Teaching Day 2024: maintaining our core values

Current hot topics, such as budget cuts and the preservation of the quality of education in light of the influx of new students at the Bachelor’s level, dominated the majority of presentations delivered by the President of the ETH Board, Professor Michael Hengartner, and by the rector of ETH Zurich, Professor Günther Dissertori.

A success that is not sustainable

In late January, the Federal Council announced new cost-cutting measures, reducing the contribution allotted to the EPFs for the 2025 budget by 100 million francs. A decision which undoubtedly puts EPFL and ETH Zurich under pressure.

„Politicians often ask me what the secret of our success is,“ Professor Michael Hengartner shared during EPFL’ General Assembly of the Teacher Council (CCE). According to the President of the strategic management and supervisory body of the ETH Domain, the success of both institutions relies on three pillars: openness to the world, autonomous governance, and sound finances. „We want to create conditions in which the best students and scientists feel compelled to choose us,“ he declared, „and today we have challenges to address on several of these pillars.“

Professor Hengartner also emphasized the imperative of continuing efforts to increase diversity and inclusion, especially by training more women, and placing education at the forefront of current considerations, stressing the need to preserve the quality of education above all.

„The questions we need to ask ourselves are: ‚What do we want to teach the next generation? What skills, what knowledge do we want to impart? And finally, to whom do we want to teach? The number of women in our schools is increasing very slowly. If we trained as many women as men in computer science, for example, Switzerland would not lack female computer scientists.“

Similar observations

From the perspective of ETH Zurich, Professor Günther Dissertori draws a similar conclusion: both institutions are victims of their success. For the rector of EPFL’s „big sister,“ the key is to listen to stakeholders and deliver training in line with their evolving needs. He also pointed at the importance of developing project-based learning to promote a more holistic and systemic approach and to enhance students‘ ability to formulate approaches rather than finding predefined answers. Finally, he suggested considering new modalities for continuing education as another potential avenue. „One way to understand the concrete needs of the industry is project-based teaching. There is a growing demand for shorter courses, micro-credit systems. We must increasingly listen to our former students, industry, and society.“

Addressing the gender imbalance in the STEM fields, Günther Dissertori encouraged an evidence-based approach and called for intensified analysis of the impact of the many existing programs aimed at remedying this problem. In particular, he cited both schools’ programs in the learning sciences as a potential solution.

„Everything isn’t going well, but we have good news“

These talks paved the way for a roundtable discussion on the „Challenges and Opportunities for Engineering Education in Switzerland“ during the second part of the morning. Moderator and journalist Alexis Favre invited representatives from EPFL to join Michael Hengartner and Günther Dissertori on stage, calling on the Associate Vice President for Education, Pierre Dillenbourg, the Vice President for Responsible Transformation, Professor Gisou van der Goot, the Director of the Machine Learning for Education Laboratory (ML4ED), Professor Tanja Käser, and last but not least, representing the student body, Jakub Frybes, co-president of AGEPoly.

Opening the discussion, Pierre Dillenbourg called for not succumbing to pessimism. „The spirit of our meetings is gloomier than reality,“ he tempered. According to him, alongside emerging challenges, encouraging advances also deserve recognition. These include the recent appointment of the first two “MER Type II”, a title that allows recognizing individuals who have taught for years, innovated, and developed resources „but who are not on a full professorship track.“ Adding to this, Dillenbourg also mentioned EPFL’s transition to a new academic management system, the infrastructure development project that will eventually offer 1,500 new learning spaces adapted to project-based teaching, and a budget of 500,000 francs allocated to Student Assistants. „Everything isn’t going well, but we do have good news,“ he summed up.

Collaboration and communication key to addressing current challenges

In a tumultuous context then, experts from both Federal Institutes of Technology emphasized the importance of adapting to the evolving landscape while maintaining their core values and commitment to the quality of education. The focus was on the need to continue developing students‘ transversal skills and to invest in close collaboration between the two federal institutions.

„We have two joint master’s programs in cybersecurity and nuclear engineering, a joint center for data science, we are discussing and finalizing a joint center for AI, and we are discussing another center in the near future dedicated to the learning sciences. So, we are trying to have more and more collaboration; we have recently discussed having joint hybrid lessons so that we can benefit from courses that exist in one school but not in the other,“ explained Pierre Dillenbourg.

For Professor Gisou van der Goot, head of the new Vice Presidency for Responsible Transformation, ongoing societal changes should be seen as an opportunity to challenge the status quo, rethink curricula, and not lose sight of the values at the heart of universities. „Universities are places where we should be able to debate everything. We must defend our intellectual and moral autonomy,“ she emphasized.

The remainder of the Teaching Day gave the floor to EPFL teachers through a series of discussion groups to explore the issues at hand. Participants also exchanged views on more targeted themes such as AI tools for education, or broader societal topics such as mental health, cross-cutting skills, sustainability, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Recordings of the lectures and of the panel discussion are available here.
Additionally, it should also be noted that a brand new committee has just been created bringing together the presidents of the School Assembly, the CCE, the AGEPoly and the APEL and aims to provide a channel of direct exchanges between teaching staff and students and the VPO. This committee of elected officials will take office this semester.
Learn more about EPFL’s Teachers Council (CCE) here.
Author(s): Julie Clerget
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