Economics and IT

“What’s happening here with us affects everyone.”

For almost five years the UZH Faculty of Business, Economics and Informatics has been headed by Harald Gall. In this interview he explains how the faculty is sharpening its profile, why last year the offering of degree programs was redesigned, and why economics and IT make such a powerful combination.

Interview: David Werner

Harald Gall
Harald Gall
Harald Gall, Dean of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Informatics.(Image: Rodolfo Sacchi)

 

Harald Gall, soon you’ll have been Dean of the UZH Faculty of Business, Economics and Informatics for five years. All in all, what would be your own personal appraisal of the progress you’ve made at this point?

The faculty has followed through on the reorganization efforts of recent years. We’ve implemented new governance and restructured our offering of degree programs, we’ve sharpened our profile, and are constantly working on our strategy to develop the faculty further. The process of internationalization has progressed a long way: three quarters of the professors, almost one third of the doctoral candidates, and one third of the master’s students come from other countries.

You’re a professor of informatics, but the faculty you head also includes economics and business. Is it a peculiarity of UZH that there’s a common faculty for informatics, economics, and business? To what extent does this determine the profile of informatics?

Proximity to economics and business has a considerable impact on informatics at UZH, and does a lot to differentiate it from IT departments at other universities. While ETH graduates, for example, typically go on to work for IT companies, people who’ve studied informatics at UZH are in especially great demand in the financial services and insurance industries. The interface between business/economics and informatics has enormous potential going forward, particularly in this era of digitization.

Last year the highly promising Digital Society Initiative (DSI) was launched at UZH. What’s the role of the Department of Informatics in all this?

The Digital Society Initiative brings together the competences of a whole range of UZH disciplines. We want to reflect the social implications of digitization from different angles and help shape technological developments. The goal of the project is ambitious: in five years we want UZH to be a center of knowledge in Switzerland for questions of digitization and society. This will create greate opportunities for the Department of Informatics, which plays a pivotal role in this project.

As dean you have invested a lot of energy in accreditations. Your faculty now belongs to a select circle of business and economics institutions with dual accreditation. What’s the point of accreditation?

Accreditations are an incentive to rethink our teaching and research objectives and strategies, and improve quality at all levels. A successful accreditation process is also proof of achievement that gains our faculty visibility and recognition. I’m proud that following accreditation by EQUIS in 2015, last year we also received accreditation from AACSB again. There are only seven economics faculties and business schools in the German-speaking world with accreditation from both.

How would you describe your faculty’s profile in three sentences?

We’re strong in research. In behavioral economics, finance, and big data analytics we’re among the best in the world, plus we have the Financial Market Regulation and Social Media university research priority programs. Our offering of degree programs is demanding, and gives particular weight to mathematical and analytic skills.

Has there been an area where the faculty’s made particular efforts to meet the criteria for accreditation?

In particular, we’ve put everything we had into assuring the quality of teaching. In addition to the usual evaluations for individual courses, for example, we introduced an evaluation system for entire degree programs. The results feed directly into the development of curricula.

Are ethics, sustainability, and social responsibility also criteria when it comes to accreditation?

Yes. They’re actually very important. But there’s no standard representing precisely how a faculty should teach ethics. What’s important is that it engages seriously with the issue. We had no trouble providing credible proof that this applies to our faculty. The theme of ethics is firmly and broadly established in our teaching. For us it’s not about adding ethics as a separate topic to the training of budding economists. We address the topic from within the economic and business disciplines themselves.

Why?

Taking a systematizing, philosophical approach would only get students on board who are interested in ethics in any case. The best way to make everyone else aware of ethical issues is to work from the subject itself and use practical examples to explain what ethics means in terms of economic behavior – for example by looking at the question of how worker protection can be enforced in internationalized production chains, or how to create management incentives to sustainable growth. To discuss these things we often also invite people who deal with these matters on a very practical level within companies.

Let’s talk about the reworked course architecture introduced in your faculty last year. How have the changes been received among students?

The new option of choosing a major and a minor subject has got a great response, which I’m delighted about but not necessarily surprised – after all, the impetus to change systems came from the students themselves.

What was the main change?

Our previous offering of bachelor’s and master’s programs primarily consisted of single subject programs such as business administration, economics, banking and finance, or informatics. Since Fall Semester 2016, students have been able to put together their own program much more flexibly by choosing a major and a minor.

What’s the advantage of this architecture?

Students can give their studies an individual profile that will also be visible on their degree certificate and will help them position themselves in the employment market.

Can you give examples of what options for specialization people can create by choosing a minor subject?

The idea is to enable bachelor’s students to acquire broad knowledge, also across subjects. So for example if you’re interested in finance you might combine a major in business administration with a minor in banking and finance. Or you might want to combine it with informatics to be prepared for growing digitization. At the master’s level, the emphasis is on specialization. An economics student, for example, might specialize in behavioral economics in their minor to get a more in-depth understanding of how psychological factors influence economic decisions. A business administration student who intends to eventually work in education might choose managing education as a minor. With 15 minor subjects on the master’s level alone, there are many different options.

What about cross-faculty combinations?

Cross-faculty combinations are both possible and desirable. I can imagine very exciting interdisciplinary constellations, for example combining banking and finance with ethics, or data science with communication science. Law is also very popular as a minor. The new course architecture enables students to much better harness the possibilities of UZH as a large, diverse, full-fledged university.

The offering of degree programs in informatics has been broken down into a particularly wide range of subjects.

Yes, we now offer five major subjects.

Why are the informatics programs broken down into so many different components?

We wanted to make everything that can be done in informatics these days as transparent as possible. Informatics isn’t just about programming: our subject has become incredibly varied. Study informatics and you acquire the ability to help shape the digital future, from online business and healthcare to finance and the media. Under the new system it’s easier for prospective students to see what they can expect if they study informatics at UZH, and degree certificates will give prospective employers a better idea of where graduates’ specific skills lie.

Harald Gall, you’re now in your third term as dean. What are your goals for the further development of the faculty?

We want to step up international networking even further. We want to make it easier for our students to do semesters abroad, and forge even more strategic alliances with very good foreign universities. We also want to strengthen our alumni activities, for example by getting students involved in the network as early as possible. Another of my priorities is to increase the visibility of our faculty in society. For me it’s important that a broad public knows and understands what we do. Economics and informatics are driving forces in society, and what’s happening here with us affects everyone.

About Harald Gall:

Harald Gall was born in Austria and studied informatics at TU Wien. Since 2004 he has been professor of software engineering at the UZH department of informatics. Since 2012 he has been Dean of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Informatics. In spring 2016 he was re-elected for a third term of office.

The faculty in figures

Research: almost 1,000 publications in peer-reviewed journals from 2011 to 2015

Rankings:

Handelsblatt 2015 economics ranking: ranked 1 (A and A+ journals)

Handelsblatt 2014 business ranking: ranked 1 (A and A+ journals)

Academic Ranking of World Universities 2016: ranked 54

2016 Financial Times Executive MBA Ranking: ranked 66

Students:
Around 3,800 students from more than 70 countries:
around 2,200 bachelor’s, 1,100 master’s, 350 doctoral, 200 continuing education
Percentage of international students in 2016:
bachelor’s 18%, master’s 37%, PhD 65%

Accreditations: In 2009 and 2012 the UZH Faculty of Business, Economics and Informatics received 3-year EQUIS accreditation, and in 2015 it for the first time received the maximum 5-year EQUIS accreditation. This makes the faculty one of only six establishments in the German-speaking world with the maximum 5-year accreditation from EQUIS. AACSB accreditation followed in 2010 and 2016.

David Werner, Head of Publishing

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