From where I sit - Free to succeed

September 30, 2010

What is the recipe for making a world-class university? For such a complex endeavour, there is no simple or sure formula for success, but there are certain principles that I believe are of vital importance for ETH Zürich - the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

The first one is autonomy. ETH is a federally funded institution, but it enjoys a large degree of autonomy from the Swiss government. Within the framework of four-year performance mandates and solid public funding, the expertise to be found inside ETH itself is the finest guide to lead the institution towards its objectives. The experts in each scientific field are best placed to judge in which directions research and education could and should be developed.

Autonomy and devolved responsibilities depend on good people at all levels. Since its founding in 1855, ETH has aimed to recruit the best people, regardless of the colour of their passport. Attracting excellent scholars and researchers depends on a combination of factors. Scientists seek the best possible environment: talented students, inspiring colleagues, a top-notch infrastructure, an atmosphere of freedom and as few bureaucratic obstacles as possible. ETH works hard to try to meet these requirements.

Our university also owes a great deal to its students and young researchers. We welcome and foster an international student body. At undergraduate level, we are, and wish to remain, a national institution - with teaching mainly in German and 80 per cent of students coming from Switzerland. But already at master's level, the picture changes - more than one-third of the cohort are international students. And at the next level up, no less than 60 per cent of our 3,600 doctoral students have been attracted to Zürich from abroad. Excellent faculty draw excellent students to Zürich and vice versa, a self-reinforcing mechanism.

Autonomy allows a university to take a long-term view, enabling researchers to pursue lines of inquiry that have uncertain outcomes. Fundamental research in particular requires a commitment far beyond the next annual report or university ranking.

Autonomy also implies a high degree of accountability. ETH is keenly aware of its responsibility towards society - in Switzerland, in Europe and across the world. We have an important role as "honest broker", as a fair and impartial mediator helping society in seeking solutions to the grand challenges ahead.

In addition to being committed to tackling the big societal problems as part of a worldwide scientific network, ETH makes intense efforts to transfer knowledge into society and the economy. The results of these efforts can be seen in a strong entrepreneurial culture and the large number of spin-off companies set up every year.

Research is important, but it is only through the link with teaching that a research-intensive university will fulfil its true potential. Compared with many other European universities, ETH's departments and faculty members have a large degree of autonomy to adapt their curriculum and course content to reflect cutting-edge research. Together with a general culture of commitment to and care for teaching, this can guarantee an education of consistently high quality.

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