Michael Schaepman (57) completed his undergraduate and doctoral studies at UZH. After stints as a researcher in the Netherlands and the US, he returned to his alma mater as professor of remote sensing in 2009. In 2014 he became Vice Dean of the Faculty of Science, rising to the post of Dean in 2016. As a member of the Executive Board from 2017 to 2020, Schaepman was responsible for research, innovation and academic career development. He has been President of UZH since 2020.
Michael Schaepman (57) completed his undergraduate and doctoral studies at UZH. After stints as a researcher in the Netherlands and the US, he returned to his alma mater as professor of remote sensing in 2009. In 2014 he became Vice Dean of the Faculty of Science, rising to the post of Dean in 2016. As a member of the Executive Board from 2017 to 2020, Schaepman was responsible for research, innovation and academic career development. He has been President of UZH since 2020.

A conversation with the President of the Board of the University and the President of UZH

“UZH is part of society at large”

We sat down with Silvia Steiner, Director of Education for the Canton of Zurich, and Michael Schaepman, President of UZH, to discuss the role of the university in the educational system, innovative capacity, international relations, academic freedom and social responsibility.

Silvia Steiner, Michael Schaepman: 2022 was a year marked by multiple crises. The challenges that we face are growing. How is UZH helping to find solutions?

Silvia Steiner: The biggest challenges of our time don’t respect borders – and that includes the borders between different disciplines. To find answers to complex problems like the climate crisis and its consequences, various disciplines need to merge their different perspectives together. UZH promotes this kind of interdisciplinarity in both research and teaching. As a diverse comprehensive university, it is optimally equipped to do so.

Michael Schaepman: UZH has an important mission: to empower people to sustainably shape their future. By that I mean their individual future careers as well as the shared future of society as a whole. Education and research are basic requirements for futureproofing our society.

Silvia Steiner (65), a member of the Mitte political party, studied law at UZH and went on to obtain her doctorate from the University of Lausanne. She worked as a prosecutor and police officer and since 2015 has served as a cantonal councilor and head of the cantonal education department. Steiner is also President of the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Directors of Education (EDK). As Director of Education, she is also the President of the Board of UZH.

Silvia Steiner, as Director of Education you focus on the development of the educational system as a whole. Is there a general strategy here?

Steiner: Our society and the world of work need people who understand connections and who can think and act with solutions in mind. We already lay the foundations for this in elementary school with Curriculum 21 (Lehrplan 21), which focuses on developing abilities and skills instead of simply working through predetermined material.

What impact does this have on the educational stages that come next?

Steiner: The implementation of Curriculum 21 has driven change throughout the entire educational system. Pedagogical formats are constantly being adapted all on levels: in vocational training, in upper secondary schools and also at universities.

Schaepman: The amount of skills-oriented teaching at UZH has also increased. Interactive formats are becoming increasingly important. We’re keeping this in mind also when designing new teaching facilities like the currently planned FORUM UZH. The Future of Teaching at UZH, an initiative launched in 2022, allows for the continual development of teaching with a long-term view.

“UZH empowers people to sustainably shape their future.”

Michael Schaepman

What does it mean for instructors when they deal with students who have already experienced skills-oriented teaching at school?

Schaepman: It’s important for instructors to adapt to the changing learning behavior of the student body. Let me explain what I mean with an anecdote. It was my first lecture as a newly minted professor in the Dutch town of Wageningen. The topic was the physics of satellite orbit. I was only two minutes in when a student spoke up and said it was a mystery to him why he would ever need to know about the topic. I was puzzled. I didn’t think about explaining that without this knowledge, it would be impossible to understand anything about terrestrial observation. Those Dutch students were already used to skills-based lessons and expected their instructors to provide solid explanations as to the purpose of the material. I wasn’t used to that at the time: being Swiss, I was used to accepting the curriculum at face value. Things are different today.

“A flexible educational system leads people to where they are needed.”

Silvia Steiner

Our complex, high-tech society requires a well-educated populace. How is our educational system responding to this demand?

Schaepman: A study from 2021 shows that UZH graduates are well-prepared for entering the working world. They are sought after on the labor market, are able to quickly find employment and earn above average salaries.

