Uppsala University, Sweden

Month: June 2020

International contacts and scholarships more important than ever

Yesterday I approved scholarships worth SEK 2.5 million that will enable 74 of our international students to continue their studies here at Uppsala University, despite the severe financial impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on them and on the families that support them. The international environment is important for our University and for the quality of our education. Meetings between people with perspectives from different parts of the world give rise to reflection and discussion – the very lifeblood of academic dialogue. We exist in the world and the world is with us in Uppsala.

The current situation makes it more important than ever to continue to subsidise tuition fees for international students who have difficulty paying their own way. I hope many people recognise the value of this and we welcome contributions from more donors.

Studenter Foto. Mikael Wallerstedt

The coronavirus pandemic has forced the closing of borders and put obstacles in the way of exchanges. Now, more than ever, it is important to seek and maintain international contacts and relations. This requires us to take initiatives to keep up contacts and find new ways to meet. Otherwise, there is a risk that the world will turn in on itself, and that distrust and conflicts will grow. Many worrying signs were visible even before the pandemic and we are now witnessing a worsening situation with increasing violence and expressions of racism. When people are pitted against each other rather than seeking dialogue and knowledge about one another’s points of view, we are heading in the wrong direction.

As a university, we uphold fundamental values concerning the equal worth of all people, open dialogue and the right of everyone to express their views and have an influence. We reject racism and all other forms of discrimination. Our Mission, Goals and Strategies puts it clearly: we will contribute “to an open, knowledge-based public debate with freedom of expression and human rights at its heart”. Equal opportunities and open, objective, critical debate lay the foundation for new ideas and scientific and scholarly theories, leading to a better understanding of the world. On this foundation, we will help bring about a better future.

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Summer is a-coming in…

Midsummer means bright evenings and nights, nature in bloom and the prospect of holidays for most. It has been a strange semester for all of us, with completely unforeseen changes both at work and in our private lives. When we see how responsibly teachers, students and other staff at Uppsala University have responded to the situation during the pandemic, we feel proud and grateful.

Summer Closing Ceremony for Master Students

Even though we have been unable to conclude this semester as usual, with Valborg festivities and the spring conferment and graduation ceremonies, we can congratulate a great many Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD students on their degrees and wish them all the very best in the future. One thing this spring has taught us is the importance of expertise and collaboration when society encounters unforeseen challenges. Students have taken responsibility, and we have had close and constructive contacts with government agencies, politicians and colleagues at local, regional and national level. We are also proud to note the enormous responsibility shouldered by researchers, at SciLifeLab and elsewhere in the University. They have shifted their focus to the challenge of large-scale testing, initiated vital new research projects, offered the health services both protective equipment and labour, and answered questions and participated in public debate.

The semester started off – in what now feels like another era – with the reception of new students and celebration of new PhDs at the Winter Conferment Ceremony. The Management Council visited Gotland and met staff and regional politicians, who told us how Uppsala University has contributed to the island’s development. In February, the annual report summed up 2019 and confirmed that the University had enjoyed another very positive year. Uppsala University is in fine shape, in both financial and operational respects, which gives us a stable base from which to tackle difficulties arising from the pandemic in the autumn.

Alumnus of the Year Emma Frans and Vice Chancellor Eva Åkesson

One of the last major physical meetings we held was a very constructive deans’ day at the end of February. About the same time, we received a report on the libraries and submitted an EUN application. We expect a decision on this application in the next few days. Implementation of the new Mission, Goals and Strategies document is underway, allowing ample time, and coordination of the internal governance documents is progressing well. Work has started on the new environmental plan and funding can now be sought for climate measures. Before the infection situation put a stop to physical meetings, we had an important Vice-Chancellor’s seminar on freedom of speech in academia, following a high-visibility media debate. While everyone agreed that the freedom to express opinions and to question ideas is at the heart of academia, better support is needed for managing issues of harassment. The guidelines in this area have been reviewed and everyone must play their part in keeping dialogue open on the dilemmas that can arise at work. The final public event with a substantial audience was an inspiring lecture by Alumnus of the Year Emma Frans.

Since the second week in March, when the Public Health Agency of Sweden declared that community transmission of COVID-19 had established itself in Sweden and we switched to distance education overnight, many things have been different. All of us are now fully-fledged users of digital meeting tools. Many have taken this way of working further and plan to continue to take advantage of the opportunities offered by technology even when the pandemic has run its course. There have been numerous urgent decisions and new instructions from the government and public authorities. Among other consequences, we will be able to welcome more new students than planned to Uppsala University in the summer and autumn, which is pleasing. We have held beautiful and much appreciated digital Master’s ceremonies and have learned that we can carry out these events too in new ways.

