Silvia Steiner (66), 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 (66), 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.

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

“More space for creative achieve­ments”

Director of Education Silvia Steiner and UZH President Michael Schaepman share their thoughts on generative arti­ficial intelli­gence’s impact on education, inter­national cooperation in the research community, free­dom of speech and the re­location of upper secondary schools to Irchel Campus.

From 2024 to 2033, several upper secondary schools in Zurich will move onto Irchel Campus one after the other. This develop­ment is reflected in the motto of this annual report: “Breaking down barriers together.” How has the planning for these re­locations gone so far?

Silvia Steiner: This was a project that I loved from the beginning. UZH has shown itself to be a very gracious host. I’m impressed with how the univer­sity and the high schools are prepar­ing to share the space on campus. We’ve already started a project group that’s brain­storming about how the shared campus experience can be fruit­ful for both parties. You get the sense that both sides are willing to accommo­date each other, try out new things and get the best results for every­one.

This solution allows several upper secondary schools to be reno­vated one after the other. Does it present any other oppor­tunities? 

Michael Schaepman: I remember explor­ing the campus as a young boy scout, back when there were hardly any build­ings there at all. Now it’s one of the most attractive and lively campuses in Switzerland, and soon high school students will be injecting even more life into the area. Many of them will also get bitten by the science bug. For Switzerland, it will be a one-of-a-kind combi­nation of high school and university education. We look for­ward to having an open and diverse campus that offers space for shared learning, teaching, research and experimentation, giving everyone fresh inspi­ration in the process.

Michael Schaepman (58) 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. He was appointed Vice Dean and then Dean of the Faculty of Science in 2014 and 2016, respectively. As a member of the Executive Board of the University from 2017 to 2020, Schaepman was responsible for research, innovation and academic career development. He has been President of UZH since 2020.

Steiner: In my view, the big added value of this solution is also that it stimu­lates dialogue. It’s important for both levels of edu­cation to identify and under­stand the issues and perspec­tives of the other side. The HSGYM project has been ensuring that this dialogue takes place for 17 years now, and the planned relocation of schools to Irchel Campus means that the conver­sation is about to get even more intense. Both the schools and the university will have shared experiences that our entire educational system can benefit from over the long term.

“You notice that UZH and the upper secondary schools are both willing to try out new things together.”

Silvia Steiner

Digital trans­formation is a topic that impacts both schools and univer­sities. How is learning and know­ledge acquisition going to change?

Schaepman: It used to be the case that lexical know­ledge was almost exclusively documented in and trans­mitted by books. Today this infor­mation is available online in a wide range of quality and accessible around the clock. Generative AI can support us in developing and synthesizing this know­ledge. This means that the emphasis will shift towards acquiring and developing cognitive skills. This presents a huge oppor­tunity: it creates more space for creative achieve­ments, which in the past were more likely to have been forbidden by the school rules – like devising the ulti­mate cheat sheet. The challenge lies in the increase of information, which is changing at a more and more rapid pace. We need to learn how to appropriately dose this information and accurately assess its quality.

Considering the speed of digital trans­formation, is our educational system on the right track?

Steiner: I think that we’ve created the right pre­requisites for success by intro­ducing skills-oriented curricula over the past few decades. High school students should learn less by heart but be able to under­stand the bigger picture and indepen­dently find solutions to challenges. Then they’ll be well prepared for the demands that will be imposed on them by digital society.

“We need to learn how to appro­priately dose information and accurately assess its quality.”

Michael Schaepman

What will happen if students are more advanced users of tech­nology than those teaching them?

Steiner: Learning doesn’t mean that your teacher will know everything. The class­room experience also entails learning from one another. This includes not only the young learning from the old, but also the other way around. Digitali­zation is an oppor­tunity to build bridges between generations. People have different strengths. Some teachers are digital wizards, while others have different qualities that are just as important. They complement one another and can learn from one another as well.

In the future, written assess­ment formats like essays or term papers can be written with the help of generative AI.  What does this mean for our education system?

Steiner: A few decades ago, people had similar questions when pocket calcu­lators were intro­duced. Schools will need to clarify in which situations generative AI can or cannot be used. I think that schools, particu­larly on the higher levels, need to start trying out how artificial intelli­gence can be used in an appropriate and responsible manner. This can also be used for perfor­mance assessments if there’s a possibility to check whether learners have understood and internalized the content. Of course, the more that AI is permitted, the harder it will be to assess the individual performance of students.

Schaepman: It would be a mis­take to hang on to traditional testing models and perfor­mance metrics in the age of AI. The only thing we’d be worrying about is how to prevent or uncover cheating. The much more important question, however, is how we can en­courage and reward creativity. This means that we should develop new models of exami­nation that allow students to prove their cognitive capabilities, even in assign­ments that involve the use of AI.

“Learning doesn’t mean that those teaching you will know everything.”

Silvia Steiner

Do we need new rules for how to deal with generative artificial intelligence?

Steiner: Currently there’s a lack of clear regu­lation when it comes to data protection and privacy. Policy­makers, educators and scientists need to work on this together. Here the univer­sities have an important role to play, by supporting the discussions with their expertise. But it would be a mistake to believe that regulations alone will be enough to find our footing with AI. 

Schaepman: I agree! We should be promoting the skilled use of generative AI. This is more important and effective than regu­lations. You under­estimate the speed and momentum of tech­nological develop­ment if you think you can fence it in just by passing sweeping legislation. There’s also the risk of premature regulation putting the brakes on desirable innovation.

“We should be pro­moting the skilled use of generative AI. This is more important and effective than trying to regu­late it.”

