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Vulnerability and truth in times of crisis

It is said that the truth is the first thing that is lost in a war or conflict. In relation to the terrible attack on Ukraine in recent days, we have been able to witness how news is published quickly and then disappears just as quickly when it was unable to be confirmed.

We have seen how information and disinformation have come to play an important role in warfare in an attempt to control communication and the recording of history about what happened.

Public service broadcasting and other free credible media will play a hugely important role in these kinds of rapid historical events. The importance of being able to view free and independent news reporting of what is taking place, to listen to the analysis of experts from different perspectives and as a forum for debate and discussion is central to a functioning democracy. The entitlement of a democracy requires that one must withstand critical independent scrutiny.

So it is particularly disheartening when we see how the dissemination of news takes place in states that do not live up to being democracies where regimes dictate the narrative and content and deprive citizens of their democratic right to form their own views on issues based on independent information. When we also discover that the Estonian public service organisation is forced to remove posts communicating about Russia’s invasion, one becomes terrified as to where this will all end.

In the initial stage of the conflict, a number of cyber attacks occurred, which is perhaps symptomatic of the vulnerability of our society today. The Internet, electricity supply and communication systems are obvious targets for attacks and can have devastating consequences for people and businesses. Sanctions imposed are also aimed at digital phenomena, such as excluding Russia from the SWIFT banking system. Digitalisation is part of the bloodstream that makes a society work but, at the same time, it also turns out to be vulnerable, and attacks can have devastating consequences.

We should be grateful and proud that we are a country with a well-functioning public broadcasting service with a high level of trust among citizens. We should be happy and satisfied that we are a country at the forefront of digitalisation. But a system is only as strong as its weakest link. We need to tirelessly continue to develop our digital knowledge to ensure the robustness, security and integrity of all systems. Free and independent press, radio and TV are one of the rarest resources we have in times of crisis and unrest in the world.

The European university strategy, focus or dilution?

Writing a strategy for something as comprehensive as the development of universities in the EU is not an enviable task. But the EU Commission has now made an attempt. The strategy is comprehensive in terms of subjects and the feeling is that most things have been covered. However, you may therefore ask yourself how inclusive can or should a strategy be? Is it a laundry list or the way forward?

Noted by way of introduction is that financing of universities is considered to be inadequate. In the same breath, the need for EU universities to be competitive from a global perspective is pointed out.

This promising introduction subsequently leads to a more diluted discussion on the role of universities as standard bearers of European values. It is clear that the focus lies on how we should make our universities more “European”. This is to be done via four cornerstones, the European university alliances (KTH is a member of Unite!), the legal status of these alliances, a European degree, and finally a European student card.

When it comes to implementation and financing, the Commission is hoping that efforts will be coordinated at EU level with national and regional support. Another aim is to unify and open higher education career paths.

There is an understandable, but perhaps also an unfortunate, excess faith and focus on universities acting as operational units in building European society. This can easily come at the cost of the competitiveness of European research and education. Naturally, nobody will come out and say something like this, but lip service can easily be paid to the idea.

A university should naturally engage in societal development at large. There is, however, a political over-reliance on and hope that universities will be part of the solution to problems within wildly differing areas such as the job market and enterprise policies, for example. Good policies for higher education in Europe must not solely focus on uniformity and European values. If Europe and European industry are to be world leading, the best European universities must also be so.

In purely concrete terms, the strategy links to European initiatives within digitalisation and not least, the Green Deal. This is a good and very significant signal. Something that is genuinely positive is what is written about the leading universities globally, within Erasmus+, creating masters programmes around the huge societal challenges together. This ought to suit KTH that is very highly experienced in international masters programmes. In this context, that written about academic freedom and university autonomy is also important.

On a final note, the Commission invites the member states to engage in the development of our European universities. However, to date, there appears to be very tepid interest in this among Swedish politicians.

Are numbers more important than power?

Engagement or power? A willingness to change or a higher number of women? There are several aspects to consider when a gender equality university genuinely aims to become that. Numerically, for example, the number of female professors, is not the sole yardstick, however.

