as products.

There is a lack of resources for both the programmes themselves and for students in terms of lower purchasing power for those living on student loans. Several panel members thought that all the fine words about education being inclusive, sustainable and available to all were insufficient if they lack substance in the daily life of the various campuses.

Some of them saw a risk in quantity becoming more important than quality.

Many exciting and thought-provoking views were presented. It’s clear, however, that each generation has its own particular challenges while having similar experiences.

Having a lack of money as a student, needing to work alongside your studies so that you have enough money to last the month – these problems seem to be timeless and something that every generation can recognise.

A higher pace in the form of the wealth of platforms available to offer information and knowledge is in itself a stress factor. This is something that people such as I, a student 40 years ago, do not recognise. At the same time, some people are saying that Swedish students take too long to complete their higher education (https://www.svensktnaringsliv.se/fragor/ett-utmanat-sverige/langliggare-pa-hogskolan-ett-vaxande-problem_713201.html in Swedish). A lot can be said about this.

However, I get many reports from international colleagues that students from KTH Royal Institute of Technology who travel out into the world for degree projects, for example, are highly appreciated. This is because they have greater knowledge and are better at independent projects compared to students who admittedly are younger but have not managed to acquire as much expertise.

Several of those on the panel saw how digitisation can change, and is already changing, how learning manifests and takes place. But many of them pointed out the importance for universities of developing learning in the digital learning environment. It’s not simply a matter of replacing paper with a mobile phone or tablet. The fact that face-to-face, whole-group lectures can be replaced by online lectures seemed to be embraced by many panellists, but on the other hand these can never fully replace meetings with a teacher.

Exchanging ideas, receiving encouragement, being challenged and deepening your knowledge in a meeting with a teacher is, and most likely always will be, crucial to knowledge acquisition. Perhaps we can draw inspiration from the English tutor system, where the pedagogical method varies but the teaching is based on recurring face-to-face meetings.

The challenge here is that, with 400,000 students in the Swedish system, more time is required for learning and teachers. More money for courses and study programmes, in simple terms.

Research has witnessed an increase in resources over the past ten years. It’s now time to do the same with education.

An increase in basic grants is required; competitive research funding is welcomed but it does not fund the crucial meetings between students and teachers. Because today’s students are tomorrow’s researchers, today’s researchers are ensuring that the students are receiving what is currently the most relevant knowledge, laying the foundations for competitive and innovative research tomorrow.

Soon it will be time to hit the hammock, and I hope everyone has a really pleasant summer! It’s a time for relaxation, but for many people, particularly teachers and researchers, it’s also a time of conferences and planning for the next semester. The university doesn’t shut just because the semester is over!

 

 

Lifelong learning requires resources and commitment

Now, during the last few intense days of the semester, it seems like a good time to think for a while about the concept of learning. Learning takes place every day throughout life, on a major and minor scale. Being a university, we have learning at the centre of our activities: learning through research and learning among our students. The knowledge produced by KTH Royal Institute of Technology is turned into something beneficial through close dialogue and cooperation. More often than not, KTH learns from society and vice versa, and that’s how it should be.

In recent years, lifelong learning has re-emerged as a key issue in Sweden and most likely throughout the rest of the world. Rapid social development involving new technological solutions requires new knowledge and expertise. Sweden can delight in the fact that it has a generally well-educated population, but knowledge is not a finite thing, so none of us should become complacent and think: “I now know everything there is to know.”

Last Monday I took part in a lunch seminar organised by the Swedish Entrepreneurship Forum and the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (TCO) on the theme of lifelong learning (click here for the TCO blog in Swedish). Universities and institutes of higher education are responsible for providing education based on scientific principles and best practice. To do this, we receive direct government funding for first and second cycle education; our main task is to use these resources to provide such education to those who have not received it. This means educating engineers, nurses, economists, students of literature and so on.

This funding has been undermined for several years. At the same time, a productivity deduction applies to all government agencies, universities and institutes of higher education, which in short means that the organisation’s productivity must be boosted by improving efficiency. In practice, this means that students have to work faster and researchers have to produce research more quickly. An impossible equation.

