‘We teach critical doing, not just thinking’

This week we put Malmö University in the spotlight. Pro Vice Chancellor Cecilia Christersson tells us about what makes the university special - and why critical thinking is just one side of an important coin.

'We teach critical doing, not just thinking'

Describe your role at the university. What do you actually do? What is a typical day like?

I was Deputy Vice Chancellor for 6 years, but since the 1st of September this year, I have taken up the position of Pro Vice Chancellor for Global Engagement and Challenge-Based Learning at Malmö University. I’m responsible for the overall internationalisation of the university, but my days at the moment largely involve rearranging my new position here, and setting up connections – establishing a link between research and education.

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

Since our inauguration in 1998, we have specific engagements and objectives in driving social change and addressing important issues in society. We take a strategic, cross disciplinary approach to research and education and focus on widening participation – and we have certainly succeeded. An entire 70 percent of our students are first-generation academics, whose parents did not have higher education.

Something that has become increasingly clear is that universities are considered research based institutions – focussed on critical thinking. At Malmö, however, we also think of critical doing. We believe our students are agents of change – we prepare them for the challenges they will face later in life, and teach them how to successfully tackle these challenges.

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

The big issue that we have to address is the refugee situation. That terrible situation has opened up our eyes. Are we really as open as we like to think here in Sweden?

We have a real challenge, around the world, in terms of migration. I believe Sweden can really take a stand in driving education as a force for change in society, and has the potential to do a lot of fantastic things. When we look at the rest of the world, education is very much a privilege for people. If we are serious about shifting society towards the common good, we have to look at democratising education.

Here in Sweden we also have a lot of rules and regulations that make it difficult for foreign students to attend Swedish universities, so that is a major issue which Swedish higher education must address.

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)?

I’m a big digital fan. Digitalisation is, in a way, a democratisation of knowledge in society. But universities definitely have a role not to be solely the ones designing the research questions. Together with society, through digitalisation, we can bring in new research questions – it is a participatory process of finding answers to important questions.

However, while universities have made research much clearer, and we should be grateful that we have a set mission in terms of research – but then we have the challenge of accepting education from different digital platforms and online courses. So there are a lot of challenges ahead, but the role of universities is, I believe, even more relevant now (after digitalisation) than before.

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

I’m very active on social media – through Twitter and Facebook etc. Really, it’s about being involved in society – to be the person putting the spotlight on programmes and issues, inviting discussion. For me, it’s a natural way of reaching out to people and getting ideas back from society. Social media acts as a bridge between society and higher education. We have to voice what we want to do as a university, and presence on social media is a great way of achieving that.

How 'international' is Malmö compared to other universities in Sweden? Describe some concrete measures.

I think Malmö is very international, particularly in the way that we look at widening participation. In 2003, we introduced the term “internationalisation at home”– we are aware that in a multicultural city like Malmö you have to be international on a local level.

We have also had a very interesting project called glocalisation, where we ran seminars in 4 different continents, giving students the opportunity to express and discuss local issues on an international scale.

At Malmö, we are also pretty good at reaching out to different countries. Our international students act as ambassadors for the university – they are a very effective way of spreading the message about the university and attracting more international students to Malmö.

Why are international students important to the Malmö University community?

I believe that’s a quality issue – it’s related to what the universities want to do with their international students.  At Malmö, we learn from our international students, we are aware that they help us get a better understanding of the world.

If we want to work with internationalisation in a way that truly makes a difference in society – I think we need to collaborate with other universities and partners to ensure we all have the same vision about internationalisation and what it’s for.

Any advice on how international students can get acclimated quickly?

It’s more of a question of how do we, as universities, interact with international students.  As teachers, for instance, we have to be more positive about switching to English and other languages for international students.

Our students in Malmo are very outspoken. When our students go abroad, we should include some sort of social engagement project, and we need to be a little more aggressive on saying what purpose education has on society for international students.

Describe one must see or must do thing for students studying at Malmö – on or off campus. What should international students not miss?

Most important, I believe, is for our students to integrate into the city – Malmö is a wonderful place so it’s important to become and feel part of the city in which they live.

But also, engage in our Student Union. We have a unique international council that’s run mostly by international students, which is really quite unusual, that means they have meetings English, driving issues and inviting students from other countries to experience and really feel part of this union.