Most Swedish universities and university colleges have engaged in gender equality work for the past 40 years. Work to increase equality has included a number of different, and certainly constantly recurring, themes. Analyses and priorities have changed based on the question of what inequality looks like in academic organisations. What is the most important issue to resolve?

One common answer to this question has often been to increase the number of women at professor level. The figures have changed over these 40 years, but there is still a major gender imbalance when it comes to professorships. Many people feel that this is one detail among many and that there are more important equality issues, such as the question of who has influence over the direction of research. Or the question of creating equal terms and conditions at universities, in both education and research, based on both a gender equality and a social equality perspective. The proportion of women at professor level is a key issue symbolically, however. This can be seen and is easy to measure.

The gender balance among professors is not a separate issue, it is just as much a part of the career structure and organisational structure in higher education. In a way, you can view this as a visible result of many ongoing processes and decisions. When we now at KTH are going to make room for a number of female visiting professorships, this should be viewed as one of several initiatives, one of the many ways of influencing the gender balance based on numbers. We have, however, adopted the stance of linking this initiative to a development project which both the environments that are to receive visiting professors, and the visiting professors themselves, are to be included in.

A willingness to change for increased gender equality and active involvement in this development project are requirements on any research environment that wishes to apply. Knowledge and engagement in this area would be an advantage for these new visiting professors, alongside other academic qualifications. In so doing, the issue of numbers can be combined with other important aspects such as power and influence, the work environment, and willingness to change.

Lost in compensation

Net zero carbon, climate positive, net zero climate footprint, negative emissions. And yet. What do all these concepts actually mean? Who can you trust? How can I know what is pure greenwashing, in other words, that a company merely gives the impression of being environment friendly, and what is a genuinely reasonable effort? It is a jungle for consumers.

Companies marketing their products with the use of these new concepts has become a growing trend in many sectors. You can see this when you browse any newspaper or see a TV advert. What is especially difficult is how to process such information when you are comparing the blurb on the packaging of two different products in a food store. Just recently for example, Arla Organic Milk, proclaimed as having a zero climate footprint, was named Food Bluff of the Year. A bit unfair you may think, Arla is surely a serious-minded company.

But this is not what it is all about in this case, it is more about the impossible situation customers face. Arla has also welcomed the fact that the Swedish Consumer Agency, KO, has reported Arla for its campaign. Clear guidelines are needed here, not only for food products, but also for travel, energy, and other services.

“Net zero climate footprint” or similar, generally concerns some kind of climate compensation, for example, where you buy emission rights to offset against your emissions, or plant trees that sequester carbon. One common fear raised with climate compensation is that this shifts the focus away from the actual enterprise. If you carbon offset a flight, this self-evidently does not reduce flight-related emissions, but will hopefully lead to compensation in the form of financing other climate improvement measures somewhere else. Here, there are both genuinely serious-minded companies and scam merchants on the market.

Another problematical aspect is that such compensation is expected to occur over a long period while climate change emissions are happening right now.

On a trip to the US a few years ago, I hired a car from a famous American car hire company for a couple of weeks and was invited to climate compensate my use of the car. At the time, this cost five dollars as a one-off charge. Naturally, I asked what kind of genial measures they intended to implement for these five dollars that would have such an amazingly beneficial impact. The friendly clerk behind the desk informed me that unfortunately, they had not as yet been given this information and as a matter of fact, we were the very first people to choose this option.

There is nothing wrong in principle with climate compensation if this is a serious endeavour and genuinely results in a corresponding climate benefit, but it should not become an obstacle to any improvements that can be implemented in a business and, when five dollars can offset a two-week road trip by car – put your cards on the table.

KTH equips students for the future

Over the past year, the Board of Education has intensified work on future learning environments and educational models on behalf of the President. A possible way forward has been crafted, based on a situation analysis.

The analysis has embraced internal and external workshops, external analyses, literature reviews, field trips, and participation in national and international education conferences.