The year 2020 is also a ‘super election year’. Several members of the Management Council and the University Board have completed or are reaching the end of their terms of office, including the chair of the University Board Gudmund Hernes, and two of us who are signing this message: vice-rectors Stellan Sandler and Torsten Svensson. We have welcomed the new chair of the University Board, Anne Ramberg, and other new members, who have already taken several really important decisions – the approval of the University’s operational plan for 2021 and planning frameworks for 2022 and 2023, and not least the decision to recommend Anders Hagfeldt to the government as new Vice-Chancellor for the period 2021–2026. On 1 July, we will welcome two new vice-rectors to their duties: Mats Larhed for Medicine and Pharmacy and Tora Holmberg for Humanities and Social Sciences.

Now we wish all members of staff, students, partners and friends a very enjoyable summer that gives you the opportunity to rest, spend time outside and socialise responsibly. Put your work aside while you are on holiday and enjoy the Swedish summer. We will meet again in August, revitalised and with fresh inspiration and, hopefully, a better situation in terms of the pandemic.

Have a good summer!

Eva Åkesson, Vice-Chancellor
Anders Malmberg, Deputy Vice-Chancellor
Caroline Sjöberg, University Director
Torsten Svensson, Vice Rector Humanities and Social Sciences
Stellan Sandler, Vice Rector Medcine and Pharmacy
Johan Tysk, Vice Rector Science and Technology

From left: Anders Malmberg, Torsten Svensson, Caroline Sjöberg, Eva Åkesson, Johan Tysk and Stellan Sandler. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

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Inspiring meetings with teachers

This week, the members of the university management have visited teachers at three different campuses to hear about their experiences of teaching during the pandemic. On Wednesday we were at Uppsala University Hospital, where we were given a demonstration of medical students learning how to examine inflamed joints in practice – via Zoom. Yesterday we met teachers at Blåsenhus and today we were at the Ångström Laboratory. All in all, it was tremendously inspiring to listen to these creative and clever people who have put students first during this time.

There have been great challenges, for example the performance of practical work, assessments and overtime. However, the enforced switch to online teaching has also generated new insights and new ways of working that teachers are keen to keep. Our overall impression is that the period following the rapid transition in March has gone better than expected and that the teaching staff have tackled the new situation admirably.  Many have tested ‘flipped classrooms’ and seen that online seminars also have significant advantages. For example, it is easier to plan so as to activate everyone. Students who otherwise stay in the background have come more to the fore.

In a short time, the University has experienced a boom in online teaching and learning and has built up a substantial library of recorded lectures. In the Medicine Programme, a creative approach has produced new virtual patient cases, while at the Ångström Laboratory we saw fantastic demonstrations of virtual laboratory sessions in materials science and physics. There is good reason to persist with this educational development in the autumn, and in particular to increase experience exchanges between teachers. Keep and develop the things that experience has shown work well online and use the time on campus for what is most important. However, many people – students and teachers alike – express a longing to meet in the classroom, so the easing of restrictions in the autumn is welcome.

What we saw and heard also confirmed that the approach we adopted in our framework decisions – to entrust departments and course coordinators with great responsibility – was right. It is they who possess the skills and knowledge to solve the practical challenges that arise. There is also strong support for our decision to prioritise first-year students for physical presence on campus in the autumn.

Another lesson from our meetings is that the availability of premises is a challenge. More spacing means larger rooms are needed and most are already booked up. As one way of contributing, we intend to take a decision next week to make the lecture halls in the University Main Building available rent-free for teaching and assessments in the autumn.

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New COVID-19 decision: physically when necessary, digitally where possible

Today we have taken a new decision on the coronavirus situation that we hope will provide guidance and remain effective over the summer and into the autumn. The decision takes effect on 16 June. The basis for the decision is that on that date, the Public Health Agency of Sweden relaxes its requirement that education and examinations should be conducted remotely. This is welcome news. We look forward to being able to meet our students in Uppsala and Visby after the summer. There is nothing more energising than happy, expectant students on campus and in town.

However, everything will not be back to normal. During the autumn, most of the University’s courses will be given in the form of on-campus education, with larger or smaller digitalised elements. In future, we will try to reserve the term ‘distance’ for the courses and programmes that are formally classified as distance learning and are planned to take place with no requirement for students to attend physically.

In all the University’s activities, we must continue to follow the general recommendations in effect to reduce the spread of infection in society. This entails a great responsibility for all students, staff, visitors and others engaged in activities. To avoid crowding and to meet the distancing requirements, the University’s premises will need to be used for more of the day and more of the semester. We must continue to keep our distance, wash our hands and stay at home if we have any symptoms.