Steiner: The OECD often criticizes us for supposedly not generating enough graduates, but this doesn’t take the uniqueness of our educational system into account. They just look at the smaller proportion of upper secondary school students compared to other countries and don’t consider the students who obtain their university entrance qualification via the vocational route with the Berufsmatura. The flexibility to take different educational paths is a big plus of our system that we want to maintain and work on expanding. This flexibility promotes equal opportunity and leads people to where they are needed and can be most productive. In this way we also do a lot to combat the shortage of skilled labor. Take the healthcare sector, for example: UZH was able to expand its capacity to train doctors by joining up with the universities of Lucerne and St. Gallen to each create a joint Medical Master’s degree with 40 slots.

Schaepman: I share the view that we should continue to strengthen the flexibility of our educational system. Flexible educational paths allow people to choose individual paths and makes it easier for them to deal with changes in the working world. This benefits society as a whole, even if not every single educational path helps plug the skilled labor shortage. Overall we should see vocational and university education in a holistic manner instead of emphasizing what sets them apart. Vocational programs can help prepare people for university studies, and on the other side of the equation, university programs also provide career skills.

“We should see vocational and university education in a holistic manner instead of emphasizing what sets them apart.”

Michael Schaepman

Do people take enough advantage of the flexibility offered by our educational system?

Steiner: Family background and gender still play too much of a role. They pre-determine educational and career paths that could also develop differently. For instance, a lot of parents recommend that their children take a path that’s familiar to them because they believe that will make it easier to support their children. Educational paths are often inherited, and that’s something we need to work on.

Schaepman: At the same time, though, the possibilities for learning about educational and career paths are becoming better and more varied, thanks in part to people sharing their experiences on social media. This makes it easier for young people to find their way. They compare options and decide which one will take them further. In turn, this motivates educational institutions on all levels, including UZH, to offer the best and most appealing educational programs.

To be a strong hub of research and innovation, a city needs a well-educated population. What are some other prerequisites?

Steiner: Places with a comprehensive university, a technical university and university hospitals at their disposal have an advantage. In Zurich we additionally have the universities of applied sciences and the university of teacher education. Globally there are only very few other centers that boast a similar density of top-notch institutions in education, research and medicine. 

Do you have an example of what kind of advantages this creates?

Steiner: One good example is University Medicine Zurich, or UMZH for short. The cooperation between the participating institutions – UZH, ETH Zurich and the four university hospitals – has already borne fruit after just a short while. Establishing something like the new BioMedical Informatics Platform (BMIP) which is currently under construction wouldn’t be possible outside of such a strong network. The platform will provide consolidated health data to researchers, underpinned by precise legal and ethical regulations. This is an important step for precision medicine, which relies on data.

Schaepman: Another prerequisite for innovative capacity is the combination of strong basic research and scientific autonomy. And it’s precisely this combination that sets UZH apart. Policymakers trust that we use the money given to us responsibly. The proportion of non-directed or non-purpose-driven basic research at UZH is very high when compared internationally, and it’s precisely for this reason that we’re so innovative and strong in research.

How do you explain this connection?

Schaepman: You can’t make discoveries at the push of a button. We give researchers the freedom to explore topics that are important to them. If their findings look promising in terms of practical applications, we’ll support knowledge transfer activities. We provide business expertise to anyone at UZH who wants and needs it. But we don’t pressure anyone to conduct research with the aim of yielding commercial results.

“The culture of autonomy of universities is as Swiss as chocolate or pocket knives.”

Michael Schaepman

Silvia Steiner, in your role as an education policymaker, do you also see the autonomy of UZH in such a positive light?

Steiner: UZH’s model of autonomy works very well. It’s in line with Switzerland’s tried and tested principle of subsidiarity. The university knows best how to achieve its goals. Policymakers lay out a framework, encourage development and monitor whether the results are achieved and whether resources are used responsibly. The implementation of Governance 2020+ strengthened the autonomy of the university for the long term. Another element of UZH’s model of autonomy that we’re working on at the moment is a performance agreement between the canton and the university.

Schaepman: In my view a performance agreement is a good thing because it clarifies what UZH contributes to society, which increases trust. We just need to be careful that the indicators aren’t too narrowly defined so that we don’t create too much red tape. 

Is UZH’s autonomy something characteristically Swiss?

Schaepman: The culture of autonomy of universities is as Swiss as chocolate or pocket knives – but it’s sadly not common knowledge.

