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A student life in constant change

What is it like to be a student at KTH? It is easy to think you know the answer if you studied at KTH yourself, even if it was years ago.  Thanks to the excellent collaboration with our students via THS, we can gain an insight into what it has been like – before, during and hopefully soon shortly after a pandemic.

When I walked up Drottning Kristinas väg for the very first time in 1977, I felt a bit odd and nervous due to my background. Nobody in my family had ever been to university before, and especially not to study engineering. But I had made up my mind, like Pippi Longstocking, I to take charge of my life and continued resolutely up the hill. It was exciting and big.

I realised pretty quickly that I would have to spend at least 40 hours a week on my studies to stay the distance. In association with the university reforms that were introduced that same year, students were given the right to play an active role in board work at universities and colleges, along with the right to be a member of programme boards and department boards. Since the year 2000, paragraph four includes the words Students should have the right to have a say in their education at universities. Universities should endeavour to enable students to play an active part in work to further develop courses.

Such exchanges of information and views with our students are an important element in developing our study programmes in line with the times and from a quality perspective. This can not only concern questions about study programmes but also things like the optimal length for a lecture, how teaching can be made more accessible or proposals for items on a course.

Over the course of this year, we have been battling in various ways to rearrange teaching and other activities with only certain elements on campus and the rest remotely. And our teachers – and students have had to battle the most to achieve results.

In the first (of four) sub report (in Swedish) that was published last week from UKÄ  on how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted universities and colleges, it is clear that students have managed to perform pretty much as well as the year before. But the social side of studying has been severely affected. Many students have felt lonely, isolated and have missed their fellow students and normal life as a consequence of the reset.

I am therefore especially pleased about all the initiatives that have been taken at KTH to overcome this and make things that bit easier and more fun until this miserable time is over. THS has also, with our support, launched a number of activities for both international and Swedish students, that are proving very popular.

This collaboration with students through THS has become a  great cooperation.

Gender equality is a matter of course for a modern university

KTH engineering programmes are changing all the time to suit the outside world and the job market. Including knowledge about gender equality and sustainable development as part of degree programmes is self-evident for a modern university  – educating people for the future.

Last week, an article was published on our website https://www.kth.se/en/aktuellt/nyheter/all-kth-programmes-on-path-to-include-equality-and-diversity-education-1.1054268 and some of the reactions to it surprised me. But then it struck me that they rather should be taken as confirmation of just how important it is to drive these issues – that basically concern democracy and justice.

That everyone should have an equal opportunity to apply and, on being accepted, also to study at KTH is of the very greatest importance.

Partly because this benefits the individual naturally, and partly because it strengthens society and in the longer term, is also vital for Swedish competitiveness.

That talented individuals, regardless of gender, with different perspectives, ideas and thoughts, are needed for the development of both society in general and technology in particular, is axiomatic to me.

Perhaps this is especially vital within the technology knowledge sphere that by tradition has many times been primarily a male bastion.

In all the years I have worked at KTH, the issue of promoting talent regardless of gender has been a headache for management irrespective of which government has been in power at the time. Sometimes it is mostly in relation to the numerical imbalance – only 19 percent of our professors are women today.

With an ingrained culture, it will take time to change long-standing patterns in terms of how the capabilities of different people can best be utilised and included. But it can be done.

The effects will become clear by reproducing this on more and more levels and in break rooms in a workplace.

Extensive research has shown for example, that enjoyment, efficiency and productivity all increase when working groups are mixed.  Gender equality is one of our four pillars that both support and drive KTH forwards. (The others are sustainable development, digitalisation and internationalisation.)

Accordingly, as noted, study items about gender equality will be part of all our degree programmes from this coming autumn.

It is no more complicated than that.

Good results despite the pandemic

Sometimes, I am amazed that we’ve been living in the shadow of the pandemic for almost a year now. A year of changes, new solutions, cancelled meetings and uncertainty.

Nonetheless, our annual report for 2020 shows that KTH has managed reasonably well. KTH Annual Report (in Swedish).

The number of applicants for our various different study programmes who put KTH as their first choice, increased from 5,706 to 6,327. As usual, the most attractive programmes were Architecture, Computer Engineering, Industrial Engineering and Management and Engineering Physics. Our new Master of Science in Engineering Mathematics was also very popular. Our English language one and two-year Master’s Programmes also attracted many applications compared to the year before.

Exchange activities have for self-explanatory reasons, been badly affected however, and many students who had planned to study abroad were forced to rethink.