Where KTH is concerned, this has meant that it has gradually become increasingly taxing to maintain the crucial practical part: the infrastructure, which is absolutely necessary for the engineering profession. That’s why it is most unfortunate if the Swedish Government and Parliament think that our mandate can be expanded to include an increasing number of tasks for the same sum of money. This also seems to be the thinking when it comes to lifelong learning.

KTH is happy to take responsibility for lifelong learning; we believe that the step involved in becoming proficient in all aspects of digitisation, AI and more is smaller for engineers who have already been educated. Such engineers are not required to take a further MSc programme in engineering. But their knowledge does need topping up. Who is responsible for making this happen? Resources will be required, but so will commitment and energy!

The responsibility is shared by many parties, including the politicians who decide on the resources that should be allocated to universities and institutes of higher education to enable us to take part in lifelong learning. But resources are also needed among employers: resources in the form of time and money to be used for developing the skills of their employees. Each individual also needs to constantly review their skills and spend time and energy on replenishing them. This is a complex puzzle that we need to work out together.

Learning methods and techniques are being developed all the time. Flexible solutions that provide many people with access to education and the opportunity to better themselves are positive, but at the end of the day, there needs to be scope in daily life for the individual to top up their knowledge through lifelong learning. Regardless of the structures we build.

Foundation year programme paves the way to KTH

A motion has finally been presented regarding higher education access programmes  (http://www.regeringen.se/remisser/2018/05/remiss-av-promemorian_behorighetsgivande-hogskoleintroducerande-utbildningar/ in Swedish. Where KTH Royal Institute of Technology is concerned, it is primarily courses known as foundation year programmes that are of interest and that we are working hard to retain.

For many years we have offered such preparatory programmes aimed at students lacking special admission requirements or who wish to repeat chemistry, physics and mathematics prior to embarking on an engineering programme. I have already previously discussed this form of education  that we deem important. The memorandum now being circulated also presents the opportunity of combining courses that offer access to higher education with courses that meet general and special admission requirements.

The fact that the opportunity to offer foundation year programmes is here to stay is excellent news. It gives individuals the chance to choose – not only young people coming straight from upper-secondary education, but also those wishing to change their specialisation later in life.

According to the motion being circulated, students will not apply for and commit themselves to a subsequent programme, but will have a place that is guaranteed for two years. This gives universities greater flexibility in terms of planning. There is an associated risk that KTH will lose foundation year students who were previously bound more closely to KTH. But the situation is similar to that at other universities, where they have seen that foundation year (foundation semester) students apply elsewhere instead.

In KTH’s earlier motion responses in which the issue has been addressed, we referred to the fact that this may mean that students make more discerning choices when they have completed their year and know more about what they are getting into and wish to apply for. During their foundation year programme, students have the chance to see that there are many different engineering programmes at KTH, which is perhaps less obvious before spending some time here.

The question KTH needs to consider is whether we should also arrange courses that enable students to meet general admission requirements. This may apply, for example, to courses in Swedish and English that train students in academic literacy skills. For some students, it is a lack of linguistic knowledge in particular that causes difficulties at the start of a programme. So being able to focus on Swedish and English prior to demanding engineering and architectural studies is not a bad idea. The same may apply to students on Master’s programmes, with them needing to become more proficient in English.

Those on the new programme are afforded student status, which is good. At the same time, this may entail greater costs for certain universities. As far as I can see, no new funding will be provided in support of the now expanded possibility of providing preparatory programmes and foundation year programmes. This means that KTH needs to carefully analyse the proportion of such programmes in relation to our regular programmes.

It is initially difficult to see that the motion is in line with lifelong learning. I think mainly younger people who have been away for a few years after completing upper-secondary education will take advantage of the opportunity to refresh their knowledge. But this is lifelong learning too!

A clear benefit is KTH’s ability to work to an even greater extent on widening recruitment and participation by now being able to provide a foundation year programme (or foundation semester) along with courses that enable students to meet general admission requirements, even for groups that are perhaps afraid to choose a prestigious education at KTH. When approached wisely, a course, semester or foundation year can give a student a taste for studying and the courage to submit an application, even if neither of their parents is an engineer, architect or graduate.

KTH gains broader opportunities to show how exciting and rewarding an education in engineering or architecture can be. Also, in KTH’s experience, students who have completed a foundation year programme are more motivated and have better study habits, which leads to greater success in terms of finishing their studies within the time limit. And this is essentially good for everyone!