“The cooperation between disciplines at UZH is a model for society as a whole.”

Silvia Steiner

Autonomy is critical for research, and so is having international networks. The exclusion of Switzerland from Horizon Europe, the EU’s research program, was a big setback in this regard. What can be done here?

Steiner: We first need to start negotiating in order for rejoining to be realistic. But we shouldn’t depend on this. Rather, we should confidently build on our strengths and provide good stop-gap solutions. There’s definitely still room for maneuver here: for instance, the Federal Government is currently working on an application for Switzerland’s full membership of six research networks within the European Research Infrastructure Consortium, or ERIC for short. These agreements would also be useful to the EU. The EU is only harming itself in the end by excluding Switzerland. According to the EU’s innovation scoreboard, Zurich is one of the most innovative regions in Europe. Our universities are sought-after cooperation partners globally. It’s not in the interest of EU countries such as Germany, whose research landscape is closely interwoven with Switzerland’s, to see these relationships weakened. UZH has 325 research cooperations with institutions in Germany in the field of medicine alone.

Schaepman: Our research is on firm footing, but we can’t make up for the full impact of being shut out of Horizon. What’s particularly disadvantageous is that we are no longer eligible to compete for EU grants, which in turn means we can’t offer up proof of our capabilities. Reputation is the most important currency in science, and it is built through competition. Science is just as competitive as athletics, for example. Image if the strong skiing nation of Switzerland could no longer participate in the skiing world championships but only in national competitions. The incentives for top performance would decrease, and the sport would lose its appeal to top athletes.

What is UZH doing to continue strengthening its international networks?

Schaepman: We’re investing a lot of energy in maintaining and expanding our international networks, with both bilateral partnerships and university alliances playing a role. Joining Una Europa in 2022 allows us to make progress on issues like student mobility and university development in tandem with 11 strong partner universities, each one from a different European country. In terms of research partnerships in particular, bilateral partnerships are valuable, but each of these partnerships only benefits a few limited disciplines. Horizon Europe, as the world’s biggest university network, is more effective for promoting research cooperations.

“FORUM UZH stands for an open university that facilitates interaction, exchange and networking.”

Silvia Steiner

Before we talked about the relationship between politics and science. Let’s go back to that again: the Canton of Zurich invests generously in research...

Steiner: ...and it can count on the pro-research and pro-innovation attitudes of the Zurich voters in doing so. The Government Council of the Canton of Zurich increased the funding for research and teaching at the university hospitals by 12.3 million, to a total of 114 million francs. An additional 15 million is available from the canton and UZH starting in 2023. The Council is very happy to support the FORUM UZH, the new main building of the university planned for completion by 2028, and has asked the Zurich Parliament for 598 million francs for this purpose. FORUM UZH stands for an open university that facilitates interaction, exchange and networking.

Investments in projects such as the FORUM UZH are a sign that policymakers trust the academic community. How does academia create this trust?

Schaepman: By exercising social responsibility. UZH is part of society at large. Everything that UZH does takes place in a societal context and has societal impact. The autonomy we mentioned basically comes down to trust given in advance by policymakers and ultimately by all of society. We vindicate this trust through the quality and good reputation of our teaching, research and services, but also with the fact that we consider the consequences of our actions as scientists and academics.

Can you give me an example?

Schaepman: Scientists may be able to create human life from stem cells in just a few years. What consequences would that have for society? How can we adjust to this development? Technological development is way ahead of our shared understanding, which is why scientists also have the job of explaining, raising awareness and sparking reflection. The way in which innovations are accepted and handled by society heavily depends on the quality of public and political debates. The scientific community can influence this debate – and must do so – by contributing diverse independent perspectives from its respective disciplines. Science doesn’t just contribute to society’s development via teaching, research and innovation but also but also by participating in public discourse.

Steiner: Good examples of how this works are, in my view, the Digitalization Initiative of the Zurich Higher Education Institutions (DIZH) and the Zurich Knowledge Center for Sustainable Development (ZKSD). These interdisciplinary thinktanks, in which UZH plays a big part together with other universities in Zurich, help to use the opportunities posed by digital transformation creatively and to find solutions for sustainable development. I generally consider the cooperation between disciplines at UZH – especially in the University Research Priority Programs – to be models for society as a whole, because you can learn how to bring different perspectives together into a constructive dialogue.

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