Uppsala University, Sweden

Month: November 2020

Inspiring meeting with South Africa on sustainability

This week we have held a conference that concludes a three-year internationalisation project that has been more successful than we could ever have dared to hope: the South Africa–Sweden University Forum (SASUF). This cooperation project has involved 37 Swedish and South African higher education institutions and focuses on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The first meeting took place in South Africa three years ago and was an immediate success, attracting great interest from researchers in both countries. One aspect of this project that has particularly pleased us is that ideas and initiatives have come almost exclusively from researchers and students themselves. Moreover, many of these will probably be pursued further and taken to new levels.

Julia Forsberg, student, and Gustaf Cars, project manager.

This week’s conference, “SASUF goes digital”, was originally planned as a physical meeting but was adapted to a virtual format as soon as we realised that the coronavirus restrictions would make it impossible for participants to travel here from South Africa. We were certainly a little concerned about how this would affect the amount of interest, but as it turned out, we needn’t have worried. This week we have conducted 60 parallel virtual workshops, with a total of more than 700 participants – proof enough of great and genuine interest. It was particularly pleasing that students from both countries organised ten or so seminars on their own initiative. The seeds for this were planted last year, when five students joined the Swedish delegation at the conference in South Africa. Now, barely a year later, a SASUF Student Network has already grown up with 300–400 members. It promises well for the future that students are eager for opportunities to discuss the challenges of sustainability.

The conference opened online on Tuesday, with only one researcher, one student and a film team in place and everyone else on Zoom. We were in live contact with a similarly scaled-down opening ceremony in South Africa in which the Swedish Ambassador, Håkan Juholt, participated. Later in the day, the heads of all 37 member universities joined in a Leadership Summit at which we discussed the future. There was a broad consensus on continuing our cooperation and planning for the long term, as the sustainability challenges demand. Consequently, we have now all agreed on a joint action plan, SASUF 2030, for continued cooperation for the sake of the Sustainable Development Goals and a better world.

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Vice-Chancellor’s decision on COVID-19: Even more online, even more from home

Today we took a new decision on COVID-19, which will apply until the end of the semester. The basic principles underlying the adaptation of our activities remain in place, but we are tightening the application of the guidelines for the remainder of the autumn semester, until 17 January. During this period:

  • Online forms of teaching and examination must be used wherever possible.
  • In-person teaching and examination will be limited to teaching components and examinations where this is necessary to attain high quality and legal certainty and that cannot be carried out online.
  • Managers should seek to further increase the extent to which staff work from home.

The University is moving to tighter restrictions to step up its contribution to limiting the spread of infection in the community, while ensuring that it is possible to conduct our educational programmes.

At present, uncertainty abounds as to what the rules really are in Sweden, in Uppsala and at the University. There are orders telling us not to have physical contact with people outside our own household, to avoid public transport, to work from home if possible, and to limit public gatherings to 300, 50 or 8 people.

It is important not to forget that rules about public meetings and events do not apply to activities at universities and other higher education institutions. Ever since the pandemic began, we have limited the number of participants in events at the University to a maximum of 50 people, and we are keeping this limit in place. There is no indication that lowering the limit to eight would lead to less infection at the University; on the contrary, new problems would arise and the limit of 50 works well given the measures that have been taken.

As we are receiving many questions from students, we also want to make it clear that the regional recommendation to avoid physical contacts outside your own household applies to private life, but not to work or studies. Similarly, the guidelines about public transport are about reducing non-essential travel to make space for those who genuinely need to take public transport, for example, to perform necessary work or to participate in a mandatory, in-person teaching component, perform placements or take exams.

Thanks to many people’s hard work, the University has made ambitious efforts to make its activities coronavirus-proof. Extra premises have been booked to increase the distance between people, hand sanitiser stations and signage have been set up, extra invigilators have been engaged at exams and social distancing wardens help to remind anyone who forgets to keep their distance. We are in direct contact with the regional infection control authorities several times a week and the signals we are receiving are clear. It is not in the University’s activities that infection is spreading. According to the latest information, no outbreaks are linked to exam sessions. Furthermore, students are not over-represented in the number of cases, despite any concern there has been about this. The University has done a good job and this is something for us all to be proud of. Thank you for your commitment and patience, which will still be needed for some time to come. Minister for Higher Education and Research Matilda Ernkrans also stated at the press conference on Thursday that she was impressed by the efforts made by higher education institutions to prevent infection from spreading.