By now, we all know what is required to limit the spread of infection. We need to keep our distance and avoid too many new contacts. This applies to every part of the University and at all times, as long as the pandemic lasts. In all rooms and other spaces and outside them, and in entry and exit passages. Our approach to both teaching and other activities can be expressed in this way: we will plan for physical presence where necessary, and will use digital elements where possible, in order to achieve high quality while limiting the spread of infection.

The restrictions imposed by the Public Health Agency of Sweden on public gatherings must be followed at the University as well. Teaching sessions or meetings with more than 50 people must therefore be avoided. If the Public Health Agency changes its figures, we will automatically follow suit. Similarly, our travel restrictions are tied to those of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. If their recommendation changes, we will adjust our decision.

In the decision, we have specified the groups/tasks that will have priority for physical scheduling on campus, when this needs to be limited: first-year students, students with special needs, practical tasks and examinations, and final-year students’ exams and mandatory course components.

Bearing in mind these general priorities, departments are best placed to decide what parts of their activities they can conduct physically on campus and which components it is preferable to digitalise.

The decision gives boards, departments and teachers responsible for programmes and courses scope and responsibility to be creative and design their individual activities within given frameworks. In our education, we must give our students the best teaching we can, while avoiding the spread of infection. To ensure that the situation of doctoral students is properly addressed, our decision directs that any effects of the coronavirus and resulting measures are to be dealt with via the annual revision of individual study plans.

With increased experience of weaving digital elements into on-campus teaching, the potential for continued educational development is good. I’m sure we have all felt that so many digital meetings can be tiring and that it is not enough simply to transfer a physical meeting concept to a digital format. Shorter sessions are needed with more breaks, as well as new ways to encourage discussion and feedback.

The Public Health Agency’s new decision and today’s decision by the Vice-Chancellor clarify conditions for the autumn to some extent. Having said that, no one knows at present exactly what the pandemic situation in Sweden and the world will look like at the end of the summer. So our general message remains: keep going, stay strong, keep your distance. Whether or not the infection situation moves in the right direction depends on us all.

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University futures – here and in Europe

Much is happening right now in the European arena for research, education and innovation. Just as in Sweden, the ongoing pandemic is affecting discussions. On Tuesday the heads of universities in The Guild network held a General Assembly, where we welcomed Babeș-Bolyai University, Romania, as a new member, and discussed issues of mutual interest, including the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our universities.

The pandemic also has an impact on budgetary planning at EU level. Last week the European Commission presented its new proposal for a long-term budget together with a seven-year post-coronavirus recovery budget. They forecast a partial economic recovery in 2021, while warning that a recession with high unemployment will have marked consequences. Negotiations are far from being finalised, and it will probably be up to Germany to wrap up the budget when they take over the presidency of the EU on 1 July.

According to the current proposal, the seven-year overall budget for research, education and innovation, Horizon Europe, will be EUR 94.4 billion, part of which will come from a post-coronavirus emergency temporary recovery instrument, Next Generation EU. The European Research Council funding for excellent research will continue, along with important instruments for mobility and infrastructure. Part of the overall budget will go to specific areas such as health, green economy and innovation. It is unclear how this money is to be used. The Guild has asked for clarification and has stressed the importance of continued mobility in Europe. This applies not least to student exchanges. At a time of travel restrictions and great uncertainty, allowing young people somehow to meet across borders becomes more important than ever for building mutual understanding.

The EU also aims to strengthen and coordinate the national systems for research and education, through the European Research Area (ERA) and the European Education Area (EEA). Efforts to determine the relationship between the UK and the EU after Brexit continue, as does work on a new vision, under the heading “Towards a 2030 vision on the future of the universities in Europe” – particularly important to watch moving forward. The document presented on progress to date gives us reason to make our voice heard in this context in the time ahead.

