Advancing leadership in Europe through quality technical education

Ladislav Janíček, Rector of Brno University of Technology, explores the evolving role of universities of science of technology for industrial and knowledge-based societies.
3rd July 2023
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Higher education in Europe today, at the beginning of the 2020s, is at a turning point.

The turbulent geopolitical situation, the energy crisis and the question marks surrounding the optimisation of the energy mix, inflation and signs of economic recession, environmental challenges, sustainability and the need to strengthen environmental responsibility are all major challenges not only for Europe but also for humanity itself.

In addition to sustainability, security in all its attributes, technological independence and self-sufficiency in both energy and raw materials, as well as in strategic technologies and products, ranging from semiconductors to pharmaceuticals, have become crucial issues and priorities for the democratic world.

Competitiveness, research and development, an economy based on knowledge and innovation are words that we hear today, along with the terms excellence and quality, particularly in connection with education and research in universities of science & technology.

These developments and the changing external environment are leading to a paradigm shift and the need to adapt the approach and behaviour of universities, in Europe and beyond. For universities of science & technology in particular, the challenges of our times present an unprecedented opportunity to re-affirm our potential and broader societal roles.

The need for a closer reflection of societal priorities has become a dominant theme for the strategic management of universities and a prerequisite to boost contributions to society. The social relevance of education, research and development, the applicability of results, knowledge transfer and innovation management are essential elements of the strategies of universities in the new era. The effective integration of research and education in universities is now an important differentiator, which classifies universities into research and non-research ones according to the quality and volume of research.

An invaluable component of the strategies of successful universities is their internationalisation and openness to international engagement. The concept of European universities and its implementation through the European university alliances are intended to create new avenues for sharing and achieving international synergies of knowledge and experience.

Together with mobility initiatives, joint curricula and research cooperation, the emerging European universities are intended to ensure the integrity of the European higher education and research area. This development is to be significantly assisted by the digitisation of the internal environment and processes in universities, both in the front-office, to support the primary processes, i.e. teaching and research, and in the back-office, to create modern and efficient support facilities.

An integral part of strategies of modern universities are the concepts of personnel management and human resources development, which, together with setting conditions that enable the development of a democratic and organisational culture promoting equity, diversity and inclusion, create the foundation for universities to contribute leadership in the spirit that the source of quality and uniqueness is their people.

With this in mind, universities of science & technology operate in the broader European landscape. They derive their origins from the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century and are an integral part of the European higher education tradition. Although industry now accounts for less than a quarter (23 %) of gross domestic product (GDP) in Europe on average, according to World Bank statistics, there are countries where industry remains a major source of income as measured by GDP. The Czech Republic, for example, has historically been such a country, where almost a third of its GDP comes from industry and its share per capita classifies the Czech Republic among the ten most industrialised countries in the world, and ranks second in Europe. However, the proportion of students enrolled in engineering studies in Europe averages less than one third of the nearly 20 million Europeans studying, which is far from meeting the needs of an industrial society.

Universities of science & technology are a major source of talent for an industrial society through their graduates, and thus a direct contributor helping to shape industrial sectors, contributing to prosperity to national and international economies and beyond. Through their research and development, universities of science & technology contribute leadership at the forefront of science and technology, by technological know-how, providing hi-tech solutions and pushing the frontier of scientific knowledge.

However, there is a decline in the interest of technical education. In the Czech Republic, we have seen up to a 25% decline in enrolments and a 20% reduction in the selection rate over the last 10 years, i.e. an increase in the proportion of applicants admitted to study (nowadays varying between 50-70% of those who passed the entrance exam). Statistics also show that only 75% of those admitted to study eventually enrol. The reduction in selectivity has resulted in a relatively high drop-out rate after the first year of study, approaching 25%.

Although graduates of technical studies certainly do not suffer from unemployment and are among the most prestigious employees in terms of recruitment and salary levels, technical studies, like science studies, are not the ones of the first choice for the majority. Our industry partners report a troubling shortage of technical graduates. In some sectors, such as civil engineering, it is even critical.

It is therefore one of the great challenges for universities of science & technology, and for industrialised societies where much current prosperity and future potential is underpinned by science & technology, to think about how to promote science & technical education in the context of their strategic development.

Two things need to be separated here: the existential needs and sustainability of universities of science & technology in terms of maintaining and securing funding, and secondly, the real strategic need of our societies.

It is not just a question of financial support, but above all a question of strategic measures and reforms based on economic, sociological and broader societal data documenting the vision for our societies connecting to political and economic considerations. This includes engaging with our governments around ensuring optimal macroeconomic structures reflecting the performance and supporting our societies to achieve their full potential, economically and beyond.

Governments are key players in democratic societies tasked with elaborating societal priorities and corresponding policies, and universities of science & technology should contribute with specialist knowledge around the appropriate structure of the education system and the optimal mix of educational and qualification approaches, particularly in the fast-moving areas of science & technology.