The number of students completing their degree is roughly the same level as the year before. In the case of Master of Science in Engineering degrees, the proportion of female graduates has increased slightly from 35 to 37 percent. Among the architects where women are overweighted, there was a slight movement in the other direction from 57 percent female to 55 percent in 2020. While these are small changes, they are worth noting as they show that we are on the right track in efforts to make KTH accessible to all.

Last March, almost exactly one year ago, we switched all our programmes to remote learning and in so doing, began our journey to an increasingly digitalised learning environment. However, we are never going to entirely replace the physical presence, the proximity and meetings on our campuses with their digital equivalents. No, we are going to combine the best of both worlds to build the learning of the future.

I continue to scroll further through our near 100-page annual report. External financing for research has fallen and direct government funding has not been able to be utilised in full as the switch to digital education has to a certain extent, taken the time and focus of our teachers away from research due to the demands of education. At the same time, resources have been made available for important Covid-19 research where KTH has been very successful. I can say not without pride, that KTH can mobilise its research quickly and effectively.

For many of us, not being able to meet fellow students or work colleagues for a year can feel draining and the lack of contact tiring. Even so, we have delivered and I look forward to coming semesters and years of development and new meetings.

The ideas that could change the future

Problem solving combined with ingenuity. That is the platform for KTH’s strong climate of innovation where new thinking and applications trigger each other.

Sweden often comes in the top three in lists of innovation countries around the world and the prospects of remaining a leader look good. Innovations often start with a determination to change and improve something. Fantasy is probably another important ingredient.  Research that brings benefits yet another.

A long tradition of problem solving has gone into building Swedish society via closeness to and cooperation with industry. While calling Sweden a nation of engineers is a pure compliment to my mind in this context, another crucial ingredient is a democratic system and academic freedom.

The right to freely choose and to freely present your results – without the risk of being subjected to threats and hatred that has been the case in recent weeks and which was raised in a comment article (in Swedish) at the weekend. Being able to present your reasoning openly and respectfully as a researcher is absolutely imperative if we are to be able to dare to think new thoughts and dare to allow an idea to take root and flourish.

It is pleasing to see that the drive and desire to come up with good ideas and to innovate more are strong at KTH.  Rules and regulations should encourage this knowledge in the best ways, and here I am concerned about some of the conclusions that have emerged from the government innovation inquiry.

Further integrating innovation thinking with research and education can benefit our already strong climate of innovation where theory and practical application should be equally self-evident and valued skills.

One big, exciting and inspiring step in this direction is the creation of our new KTH Innovation Award that has been made possible through donations. The idea is to present this award annually to entrepreneurs that tackle challenges, that dare to tread new ground and contribute to a better future.

Problem solving and ingenuity in beautiful harmony, as mentioned. Thank you.

Questioning is the best defence

Can this be right? Is this reasonable? Where did this come from?
These are a few of the questions that can be very important to ask when in our daily work as scientists,researchers and students, we are inundated with half-truths and outright fabrications in the form of pseudoscience and fake news.

Perceptive and purposeful questioning is the best defence against deceit. That goes for  academia – as institutions of knowledge – and, by extension, even democracy itself.

Understanding movements, political or social, in different countries is difficult if you are not an expert. In some parts of the world, democracy is young and fragile; while in others, democratic systems have been maintained for a long time.  Even so, current events have provoked discussion about the risks of taking democracy for granted. Some say that’s a dangerous thing to do; while at the same time saying so could be merely an attempt to exploit discord for certain political gains.

I personally have to acknowledge that I feel secure in the stability we have in our societal institutions today. Nevertheless, I am well aware that these have not been placed under greater pressure to date. Familiarity with Sweden’s  constitution, laws and pending legislation is a good basis for  understanding our national government’s basic values .

Knowledge and those who spread it are among the first targets of attack when democracies are dismantled. So it’s reassuring that each year about 400,000 students in Sweden learn about critical thinking and the art of perception and questioning things.

Evaluating sources of information has perhaps developed into a reflex action when when claims of truth are made. That our researchers engage in the debate is another important defence .

But if the debate becomes increasingly black and white and simplified, there is a risk of diminishing the strength of research – which specifically involves positing theories, situations and tests, against each other taking into account different variables.  “On the one hand this but on the other hand that” is neither easy to chew on nor quickly digested.

Continuing to question require courage, stubbornness and not losing one’s way in the academic hierarchy. Just because someone is a professor in a specific subject does not mean they know everything about everything.

Never before has it been as important to understand our fundamental rights and avoidingall too simple solutions to complex problems. This is something we have seen not least during the current pandemic.

It feels reassuring to be head of a university where essential engineering knowledge,  has problem-solving in its DNA. This in itself, always also begins with questioning to identify the problem and in so doing, start on the path to a solution.