Sabine Seidler is Rector of TU Wien and President of uniko, photo: Raimund Appel

14. June 2022

Achieving visible peaks through cooperation – Interview with Sabine Seidler

On 8 June 2022, we welcomed top-class speakers in Salzburg on the subject of universities and higher education in the 21st century. One of them was Sabine Seidler, Rector of the Vienna University of Technology. We asked her what the university of the future looks like for her and how a location can be successful despite small-scale structures and demographic change.

How do you envision the university of the 21st century?

In any case, it is an interdisciplinary one and one with digital and physical components. It is international and probably very large. Large, on the one hand, because many students can connect from all over the world. Large, on the other hand, because it requires just as much space resources on site. Both for teaching and learning activities. We will probably no longer need such large lecture halls as we currently have at the TUW, because mass events are streamed. For that we need other rooms, differently structured and more.

We also have to overcome subject divisions to a certain extent. There is the keyword of digital humanism, where the human being is at the centre of digital solutions. That means we also need humanities graduates who work on solutions together with technicians. Future graduates must certainly have these competences.

I am a technician myself and have an idea of what innovation is. When we discuss ideas with artists, the result is certainly different than when we do it alone. But certainly nothing worse. Such approaches will be needed more and more.

What is the current state of Austrian higher education?

This question is difficult to answer because it is always a question of what you compare. In any case, there are special features in Austria: For example, there are 73 tertiary institutions that offer a very large variety. This has advantages and disadvantages: The advantage is the broad range of education for young people. The disadvantage is that this makes us small-scale in many areas and often perhaps not as visible as we would like. But when it comes to the best brains, international visibility is essential.

So things are not particularly good for our excellence?

You can’t say that. Austria is top in individual subjects. This applies, for example, to subjects in the humanities and social sciences, in physics or in the biotech sector or in the arts. However, as institutions we do not have 20 world-class groups each, but one or two.

Austria is not particularly big either…

Neither is Switzerland. As a TU rector, when I look at Switzerland, I naturally look at the ETH. But there are also universities there that are not so well funded.

To what extent does success depend on money?

In the end, it always comes down to money. I need buildings and rooms and I need good supervision ratios, i.e. many professors for few students. Of course, it always depends on what you do with the money, more doesn’t have to be better. But you can’t do it without money.

What do you think makes a university location attractive?

The more small-scale it is, the more you should look for who can join forces and how you can create excellent peaks through cooperation. Salzburg, with its six institutions, represents the entire tertiary system of universities, private universities, universities of applied sciences and colleges, the entire breadth that also exists nationwide. On the one hand, this is good for those who want to study here. On the other hand, it needs visible peaks through cooperation.

As far as internationality is concerned, one can learn a lot from art universities, which are much more international than others because of their admission procedures.

In any case, Salzburg is an attractive location. Not least because of the beauty of the city and its surroundings.

Do you mean the view of researchers or students?

That is more the view of researchers. If you look at the students’ point of view, it’s certainly a bit more differentiated. Here we have a challenge in Austria in terms of distribution. In Vienna, for example, we have too many applicants for computer science and not all places can be filled in the provinces. We – and here I can only speak from my point of view – recommend other study institutions outside of Vienna, but that doesn’t help much. The life decision often comes before the career decision. Young people, especially if they grew up in the country, are drawn to the city. With Master’s and doctoral studies, this can sometimes change and play a greater role in where I do it and where I can possibly start a career.

To what extent do the needs of business and universities diverge?

I think the main problem is the time scales. If we start from basic research, we have an extremely long time span and companies need quick solutions. Through funding programmes like the FFG or also for cooperations via the Christian Doppler Society, there are solutions here for how research can respond to these business requirements. In Austria we are very well positioned in this respect.

However, we have a shortage of graduates. Since 2015-16, we have been observing the demographic problem and the numbers are continuously decreasing. We would do well to seek out talent from the so-called “educationally disadvantaged classes” and promote them. In my view, targeted immigration would also be necessary, but it cannot come only from Europe, otherwise we would be stepping on each other’s toes. But you would have to turn a lot of screws for that to have an effect.

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