‘Knowledge knows no borders’

'Knowledge knows no borders'
What makes Uppsala so popular - and what makes it so international? How can international students settle in? We asked Vice Chancellor Eva Åkesson to find out!

Describe your role at the university. What do you actually do? 

I’m the Vice Chancellor of Uppsala University, and have been since January 2012.

I am responsible for more or less everything at the university. I have a very interesting job, and no day is like the next. There are meetings with researchers, students, collaborators on international and national levels, and more.

What makes Uppsala University unique? What are its defining characteristics? 

For starters, it’s Sweden’s first university. We were founded in 1447 and we have a long, fascinating history with a lot of fascinating historical scientists, including Linnaeus and Celsius.

But today, it is a place for world-leading researchers from across the world to work in an international environment. We can offer an environment where students are able to meet senior, leading scientists in their fields.

There are also many opportunities to take part in cultural activities with distinguished guests. Among those are many laureates – both of the Nobel Prize and other honours. In fact, on December 13th each year, most of the Nobel laureates come here to give open lectures, open to students and researchers but also the public. We try to be a very open university; in everything we do.

In your opinion, what most distinguishes higher education in Sweden from other countries?

Swedish higher education really focuses on creative thinking and independent problem solving. We expect a lot from our students; they must be active learners and take part in seminars and debates. Students have a very important role in education and research here.

We also work very closely with our students. We have a very strong student influence. We listen to them when it comes to improving quality. We have very active students with a very strong voice. After all, more collaborators mean a higher-quality education.

What is the biggest debate/discussion currently taking place within higher education in Sweden?

I think right now we are all waiting for the research bill that will be presented in November.

We usually have a new research bill in Sweden every fourth year, in the middle of two elections. So this government will present their research bill in November, and that will tell us what the funding will be like for research in the coming years – and also how to evaluate the quality of our programmes. It will also address if there are special strategic areas we should focus on.

And an uprising debate be about admissions procedures. There will be a new proposal coming out early next year. Right now the admissions system is being investigated, and a consultant will write about it and present his proposal in March, I believe.

I anticipate that it will spark a lot of tense discussion about the admissions system. We have had a lot of complaints about it, saying it’s just a patchwork.

It’s very complicated, given that we have Swedish and international students here, but also Swedish and international schools with varying grading systems. Everyone needs to be able to understand the admissions system.

I hope that funding for researchers will be increased in this bill, and that we will have a sustainable situation for Sweden when it comes to research. It is important, I think, for Sweden to prioritize research and education.

How are universities' roles and relevance changing in a globalized, digital world? Why do they still matter when everyone can access so much knowledge in the palm of their hand from the time they can read (or watch)?

To just have numbers and information available on your computer does not make you knowledgeable. You have to be able to work with that information. That’s what we provide, critical thinking and problem solving.

In one sense, knowledge has always been at your fingertips, if you just entered a library. But universities have always had a very important role, maybe even more so now, with information just floating around. To see what is fact and not fact, and how to draw conclusions from information, are skills that are more and more important.  I think that the role and relevance of the university is increasing, not decreasing, and becoming more complicated.

How and why are you active on social media (Twitter, blog, etc.)? What do you hope to accomplish through your presence there?

Yes, I am on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Instagram, and I also write the vice chancellor’s blog for Uppsala University along with the deputy vice chancellor.

Having a blog gives me an opportunity to tell people both inside and outside the university about what we are doing. It’s also a good medium for giving commentary on politics – the things that are happening around us. And it’s great for giving people praise and appreciation, and showing you notice what is going on in the university.

Social media are useful for commenting and discussing on relative issues, both directed towards the university and outside of it.

We have about 7,000 employees and 40,000 students, so it’s a great way of communicating with everyone.

How 'international' is Uppsala compared to other universities in Sweden?

Of course there are plenty of facts and figures available. But I would say more than 40 masters’ programmes at Uppsala are totally in English, and we are getting more and more Bachelors programmes in English. We also have more than 300 free-standing courses in English.

We have great opportunities for those who come to Uppsala, and we have exchange agreements in some 55 countries and with hundreds of universities. We have 1,500 to 2,000 incoming international students each year, and something like 1,000 outgoing students.

And it’s easy to talk about numbers – but internationalisation goes much deeper than that. All of the research we do is international and has international aspects. Our research knows no borders.

We realize that our students will face a global labour market after graduation, and so we work with their curriculums to make sure they are employable in a globalized world.

We are also involved abroad. We are engaged in capacity-building initiatives in Mozambique, and I have a large delegation from Azerbaijan here this week, discussing how to build a PhD education programme there and how we can support that in various ways. We also have initiatives and collaborations with universities in Japan and South Africa. There are so, so many ways in which we are international.

And we’ve been international from the start. Our oldest formal agreement with another institution is more than 150 years old, and we have had scholars travelling around the world to and from Uppsala University for several hundred years. It’s embedded in our university.

A university should never be isolated. It is important to be international in more or less everything you do. Knowledge knows no borders.

Any tips for international students on how to get acclimated quickly?

Well, we have many student nations and clubs here. I encourage both Swedish students and international students to join the unions and clubs, where you will meet other students not just from your own programme but from the entire university.

It’s a great way to find friends, and it’s actually a common way our students find spouses and friends for life!

Students can also follow our international clubs on Facebook and get in contact with other students here, even before arriving in Sweden.

Either way, the social life in Uppsala is outstanding.

Describe one must see or must do thing in Uppsala. What should international students not miss?

It depends on the time of year. Walpurgis or Valborg, the last day of April, is sensational here in Uppsala. That is definitely a must-do.

And then all the open lectures as well. For example, in November we host an ‘Entrepreneur Day’ with many interesting lectures.

Or our botanical gardens, the tropical greenhouse we have here on campus. But also, the fantastic campus on Gotland! Even if you’re not fortunate enough that your programme is there, it’s a great way to go and visit our campus there and see the island, too!