This is a two-way process. Universities, as the top component of the education system, and especially technical ones, must pay increased attention to their curriculum offerings, which on the one hand should be relevant to societal needs and priorities, and on the other hand should reflect the demographic and psychographic characteristics of the target groups of applicants and learners in their content, structure and teaching methods, while maintaining quality. The relevance of knowledge, understanding, skills and experience in the profile of graduates of degree programmes, interdisciplinarity and the emphasis on critical thinking, problem-solving skills, creativity and imagination, teamwork and project skills, as well as entrepreneurial thinking, are main attributes of modern technical degree programmes.

A career of an engineer, a graduate in engineering studies, is about responsibility for the technical solutions designed, including their quality and safety. Therefore, any solutions to the declining interest in technical education cannot be to reduce the demands of the admission process or the studies themselves.

The relationship with technology is established at an early age. The solution must be found, on the one hand, in effective forms of marketing of technical education and universities of science & technology towards primary and secondary schools. On the other hand, however, it is also about governmental policies and relevant possible reforms of primary and secondary education aimed at streamlining and strengthening the teaching of general and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects, as well as possible scholarship support, which can emphasise the importance and increase the attractiveness of a technical education.

Employers of technical graduates, such as industrial partners, also have an integral role to play in this process. Ways should be sought to involve them more closely in shaping the relevant curriculum offer, content and structure of study programmes to ensure full relevance for a range of career paths. Presenting the work profiles of modern engineers or the careers of successful graduates, offering internships and job opportunities to students to support technical studies in a direct or indirect way, for example by offering scholarships, are just some of the forms of possible cooperation for promoting technical education.

Increasing engagement of PhD candidates directly with non-academic partners, such as in industry, also represent a major challenge for the link between universities of science & technology and broader society and its industry, especially when set-up to optimally align the scientific training of the student with research taking place outside of academia, such as in a company. Considerations around intellectual property and safeguarding a suitable balance between openness and closedness (e.g. publishing scientific results while maintaining commercial secrets) is important in such research endeavours.

Finding the optimal model of broader societal engagement of universities of science & technology, including through university-industry cooperation in the field of research, is another important factor that determines their potential to contribute societal leadership.

An important factor by which the contribution of research is evaluated today is its social relevance, such as its usefulness and applicability, regardless of whether it is fundamental or applied.

In order to advance industrial societies based on knowledge and innovation, it is also essential to work with industrial partners to link public research, including particularly from universities, with research conducted in businesses.

In addition to direct cooperation in research and development, whether in the form of contract research or effective collaborative research, knowledge transfer in all its forms is an important differentiating factor for universities. It can be used to demonstrate the effectiveness and usefulness of research carried out in universities. The concept of 'entrepreneurial universities', which support and successfully develop entrepreneurship in an academic environment, is also enjoying a renaissance in this sense. In short, when talking about the return on investment in public research, this can include economic considerations, both should also go beyond to less tangible, broader societal contributions. Equally important and perhaps more difficult to measure.

It is not only in research where the potential for effective cooperation with the application-focused sector outside universities can be seen. In fact, a specific target group of technical higher education today consists of employees who need to broaden or deepen their education because their work experience has taken them outside the field of their original studies. Interest in further study can also simply reflect personal desires to expand knowledge.

This offer of education, let us call it a 'second chance' learning, is proving particularly interesting in the technical field. It is an opportunity for the development of educational programmes of so-called continuing professional development within the framework of lifelong learning, including qualification programmes as a form of post-graduate studies, in the past referred to as 'postgraduates'. Among other things, the micro-certificates and/or micro-credentials that are becoming increasingly applied may be an ideal instrument for certifying the education thus obtained, and they also create the opportunity to assemble the courses completed into coherent thematic studies. The possibility of their subsequent recognition in regular study programmes provides an opportunity to create international distributed study programmes, which may one day replace the relatively rigid and not always cost-effective joint or multiple diploma programmes.

These are just some of the theses we apply at Brno University of Technology, one of the 6 universities associated in the Association of Research Universities of the Czech Republic and currently the 4th largest university in the Czech Republic and the largest technical university in the country with almost 20,000 students. The CESAER network as a prestigious network of universities of science & technology provides an opportunity to share experiences and together explore institutional development pathways. We are planning to hold an international round table in Brno in October 2023, which we believe will further this sharing of experience and the search for ways to promote technical education. I also look forward to engaging with all CESAER Members during the CESAER Annual Meetings at Universidad Politécnica de Madrid from 18 to 20 October on how we can best advance leadership in Europe through quality technical education, to contribute to sustainability and beyond.

Ladislav Janíček

Rector of Brno University of Technology, Czech Republic

Photo credit: Martin Očko

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