And yet. The infection situation in society is serious and the government’s decision this week was a signal to us all to tighten things up. Everyone now needs to have another think about whether anything else could be moved online, to ask themselves: Does this have to happen on campus just now? What remains physical during this period must be what is necessary to enable educational programmes and courses to be completed fairly and so that the University’s activities otherwise do not come to a halt.

At the same time – and this is important – we will continue to keep our premises open for our students. Pointing students to places in town instead or to confined housing spaces will not benefit society. Here, all campus areas need to play their part in staying as open as possible so that restrictions in one place do not create increased crowding somewhere else.

It is also important during the period that now follows to have a generous attitude towards opportunities to retake parts of courses and exams for students who feel the slightest symptoms of a cold and therefore have to stay home from an on-campus exam. We must make it easy to behave responsibly and make it easier to stay at home.

So let us now together make an extra effort for the rest of this semester and hope that things turn around so that we can start to meet up more again next semester.

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Sustainability high on the agenda

Yesterday we and around 30 other actors in the county signed sustainability pledges for biodiversity. Ailing ecosystems and threats to biodiversity stand alongside climate change at the top of the UN’s list of environmental problems that humanity needs to tackle most urgently. Last year I signed a similar document for the climate at a ceremony at Uppsala Castle. Taken together, these pledges mean that many of us in the region are committed to acting in various ways to achieve the sustainability goals for biodiversity and the climate.

It is important to work with other actors for sustainability. We are already collaborating with the municipality on climate issues and have a partnership agreement with Akademiska Hus on sustainable campus development.

Sustainable development is of course a fundamental principle in Uppsala University’s new mission statement, which we are now working intensively to implement throughout the organisation. We aspire to set an example in this area, which requires targeted, long-term efforts at many levels in the University. The mission statement (Mission, Goals and Strategies) is now also explicitly linked to our operational plan, which is subject to annual follow-up.

The very most important contributions our University can make are, as they have always been, the research and education that increase knowledge and foster an understanding of sustainability in all its complexity. Knowledge is crucial if our society and the world are to take effective measures. The University has a great responsibility here to transfer knowledge and engage in dialogue on the way forward. We have leading research on energy, batteries, antibiotic resistance, major common diseases, climate change, glaciers, decision-making, leadership, urban sustainability and in many other fields.

Naturally, we must also address our own climate impacts as an organisation. Following last year’s survey of the environmental objectives we ourselves have formulated, a major project is under way to revise the environmental plan. We have set up a climate pot to reinforce and refresh the University’s efforts to reduce our climate impact. Students and staff can apply for funds for their own climate initiatives and a few weeks ago I was able to approve the first seven projects. The anticipated outcomes are that more people will choose to travel by train rather than flying, laboratories will become more energy-efficient and on-campus food cultivation will be piloted, among other goals. A new call for climate funds is coming up and we hope to receive many creative proposals. Students and others at the University: if you have a proposal, follow this link.

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Internal quality dialogues make us sharper

At the time of writing, the votes are still being counted in the United States, an election that has the whole world on the edge of its seat and that will have widespread repercussions in the coming years, not least for science and sustainable development.

This week and last, we have held autumn quality dialogues with the leaders of the disciplinary domains. We have similar dialogues in the spring, though with a focus on operational plans. We started these meetings a number of years ago and they are now an important part of our systematic quality assurance. The dialogues give us an opportunity to discuss the development of activities together and in depth, and every time we take new steps towards increased quality and better processes.

We discussed two key quality issues in detail. The first concerned the sharpness of our own quality assurance system. Do we manage to detect any failings that may exist and take action to remedy them? We concluded that the system works well; failings are discovered and the faculty boards tackle them. The second question that was specifically considered was course evaluations, where the review by the Swedish Higher Education Authority in the spring identified deficiencies in feedback to students. Taking comments from students into account is an important part of improving our courses and programmes, which makes it vital to motivate the students by providing thorough feedback. Efforts are currently underway in the disciplinary domains to improve matters.

