Educating the next generation of scientists and engineers

Robert Redhammer says that public perceptions clearly play a role when students choose their fields of study: when there is a lot of promotion and talk about the information technology sector, then interest grows. “If we do not talk enough about the need for flood protection and dams, then it is natural that people are not interested in studying these engineering disciplines even though the need for these professions is immense,” said Redhammer, the rector of the Slovak University of Technology (STU) in Bratislava, the country’s oldest technical university.

Robert Redhammer, the rector of STU in Bratislava. Robert Redhammer, the rector of STU in Bratislava. (Source: Jana Liptáková)

Robert Redhammer says that public perceptions clearly play a role when students choose their fields of study: when there is a lot of promotion and talk about the information technology sector, then interest grows. “If we do not talk enough about the need for flood protection and dams, then it is natural that people are not interested in studying these engineering disciplines even though the need for these professions is immense,” said Redhammer, the rector of the Slovak University of Technology (STU) in Bratislava, the country’s oldest technical university.

Redhammer, an advocate of building mutually productive links between academia and the business community, envisions a university campus where firms involved in scientific and technological ventures regularly bump into students and routinely involve them in their research and development projects, while students have an opportunity to work on diploma theses that have more practical applications.

The Slovak Spectator spoke with Redhammer about the challenges of scientific and technological education in Slovakia, links between academia and businesses, international student exchange programmes within the university setting and how to build a more innovative society in coming years.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Slovakia has had a long tradition of technical education since the establishment of the Academy of Mining and Forestry in Banská Štiavnica 250 years ago. How has technical education changed since then? What current challenges does technical education face in Slovakia?
Robert Redhammer (RR):
I think there have been a couple of fundamental moments, one being the introduction of free education and mandatory school attendance in Slovakia. Another was the founding of the Academy of Mining and Forestry, since mining towns such as Štiavnica and Kremnica were in need of engineers and technicians who were lacking in much of Europe. Empress Maria Theresa of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire introduced some education-related reforms to set the country on the right track and she understood that it was more effective for the empire to nurture its own engineers than to bring people from other countries. Her administration supported the founding of technical schools in the mining field and then came other institutions of higher education, academies with a technical orientation and a focus on geology and iron processing. The number of students in one class reached 30, which was relatively large compared to other schools that had five students per class. The mining academy functioned here for 150 years and its closing was caused by political changes rather than its operation. About 20 years later in 1937 the Technical University of M. R. Štefánik opened, which actually is our university, first established in Košice; thus we are marking our 75th year.

Today we have more technical schools in Slovakia. I do think that the culture of education in the subjects of mathematics, physics, chemistry and natural sciences is strong enough here in Slovakia but recently we have been feeling certain effects from the gradual dismantling of these subjects in general education at elementary and secondary schools. Yet, the number of properly-educated people is still relatively high. Over the past 20 years there have been different types of reforms and within some of these reforms, for example, the amount of mathematics taught at secondary schools has been reduced, which negatively impacts technical education in particular, as well as the overall education of the young generation. The teaching of mathematics, physics and natural sciences in Slovakia’s general education over the past 75 years has been very good and Slovak industry is still benefiting from that.

TSS: STU has been ranked among the leading universities in Slovakia. STU graduates easily find jobs and some of those jobs are among the best paid in the country. So how do you explain the relatively low interest of students in studying technical professions?
This phenomenon has several dimensions. There are different kinds of schools in Slovakia in terms of their focus, methods of education and of course quality. We prefer discourse stressing the differences between the schools rather than claiming that other schools are of lower quality.
Perhaps one school excels in a certain area and other schools are better in other aspects. I am not saying that a possible lack of quality should not be discussed, but I am saying it is first advisable to deal with concrete and factual issues.

I am, of course, very pleased that STU has achieved such high rankings, but what especially brings me satisfaction is that our graduates earn higher salaries, according to an independent survey. As far as students’ lack of interest in technical fields, this phenomenon has different angles. Students are making their choices based on information available to them: when there is a lot of promotion of the IT sector and it is described as a popular study field, then students’ interest grows. If we do not talk enough about the need for flood protection and dams, then it is natural that people are not interested in studying these engineering disciplines even though the need for these professions is immense. So all this is inter-linked and we need to learn to talk about these issues in a more popular way and perhaps this is a challenge that we at STU face. A reduced interest by students in particular disciplines is always a problem for all universities because it has financial implications for the school since that particular department then has a tighter purse, as finances are related to enrolment.

Nevertheless, industrial firms face the most serious problem: if they lack professionals, such as engineers, then the companies have pretty serious problems. These firms, in fact, offer very favourable working conditions for university graduates. The paradox, however, is that sometimes they cannot find graduates who know a particular field; the lack of experts in some very specific technical areas is a most serious problem.

TSS: The lack of links between academia and business has been criticised for a long time. What is your opinion about this?
In natural sciences and technically-oriented subjects, it is very difficult to talk around a subject: one really has to deliver concrete and acceptable results. A graduate must really know the subject and build his responses in the work environment around this factual knowledge. If they cannot do so, they cannot succeed.

There is very peculiar school financing in Slovakia and we have been trying to bring some logic to it. There are quite a number of parameters but despite good evaluations from the labour market or research circles we [in technical education] are not getting the most favourable deal. If we compare our system with the ones used in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria or even Great Britain, the amount flowing to institutions that educate on the principles of research and outcomes are significantly higher than to other schools.

For example, Oxford in the UK is a school similar in size to STU but it has a 20-times higher budget per capita. Some other good schools in Britain have four or five times higher funding per student than we have here. In Slovakia, the difference between various universities in terms of funding is very minor.