The Guild has already made an initial written response presenting its views on the document, and at the meeting last week that I have already mentioned, Christian Leumann from the University of Bern and I (Eva) introduced a discussion on the vision and how our experiences this spring affect our outlook on the future. Academic freedom and critical thinking are particularly important in times of change. Academic freedom is not only a prerequisite for excellence and innovative thinking; it is also a cornerstone of a democratic society. Any strategy for change must be thoroughly discussed and have the support of the universities. The Guild calls for greater understanding of the need for a long-term perspective, and of the fact that all change requires resources if research and education are not to suffer. We know, for example, that a transition to open publication (Open Access), which is basically positive, involves conflicting objectives and entails costs. We wrote about Plan S in a previous blog.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, we perceive growing expectations from the EU of increased coordination on societal challenges and that the research community will seek common approaches and agendas across national and disciplinary borders. But where does the border lie between independence and coordination? How can we find the right balance? Being open and cooperative while maintaining integrity could be a good line to take. One example of the desire to find synergies and pool expertise is the European Universities Network project (EUN), which has been welcomed by universities and has led to many applications and projects. Its ‘bottom-up perspective’ offers universities and governments a chance to jointly investigate and eliminate barriers to coordinated development. Uppsala University is expecting a decision on our EUN application ENLIGHT, in which we partner with eight other European universities, at the beginning of July.

The EU is the third largest funder of Swedish research and an important platform for international cooperation, so it is important that we keep abreast of developments in European research, education and innovation policies. The funding bodies here in Sweden have recently been instructed by the government to propose goals and strategies for Swedish participation in the EU Framework Programme Horizon Europe. We expect the higher education institutions to be involved in this work and that many people in academia will take a great interest in it. These issues will therefore certainly come up again in the autumn when we also expect a government research bill.

We will soon have another opportunity to discuss some of these issues at the Coimbra meeting on 11–12 June, in which the Deputy Vice-Chancellor will participate. Clearly, EU issues keep going and work is in full flow in Brussels and international networks, even in these times of the coronavirus.

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Many meetings and an important discussion on the teacher education programme

On Friday we learned that the recommendation on distance education at higher education institutions will be withdrawn from 15 June. We commented briefly on this announcement in the blog the same day. We will soon issue a new decision about the summer and autumn based on the new information.

Last week involved many important discussions and meetings, as usual. On Tuesday, the last Vice-Chancellor’s seminar of the semester focused on the teacher education programme. Educating teachers is an important and serious responsibility. The politicians take an enormous interest in this; few programmes have been analysed, evaluated and revamped as many times over the years as this particular one. The upper secondary school teacher education programme is particularly complex, with many specialisations, and the way in which it is organised varies from one higher education institution to another. The latest inquiry has now delivered its report to the Ministry, but has yet to produce final proposals and a referral for comment. One of the members of the inquiry, Anders J. Persson, participated in the seminar and stated that in their report, they have emphasised continuing to build on ongoing measures to augment the supply of teachers and to enhance quality, such as practice-based research, bridge programmes and pilot schools, rather than proposing far-reaching reforms.

Panel in the Humanities Theatre, audience on Zoom.

This spring, the Swedish Higher Education Authority has criticised three programmes in Uppsala that have been audited: the upper secondary school teacher education programmes in Swedish, social studies and mathematics. The main point of criticism was the integration of subject didactics in subject studies. The approach adopted by the Faculty of Educational Sciences to addressing the issue is that the responsibility for didactics should rest where it can best be tackled, sometimes locally at the subject department and sometimes centrally at the Department of Education. Not the easiest way to go, since different solutions can make it difficult to achieve equal quality, but a good thing if the goal is the best possible subject-based teaching and learning.

Many different parts of the University are involved in upper secondary school teacher education. It is a matter for the entire University and needs to be tackled together. The aim of the seminar was to start an important internal discussion on how to provide the best education for the students. Uppsala University is a large, decentralised higher education institution, which makes the challenge all the greater. Engagement and cooperation are needed at every level to create the best whole, while maintaining a level of coordination and control that ensures education of a uniform quality.

We had a good discussion during the seminar about how we can develop cooperation and make the most of relevant experience across the entire breadth of our University. Last but not least: listen to the students. Alina Lantto Qvarfort, chair of the education section of the Uppsala Student Union, expressed a wish for a common foundation to guarantee equal quality and more focus on the professional role of the teacher throughout the programme. Sincere thanks to the seven panellists for their introductory remarks in the Humanities Theatre and to the nearly 100 participants via Zoom.

Last week we also met Uppsala University’s representatives in the Young Academy of Sweden. The new chair of the Academy is Sanna Koskiniemi, Senior Lecturer in Microbiology. Congratulations! Our University has many outstanding young researchers. This is an important group for us in the University Management to meet. They have important experiences, strong opinions and great commitment.

The Zoom coffee break on Friday afternoon gave heads of department an opportunity to meet the new chair of the University Board, Anne Ramberg. She is known for her deep commitment to human rights issues and defence of the rule of law. The independence of universities from the state and other strong interests was one area that she emphasised as important to uphold, another was external collaboration. A university should have an open attitude and be an active player with strong integrity in the community.

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