 KTH needs to continue to strengthen and further develop its study programmes such that its students will be even better equipped to address and find solutions to societal challenges. As this requires both interdisciplinary knowledge and solid basic knowledge, it will correspondingly require even better utilisation of digitalisation and our campuses for learning.

 Future education will need to meet different challenges such as greater international competition, rapid developments in technology and the risk of ever increasing political control of university activities. Better to initiate such development ourselves. A framework for future education is accordingly being developed and is currently based on 13 principles that point towards the direction in which we should travel:

 On student learning and the educational environment:
Active learning
Examinations for learning
A developing educational culture
Skills development of the teaching role

On the learning environment – physical, digital, and psychosocial:
Accessible experimental environments
Living campuses

On skills and abilities developed:
Ability to deal with intractable problems
Broader recruitment and participation

On the design of study programmes and lifelong learning:
Basic knowledge in relevant areas of technology
Flexible and structured study paths
Developed lifelong learning

On support, administration, and quality development:
User oriented activity support
Quality systems for educational development

 This spring work will broadly focus on and consolidate these principles. This will involve School Quality Councils and Management including School Faculty Assemblies, students, faculty programme directors at different levels, local and University Administration and the Central Collaboration Group. Finding good examples of activities that are already being performed at KTH within all the above principles such that we can learn from each other is one of the keys for success.

The thinking is that the Future Education Project should be synchronised with our six-year quality cycle and that broader working groups address different specific areas, sometimes from a longer and sometimes from a shorter perspective, and that the very high targets we have set, will have been reached by KTH’s Bicentenary in 2027.

The work we are doing on future education is attracting tremendous national and international interest. The next few years will both exciting and important.

Boost your IT support people instead

There I was sitting on one of the few trains that were running between Uppsala and Stockholm. Normally there are around eight to ten trains an hour, but now there seems to only be one train every hour and a half. We’ve heard about frozen points, trespassers on the line or points and signal failures before, but now another type of fault seem to have become common.

Last autumn, the senior press officer for Swedish Rail (SJ) referred to replacing a system that would result in 300 cancelled departures over the next two (2) weeks. Two months later, there are still extensive interruptions to services but you no longer hear that much about inadequacies in the new personnel planning system at SJ. However, to go by the heated discussion between two conductors I overheard on a platform in Stockholm, the personnel planning problems clearly remain. They are clearly trying to resolve the problems outside the system.

When I reflect on this, it would appear that people are not keen to speak openly about shortcomings in an IT system, because passengers do not have that great an understanding of how important the IT infrastructure is for a service to be able to operate at all. You can accept that an accident has happened, if the pandemic leads to a personnel shortage or purely technical problems, but IT should work without a blemish.

Talking of which. A few years ago, I was on a domestic flight to the north of Sweden. After we had fastened our safety belts, the passengers were informed that we would remain on the runway due to a “computer fault”. The passengers became pretty frustrated, but soon enough the aircraft started to move and take off approached.

A happy pilot explained over the speakers that they had fixed the problem. He said that they had resolved the problem, they had by quite simply pressing ctrl-alt-delete and restarting the whole system and so off we go. Several passengers squirmed in their seats and felt that they would prefer to take another mode of transport, but by then it was too late. I mentioned this incident to a good friend who is a pilot and he simply replied, “how stupid can you be, all you usually have to do is bash the side of the computer a bit and that usually fixes it”.

In principle, IT systems are of crucial importance for all enterprises to be able to work. We expect and take for granted that all systems should work impeccably, but it is only when they don’t work that we become agitated. We don’t take any pleasure in all the IT that works every day to enable our enterprises to function.

I once turned to one of the developers that at the time was trying to ensure everything was working to say what a fantastic job they were doing and how pleased I was with the IT systems that help me with my work and in my free time on a daily basis. He replied that that was the first time throughout his professional career that someone had given him positive feedback.

I would therefore like to make the following request: Tell your IT support people how satisfied you are with the help you get, and with the systems that enable you to do your work every day.