Thus, we are very much dependent on cooperation and other resources. For example, we seek contracts we can work on, which are not any kind of extra funding for the school, but real work for which we are paid. We do have the option of seeking grants but this possibility is extremely underfunded in Slovakia.

TSS: What amount would you like to see on an investment cheque for STU to fulfill its ambitions?
I estimate that €100 million would be an ideal investment for the school, which should be optimally invested over the range of 10-20 years and would also include the reconstruction of student housing and utilities. We have started construction of a new building for information technology and it should be finished in April, meaning that instruction in information technologies should begin in new classrooms in the next academic year.

TSS: Could you tell us about some ways to build more links between academia and business?
We have picked the path of university scientific-technological parks. We are developing three of our four university areas through these projects and are attracting firms directly to our campuses to cooperate with them there. We want firms to be on our campuses so that they regularly bump into students and involve them in their development projects. Also in this way the scientific-technological parks can add stability to our faculty members so they stay within the university and students also have an opportunity to work on topics for their diploma theses that have more practical applications. In fact, this direct connection is crucial. This is what we need to arrange now and we have already submitted a project to create the groundwork for this vision.

TSS: Are Slovak universities open enough to international exchanges? Is study at Slovak universities interesting for foreign students?
There are different takes on this issue. The first view is that in the area of research we are internationally-acknowledged. The number of projects we are working on might be slightly lower than at other international universities, but it is still a decent number. As far as student exchange is involved, our share is lower. We are now experiencing yet another wave of orientation towards English-language education. The question is always, however, whether you have enough people and the finances to motivate faculty to do the same work once again but under more complicated conditions. Yet another issue is whether you can get enough students in one particular field of study because it makes very little sense to open a course for a single student. So you always need a minimum critical mass to open these courses. But there are prospects and we see potential in the upcoming two years to increase the number of international students.

TSS: Which fields of study at STU are most interesting for foreign students?
Interestingly, architecture is very popular, as well as the faculty of construction engineering and its study disciplines and also mechanical engineering and electro-technology. I think chemical technologies could also be popular but I am not able to say that at the moment.

TSS: You have been advocating the idea that transfer of academic knowledge is crucial for society. How do you see Slovakia’s position in the area of innovation?
Slovakia has been criticised for having a weak position. If we count only in a technocratic way, we might not find any shocking numbers, especially not in certain categories, but on the other hand we need to realise that no extra steps can substitute for what really should work naturally. It is not enough to create something at a university and then sell the invention licence to someone. You need people who transfer this knowledge into practical application, who know how the invention works, and each transfer must go along with the people. Thus, the success of innovation is not really about the number of patents. We have a relatively low number of patents, only 10 registered for our institution, but then as well about 200 patents which involved our people – colleagues who were working abroad where these patents were registered. We have many skilled people but it is easier to submit an invention for patenting somewhere where there is a well-working mechanism.

We are now facing the challenge of creating our own university policy for innovation as well as to develop mechanisms of cooperation with business. Twenty years ago things were dismantled in a sort of post-revolution craze but a new system has not been developed. Recently, there were visions that it needs to be done at the level of the state, but that can never really work because bureaucrats, no matter how hard they try, could never handle all those specifics at each school and if this process does not happen right where the ideas germinate, then it will not work at all.

We do have micro-training here, inspired by a project from Oxford University which has its own trade company, Isis Innovations, which carries out all forms of technology transfer and Oxford elaborated some recommendations for us. Nevertheless, we are still struggling with a lack of people who are able to oversee such a project over a longer term since a little better purse is necessary compared with what we currently have. But I hope that we will now be able to finance more of our own projects, not only do so through other projects, which always have some limitations.

TSS: What kinds of barriers prevent more effective transfer of innovations?
The most significant barrier to the development of innovations comes from Europe’s business structure as well as the difficulty in breaking into global markets. Just imagine that there is a group of young people here who develop an innovation and they transfer it to production and gain a market in Slovakia. Then if they just want to enter the Czech Republic, they must create another business strategy for that market. If they want to go to Hungary, they must translate everything into Hungarian and there is just so much investment required before the cash flow comes. Just imagine that in the US you create a product and you instantly have a huge market and rather than making investments into multiple business strategies you can invest in innovation. You can instantly sell in Canada and Australia without a language barrier. Of course there are positive examples here, for example ESET. By offering its products through the internet the company did not need to break through the European barriers but they directly entered the global market instead. Today ESET software protects about 10 percent of all computers around the world. The company provides encouragement that IT investments in Bratislava in cooperation with the business sector will pay off.

TSS: Is there a trend that researchers and other innovative people leave Slovakia?
I would, perhaps, not term it that way. Of course, we have a lack of professionals in certain areas but in some other areas they are really strong. I do think that some of the recently initiated projects and the fact that large institutions in Slovakia are starting to talk to each other means there is a process of crystallisation. It shows that there are quite strong groups here not only in IT but in other areas such as materials technology, electro-technology, and surface physics as well as bio-technologies for the food industry or even renewable energy. Then there are medical bio-technologies in which the Slovak Academy of Sciences and Comenius University are rather well-established. It seems there is a platform which is becoming more visible. From this point of view I think that the situation is not that bad. On the other hand, if particularly skilled people find an opportunity to travel abroad, they will probably go.

TSS: You are an expert in nano-technology. Now that you are serving as rector do you find time for your own research?
It is more difficult now but I still have projects that are on-going and my colleagues are helping with them. I am an advocate of investments into nano-diagnostics so that we are able to take a closer look or observe things in this miniature dimension. It is almost like Fleming having a microscope when penicillin was invented. Without having the necessary instruments, we cannot move ahead.

For more information about the Slovak labour market, HR sector and career issues in Slovakia please see our Career & Employment Guide.

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