28 Sep A small university with an innovative impact on the big issues
Kilian Stoffel, Rector, University of Neuchâtel, introduces an institution focused on relevant education and research that answers the world’s burning questions
The University of Neuchâtel is a major player and innovation driver in the western region of Switzerland, offering a wide range of courses through its four faculties. It gathers about 4,200 students (22 percent of them from abroad), making the university a comfortable nest in terms of size, and enabling close proximity between students and professors. Could you give us a rapid overview of the university and explain how it stands out in Switzerland’s higher education landscape?
Proximity is indeed one of the key characteristics of the university both in regard to research and teaching. A unique characteristic of the institution is that it’s a small university yet, at the same time, a general university. We have four faculties that cover almost all the domains, with a strong accent on humanities, human sciences, economy and law, which make about 80 percent of our programs, and the remaining 20 percent focuses on natural sciences and technical domains.
Size-wise, the University of Neuchâtel is the smallest general university in the country. Because of its small size, it is relatively easy to work on inter-disciplinary projects, which is less easy to do in large institutions. Additionally, when it comes to teaching, it is relatively easy for students to get in touch with their professors. The university is about to propose even more master programs, including in specific fields that are not covered in the usual traditional disciplines. They are more focused on inter-disciplinary work and targeting the specific questions and needs that are relevant in our society.
What are some of the latest advancements or milestones of the university in terms of research and development (R&D)?
In terms of structure, we have a local innovation network that unifies academic institutions with industry and R&D institutions. The University of Neuchâtel is one of the five key partners in this project. It ensures the role of social innovation, especially between our academic partners.
With regard to projects, I would like to highlight two or three areas where we are quite active. The first one is with our national migration center, as migration remains a very important question nowadays. A second focus that we have is on chemical ecology: we are working on sustainable methods to fight insects and protect plants. Then we have lots of activities related to digitalization across our social sciences, law school and economic department.
Universities in Switzerland have spearheaded a number of interesting COVID-19 related projects, in order to better understand the dynamics and consequences of the coronavirus pandemic and how to develop effective measures to overcome it. Can you tell me about the efforts made and projects developed at the University of Neuchâtel in that regard?
We are not a technical or medical school, so we are not very oriented toward vaccines and medical treatments. We have had quite a number of activities on the legal level—the law school has organized seminars for enterprises to look at what the crisis means for them, the rules related to the confinement of people that have to work from home, the insurance implications and so on. In our social department we had people who specialize in human geography analyzing several cities to try and find better structures to combat the virus from the social point of view. They also ran many smaller seminars that provided historical insights on this kind of pandemic and offered support to companies in terms of how to work around coronavirus. A lot of our professors were also active in advising businesses and institutions on the legal and economic issues surrounding COVID-19.
As a professor of computer science yourself, to what extend has this sanitary crisis disrupted the traditional educational models and accelerated some of the key trends already in place, such as digitalization ?
In my opinion, it didn’t disrupt enough. The traditional methods of teaching were just moved to online platforms—but if we had use those tools to their maximum, innovation would really have taken place. We made a certain move towards digitalization with remote teaching, online teaching and so on, but most of the teaching was still very close to and mimicked traditional teaching. This worked pretty well—technologically it flowed, there were no interruptions at the university and no break in education. In retrospect, our students and teachers were quite happy with the systems put in place, but realized that the methods were still very close to traditional teaching. So, when you talk about disruption, I think there is still some space left to really disrupt traditional teaching.
Going forward, will the university continue in that direction and reinforce these new models, like e-learning, as the new normal?
We did collect some feedback from the students and teachers. Both remote teaching and in-person teaching have their pros and cons. Currently, the big demand is to maintain them both, which is quite a challenging situation for the university. A key factor is the proximity between students and teachers, and that was actually one of our missions at the beginning of the crisis: to maintain direct contact with our students, as the social dimension of teaching would be missing. The next step we are working toward is to have a mixed scenario, where we can leverage both online teaching and in-person, face-to-face education.
Internationalization is also a key trend that has been accelerating in Swiss universities lately. How do you work on expanding and promoting the university outside of Switzerland?
On the teaching side, we have collaborations with more and more universities all around the world. We have around 250 agreements with international universities for student exchanges, which is one element, but more important is the content of the program. At the Master’s level, we have very specific programs as a small university—we are not covering everything but we have niches. These niche programs are quite unique and they attract students from all over the world. This is a different strategy than for our basic, bachelor programs that are more targeted at local students, whereas the unique profile of our Master’s programs make them unique worldwide. Our numerous international collaborations have helped us attract students to these.
When it comes to research, what kind of efforts is the university making to accelerate technology transfers, cooperation with global universities and partnerships with industrial players across borders?
Aside from the networks I described before, we do a lot of innovation promotion at the university. We take innovation as a subject of research, which helps professors integrate different disciplines or domains of activities. Neuchâtel used to be a big watchmaking hub, but has now moved toward microtechnologies and nanotechnologies and, more recently, toward digitalization. At the university, we are studying the social aspect of this transition, how this technology integrates into society and how to make it more accessible to society. This is quite unique because most universities are more focused on the technical and science side, which gives us a niche domain.
Next academic year promises to be interesting with this pandemic still raging. What message would you like to send to the global student community?
The University of Neuchâtel doesn’t want to be the largest or the richest university, but we would like to be the most relevant university. This is something that is very important for us at the moment. We would like to be relevant in all aspects: the content of our teaching but also the form of our teaching and the content of the research, which should focus on the burning questions of societies. We want our students to be in sync with the questions of our society and we want our academic training to help provide answers to these questions.
What are your biggest priorities as rector at present?
Our priorities are digitalization and sustainability. Those are the two elements that are guiding our approach independently from the crisis. They will be our priorities for the next two or three years at least and will remain our main focus. In these areas, we need to concentrate on some specific aspects—for example, in digitalization there is important activity in cryptomoney happening in Neuchâtel. This is one of the niche technology areas that we work on and our science department is active in this domain. Our law school also has a lot of projects around smart contracts and the use of cryptocurrencies. This illustrates our vision to work around digitalization and the different issues surrounding it.
To conclude this interview, what’s your final message to the readers of Newsweek?
The University of Neuchâtel represents Switzerland. It’s a small university, just like Switzerland is a small country, but is has a relatively high innovation impact. It offers a very nice environment close to one of the key industries of Switzerland—the watchmaking industry. It is a university that represents the uniqueness of Switzerland and its specific regions.