‘Our true duty is to prepare students for a global world’

What is the difference between facts and knowledge? Why are international students so important to Swedish universities? And what makes Gothenburg, and Chalmers University of Technology, so special? We spoke with Chalmers Vice President Maria Knutson Wedel to find out.

'Our true duty is to prepare students for a global world'

What is the difference between facts and knowledge? Why are international students so important to Swedish universities? And what makes Gothenburg, and Chalmers University of Technology, so special? We spoke with Chalmers Vice President Maria Knutson Wedel to find out.


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

I am Vice President for Education at Chalmers, which means I am in a top management executive team at Chalmers. I am responsible for all education.

At Chalmers we have a matrix organizational structure. I work with everything from recruitment to programmes, directors, support, et cetera.

Each day I have lots of meetings! Meetings, meetings, meetings. Once a week I have my executive committee meeting – I have four deans responsible for all programme heads. I also meet with students, financial officers, administrators, and analysts. I have meetings of all kinds and plenty of emails, too. It could be about budget, or something about the executive committee, or it could be dealing with acute student matters. Or perhaps about strategy development of our physical and digital learning facilities.

What is the best part of your job?

I like meeting all the students, and the sense of development my work gives me. No day is like the next. Each and every person I work with wants to be better and wants to develop themselves and the organization. There is a sense of constant movement and improvement here.

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

I usually call it our DNA. And I would say that one part of our DNA is made up of elements that will always be there, and another part is made up of things that have been added to our DNA development.

Looking at the two basic parts of our DNA, one component is that we are a classic, research-heavy university of technology. Almost all of our programmes lead to a professional degree, and we focus heavily on research.

That means that we really are driven by quality as well. We have to have top research and be able to maintain our professional engineering degrees. Our students get the best of both worlds in research and education simultaneously.

Secondly, our geography is something we would not change. Our region is part of our identity. This area is dominated by the manufacturing industry, the transport sector, and a very large harbour – not large compared to Shanghai perhaps, but by European measures very large.

This gives us the option of having programmes like auto engineering and naval officers – very unique programmes.   

We also have a very long tradition of entrepreneurship. We have offered a Masters in Entrepreneurship for a long time, and our incubator for startups is number seven globally.

And then there’s our student unions. I really love our student unions. Some of them run companies. They have huge turnover. The entrepreneurial mindset is very visible here.

Finally, I would say the vision we have chosen to have for a sustainable future is a defining characteristic.

We don’t have programmes on a very basic level that are solely devoted to sustainability; instead we have sustainability as an aspect of all programmes. And the effects of that are visible.

All of our students work with sustainability, and they all have the possibility to go into a Masters degree that is devoted to sustainability, such as Industrial Ecology. We also offer our “challenge labs”, where you can do a Master’s thesis together with other students, working in parallel on solving the same very problem.

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

Two things: the first is the flat organization structure.

I really love when I meet international students the first time and I tell them they can call all their teachers by their first names, and say that we work together with all our students. The students are really a part of the development of their education.

And I hear that from students too, how they can go to professors, walk right up and say, “Hej, Stefan! I would like to talk about something.” Having that access, even to top-level management, is a very Swedish thing.

And the other thing is that students here are trained to work in groups, with teams, to do projects together. Education is collaborative. That is also something that Is very Swedish.

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

There are many, there’s not one focus really. But of course for us, since we have engineering programmes, one problem is that we don’t have enough teachers. And I would say the root of that problem is that we need to have enough students who want to study to become teachers in the first place.

There is a shortage of engineers too, but it’s overshadowed by the number of teachers and nurses needed. But we know we will have a shortage of engineers in the future if we don’t handle our resources carefully.

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 would say that what you have in the palm of your hand is facts. Knowledge is a much broader word.

Facts need analysis. Higher education is critical in order to do analysis and turn facts into knowledge.

But we do have to be aware of what digital tools our students are using; sometimes the teachers have trouble catching up. We need to figure out how to keep education relevant and meaningful for our students. How can we use this constant access to facts to become even better at teaching critical thinking?

For us for instance, we now have a blended support team, and we do Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) too.

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

I use Twitter for various reasons. I like to follow what is happening. And if there is a meeting in Stockholm that is important and I can’t take part, I use the hashtag to follow it on Twitter.

And I sometimes add things myself, perhaps when a student has built something or done something great, or something else I want to share with people. It’s just one way of communicating.

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

We chose very early on to have international programmes, back in the early 1990s. I am very proud that, in 2007, we decided that we will not have our international students in separate programmes than our Swedish students. It’s entirely integrated; we don’t have any programmes that are only for international students. Our Swedish students who attend for five years might have a couple of years in Swedish, but after three years everything is in English.

And we did an alumni survey and the results showed that they think it’s great. One of the questions was, “If you didn’t go to your university, where else would you have gone?” And Chalmers was the only school on the survey where students answered that, if not for this school, they would have studied abroad otherwise, not chosen another school in Sweden.

Why are international students important to the Chalmers University community?

Quality, of course. No matter which country you come from, you will work in a world that is very much focused on globalization. It affects all of us. So our true duty, when it comes to quality education, is to prepare our students for a global world.

And to do that, that means that all our students need to meet students from other cultures and be prepared for working with people from other cultures. Without international students there would be a huge quality drop.

Any advice/tips on how international students on how to get acclimated quickly?

I would say, even if they are not planning to stay in Sweden for a professional career, that our Swedish courses are great. It’s a really good way of starting to speak Swedish with other students. We also have some language cafes and other initiatives like that.

I don’t expect anyone to be proficient in Swedish after a short time, but it is a great way of settling in.

Another way is to take part in the unions. The student union is so active, in so many areas. When I see international students who have settled in quickly, they are typically involved in these groups in the union. There are clubs for everything. They might be in a club for flying hot air balloons, making Swedish friends but also learning.  The pyrotechnical group is another club. They build fireworks. And we have a group that builds cars, and one for horseback riding. Find something you want to try and go for it.

Describe one must-see or must-do thing for students studying there – can be on or off campus. What should international students not miss?

The archipelago.  It’s the heartland of Gothenburg. It’s all free; you can use your bus ticket to go out there and go hiking from island to island.

In the summer time it is fantastic and there are a lot of tourists. And in the winter it is so serene and so quiet. My family comes from one of those islands. Swedish small islands in the archipelago in the winter, with the silence, the wind, and the water…it’s very special.