We also discussed staff recruitment, retention and development. Recruiting and retaining the best people is a key issue for the future. The disciplinary domains are very aware of this issue and everyone is working on it very strategically. Moreover, all the disciplinary domains are currently developing indicators for follow-up of our Mission, Goals and Strategies statement, a substantial task that involves many people. Gender mainstreaming is also making progress, though more remains to be done.

It is inspiring for us in the central University management to hear about the ambitious activities going on in the various parts of the University. We can mention just a few examples. We were greatly impressed to hear about the approach taken in the Disciplinary Domain of Medicine and Pharmacy to systematic quality assurance. Well-organised and clear! The Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences is engaging in a huge commitment in interdisciplinary research on democracy and higher education – quite right, highly topical and more important than ever in our time. The Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology aims to take a leading role in developing the University’s work on lifelong learning and they have great ambitions in this area. This is very welcome.

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The evolving landscape of European education

Today I took part in the online kick-off of the European University Initiative (EUI), the purpose of which is to develop ‘European universities’ that will make Europe more attractive in the areas of education, research and innovation. The initiative is associated with a major drive to develop higher education in Europe in the years up to 2025. The EU has great visions in this area and this is going to affect Sweden and the Swedish higher education landscape. The trend is moving us towards deeper European integration.

In the summer we received the positive news that our application to participate in the evolution of the European higher education landscape through the ENLIGHT project had been approved. We are now one of 11 Swedish higher education institutions (HEIs) included in one of the 41 projects involving close to 280 HEIs from all over Europe.

It feels entirely natural for us to be involved, play our part and influence a change that we know will affect us in the years ahead. Our Swedish politicians and public authorities also need now to raise their sights and take an interest in the opportunities and challenges that this three-year pilot project will create. The project’s outcomes will require changes at national level too, and this is something beyond the control of HEIs alone.

So what is this pilot project for building up European universities all about? The higher aspiration of the EUI is to equip young people in Europe for the societal challenges of the future and to pool our strengths and experience for the common good of Europe. One longer-term goal is to create smooth – ideally, completely seamless – mobility for students and academics between the institutions and regions involved in the European universities.

The European University Initiative is a complex but very exciting project in which we will all need to feel our way forward to new forms of cooperation, new educational programmes, a diversity of common projects and solutions to the obstacles that we encounter even now when we seek to work more closely together. In that sense, it can be regarded as a launchpad for the reinvigoration of education here in our country.

ENLIGHT will pursue challenge-driven projects and pool the resources of its members in addressing five global challenges:

1. Health and wellbeing
2. Digitalisation
3. Climate change
4. Energy use and the circular economy
5. Equity

In these areas, each university will work in its regional context to formulate an approach to the challenge concerned. The idea is to proceed from each university’s own regional situation and build on existing foundations to achieve sustainable forms of collaboration. Consequently, the city of Uppsala and our region will be important partners for us in these efforts.

Uppsala University has a special responsibility for the challenges of climate change and equity. Important issues, then. Within this framework, there are great opportunities to contribute in areas that we know we are good at but where the EU sees a need to develop, such as student influence and access to an educational system for lifelong learning where account is taken of opportunities for people to update their knowledge and retrain through freestanding courses. The way we cooperate in the Nordic countries can probably also provide inspiration. At the same time, we will learn from others.

Here in Sweden we need to share experience with one another and to establish a consensus on our attitude towards this European movement. For example, it is important that this positive vision of an open Europe does not lead us to turn our backs on the wider world. Knowledge knows no borders and we must naturally continue to cooperate beyond European horizons as well. Moreover, needless to say, change has consequences and in this context, political will and openness are vital. We will run into obstacles that raise questions about the ways in which Swedish HEIs, being government agencies, are regulated and restricted by various regulatory frameworks. At present, for example, we are not able to plan for educational programmes that the government has not approved and cannot enter into international agreements without a parliamentary decision.

Jonathan Schalk, project manager

ENLIGHT is a major and important internationalisation project that will involve many people. A decision on the internal organisation is due soon and Jonathan Schalk has been appointed project manager. He and the working group, which includes academic coordinators from all disciplinary domains, are now planning flat out for the start of the project in the new year.

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