Michael Schaepman

In 2023, UZH approved a digital strategy. One of the stated goals is to pro­actively harness the oppor­tunities of artificial intelligence for re­search, teaching and university services while also weighing the oppor­tunities and risks. Can you give an example of this?

Schaepman: This means, for instance, that we as indivi­duals need to learn how to deal with gene­rative AI in a mature way. To do so, we have to under­stand how it works. The bigger the data sets that are fed into AI, the more the infor­mational value of the data decreases, which in turn leads to bigger risks of flattened or skewed results. Pre­judices and patterns of thought or speech that are already wide­spread in society will become even more dominant because they are boosted by AI – at least that’s how it is currently. We each have an individual responsibility to recognize and balance out this effect when we use generative AI. How well we manage to do so depends on our ability to reflect, our sensitivity and our education. 
One of the jobs of the scientific community is to make arti­ficial intelligence more “clever”, cognitively speaking, and to develop solutions for using it in different fields like law or medicine. Over the past several years, UZH has built up significant research and teaching capacity at this interface between digital tech­nology and society. In 2023 alone we established eight new professor­ships as part of the Digital Society Initiative (DSI) and the Digitali­zation Initiative of the Zurich Higher Education Institutions (DIZH). More than 30 have been established since 2016. These are additional investments in our digital future made on top of the normal institutional develop­ment of the university.

How are higher education insti­tutions in Zurich supporting each other when it comes to digital develop­ment?

Steiner: Digital trans­formation is a classic inter­disciplinary issue. Since everyone is affected, it makes a lot of sense to work together. The DIZH, which was launched in 2020, led to the partici­pating institutions – UZH, ZHAW, ZHdK and PHZH – working much more closely with one another than ever before. The issues range from cyber­security to health to digital crisis management. DIZH also promotes innovative teaching solutions. We need to strengthen this cooperation further.

Let’s talk about cooperations between universities on an inter­national level. Two years ago, UZH joined Una Europa – how is that going?

Schaepman: The 11 univer­sities that make up the Una Europa network provide mutual support on a variety of develop­ment issues, for instance research funding and efforts to inter­nationalize teaching. UZH is an attractive and inter­nationally well-networked partner institution: along­side Una Europa, UZH is part of several strategic partner­ships and other international networks such as LERU and U21. The global network of our research community is much broader, however, than any institutional cooperation ever could be. Academia is a global frame­work with researchers interacting with each other in a wide variety of ways. New know­ledge arises when working – and competing – together across borders.

What would you like to see in terms of inter­national cooperation in the future?

Schaepman: The European research community offers us the best conditions for scholarly competition, so for that reason we at UZH would find it extremely welcome for Switzerland to be able to participate in Horizon Europe and its associated programs. And in parallel, we should also be aiming for more research partner­ships with countries from the Global South. We have a lot to learn from researchers who have a different world­view, who ask different questions and who are familiar with other solutions and have other priorities. 

“We have a lot to learn from researchers from the Global South who have a different world­view.”

Michael Schaepman

How can UZH main­tain its local roots while having an inter­national orientation? 

Steiner: These actually fit very well together! Our univer­sities have local roots while making an impact far beyond Switzerland. This combi­nation is our recipe for success. A lot of companies come here precisely for this reason: here they can find a stable but inter­nationally oriented environ­ment, including univer­sities with global reach. UZH alone decides which inter­national partner­ships and cooperations it enters into. I always try to open doors whenever I can. For instance, I recently signed a memorandum of under­standing on scientific cooperation between the canton of Zurich and the German state of Baden-Württemberg. Conversely, policymakers and the canton itself both benefit from the presence of the universities. Here I’m reminded of our experience during the Covid pandemic, where we were able to answer completely new types of questions thanks to our close cooperation with scientists.

Now for one last topic: the Univer­sity of Zurich is a place where a lot of people from different disciplines work together, and it’s also place where open dialogue can take place. In what way does this help the university fulfill its role towards the broader community?

Steiner: Free­dom to express one’s opinion and to engage in open dialogue are critical in a democratic society. This open­ness would be worth very little without the ability and willing­ness to listen to one another and to deal with and understand different interests and perspectives. Here the university has an important and very demanding role to play, by placing these different positions in an objective frame­work and making it possible to reflect on social reality. This is of major importance for democracy.

“The university is of major importance for democracy.”

Silvia Steiner

What must the univer­sity pay particular attention to when it comes to ful­filling its democratic role?

Schaepman: Open dialogue at UZH is based on our values and ethical principles. This requires an atmo­sphere of respect and mutual appreciation that we must nurture. Calls to violence, for example, are not tolerated, which is why we banned a demon­stration in the fall of 2023 that would have spread hateful slogans.
However, in order to create a good environ­ment for vibrant dialogue, you have to not only accept dissent but have a positive attitude towards it. The 1967 report of the Kalven Committee at the University of Chicago, which is widely cited today, stipulates that view­point diversity, intellectual freedom, criticism and dissent are indispensable to the production of know­ledge. The report also emphasizes that good universities are spaces where certainties can be shattered, where dissatis­faction with the prevailing order can be articulated, and where new solutions can be proposed. It’s in the interest of society for universities to provide space for un­pleasant voices that challenge the consensus. At the same time, it’s important for universities not to get pulled to one political side or the other, but rather to remain neutral as an insti­tution. UZH is mainly financed from the public purse. This is a great advantage as well as a critical require­ment for maintaining institutional neutrality and offering an appropriate platform for coexistence between a variety of voices.

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