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“We don’t want a mishmash. We want clear profiles.”

UZH President Michael Hengartner has been elected the new president of swissuniversities, the conference of the rectors of Swiss tier-one universities, universities of applied sciences, and universities of teacher education. In this interview he explains his motivation for accepting this position.
David Werner


"Our aim in the Swiss higher education sector is to have first-rate universities of applied sciences, first-rate universities of teacher education, and first-rate tier-one universities." UZH President Michael Hengartner. (Image: Frank Brüderli)

Michael Hengartner, congratulations on your appointment as the president of swissuniversities! What prompted you to make yourself available for the position?

Michael Hengartner: Swissuniversities is a young organization with a great deal of potential. At the moment we’re still in the process of setting up the organization. Internally we still have to find out how we can best collaborate, and many processes still have to be established in the first place. I find that fascinating. Getting things moving is my forte, and something that interests me more than maintaining the status quo.

Swissuniversities, the conference of the heads of Swiss tier-one universities, universities of applied sciences, and universities of teacher education, convened for the first time in early 2015. Can you describe the function of the organization in a nutshell?

Swissuniversities has two main functions. First, it’s there to coordinate cooperation among Swiss universities. Second, it serves as an interface to politics and policy by representing the universities’ interests at both the national and international level. Given the crucial role of higher education in the future position of this country, I think it’s very important for us to shoulder our share of the political responsibility.

What, for you, will be first on the agenda for swissuniversities in the next few months?

There are three particularly important issues: First of all we have to ensure that researchers in Switzerland will continue to be able to take part in the EU’s Horizon 2020 program. There’s not much time left to find a solution, as the interim arrangement for Switzerland granted by the EU in the wake of the yes vote to the mass immigration initiative is set to expire at the end of 2016.

The second issue that will require a lot of attention is university funding. The days when there was plentiful public funding available seem to be over, at least for the time being.

Thirdly, we have to move forward on the issue of PhDs for members of universities of applied sciences and teacher education. This has been a controversial subject of debate so far, but it’s important for us to agree on a good solution that meets the desire of the universities of applied sciences and teacher education to train junior academics for their own use.

Up until the end of 2014, each type of university had its own rectors’ conference. The organization for the tier-one universities, for example, was CRUS (the Rectors’ Conference of the Swiss Universities). What are the pros and cons of the new structure versus the old arrangement?

With 30 members, the plenary assembly of swissuniversities is around three times the size of CRUS, and its members are much more heterogeneous. Of course this makes decisionmaking more of a challenge. But the advantage is that it will now be much easier for the universities to speak with a single voice. This will lend them greater weight when it comes to representing their interests in the political and public arena. Naturally that will only work if we present a united front, something we’re not going to manage every time right from the outset. First of all, we have to find out how we can best cooperate internally to find common ground and present our positions accordingly. We can look forward to an interesting learning process!

How do you see your role as president of swissuniversities? 

I see myself as a coordinator and intermediary. In the event of conflict it’ll be my job to get the disputing parties to the table. Another aspect of my role will be arguing and explaining the position of the universities effectively to politicians and members of the public.  

To what extent will you be working for the specific interests of the tier-one universities in your role as president of swissuniversities?

Chairing an organization always means keeping the whole picture in mind. My interests as a representative of UZH will have to take a back seat to the need to play a more impartial role and seek balance. But we’ll manage. The interests of the tier-one establishments will be well represented by the heads of the nine other cantonal universities and the two federal institutes of technology.

There’s also a chamber of universities within swissuniversities. What’s your role there?

As a regular member of the chamber of universities I’ll be free to represent the views of UZH regardless of my role as president.

How great are the differences between the tier-one universities, the universities of applied sciences, and the universities of teacher education, and how great are the similarities? 

One thing we have in common is the great emphasis we place on differences. Our guiding principal is that the different types of university are first and foremost equal, but secondly different as well. By paying attention to the specific profiles of the three types of university we can preserve and develop the diversity and complementarity of the tertiary education on offer, which is one of the great strengths of the Swiss education system. This diverse offering not only accommodates the different talents and interests of individual students, but it’s also an appropriate response to employment market demand for professionals with different types of training.

Isn’t there a danger that the profiles of the three types of university will get blurred if they cooperate more closely within swissuniversities?

Profiles will get blurred if they all start offering their students the same thing. While this risk exists, it’s more likely to get smaller rather than greater if the universities cooperate within swissuniversities and coordinate their efforts more effectively.

How can the universities strengthen their profiles?

By adhering closely to the principle laid down in the new Higher Education Act that the higher education sector consists of different but equivalent types of institutions. Each type of institution performs a particular function within the tertiary education sector as a whole, and should gear its study offering to this function.

The three types of university complement one another rather than being in a hierarchy. This means they can’t be ranked against each other; each orients itself to its own yardsticks. Universities of applied sciences are not “second-rate” universities. They’re fully-fledged, internationally recognized universities with specific qualities. Our aim in the Swiss higher education sector is to have first-rate universities of applied sciences, first-rate universities of teacher education, and first-rate tier-one universities.

The specific function of the universities of teacher education is obvious: their job is to train teachers. But what’s the core difference between the universities of applied sciences and the tier-one universities?

The fundamental differences all boil down to Switzerland’s dual vocational training system. In general people come to universities of applied sciences via an apprenticeship, while most people at tier-one institutions have graduated from high school. So students at universities of applied sciences bring different, more practically oriented experience than tier-one university students, and study programs at universities of applied sciences are more practically oriented as well.

What about research: Should universities of applied sciences only be doing applied research, with the pure research left to the tier-one institutions?

No, that would be dogmatic and unrealistic. While universities of applied sciences do tend toward the practical side and the tier-one universities toward pure research, this shouldn’t be what distinguishes the different types of institution. Tier-one universities have always done practically oriented research as well. Take engineering, or clinical research in medicine to test new drugs and develop new therapies. The quality of applied research at UZH is reflected, for example, in the large number of patent applications and start-ups originating from our researchers. The tier-one universities are also very interested in practical innovation funding from the CTI.

At the same time I think it makes sense – and it’s also good for competition – if the universities of applied sciences also apply for SNSF funding for pure research projects. I’m in favor of a more pragmatic approach to research funding. That way we avoid damaging the profiles of the various types of higher education establishment.

Do you think transferring between universities should be made easier?

In some cases the rules on transfers are opaque and inconsistent. There’s no question that we have to make them more transparent. But it’s also clear that transfers will have to be subject to conditions, even in the future. Anyone switching from a tier-one university to a university of applied sciences will have to catch up in terms of practical experience, and by the same token anyone switching to a tier-one institution will have to get their academic knowledge up to speed. The study requirements for the three types of institution have to remain different, otherwise we’ll have a mishmash rather than clear profiles – and that’s something we want to avoid.

So higher education establishments should be cooperating more closely without getting too similar.

Exactly. This also means, of course, that there should be more collaboration between complementary study programs at the different types of institution, for example medicine and nursing. Graduates entering the workplace should be equipped to collaborate with people with a different educational background. To continue our example: Doctors will in all probability have to work closely with nursing professionals. Their studies should prepare them for this – and the different universities should be working together to make sure it happens.

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