The Slovenia Times

We will study throughout our lives

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This year, the University of Ljubljana is celebrating its 100th anniversary and while that may seem a lot, the University of Ljubljana is among the younger universities in the world. What are some of the University's noteworthy accomplishments?

I agree that 100 years is not a lot for a university, but it defines our university as mature. 100 years is enough for several generations of professors to retire and for the university to establish itself as a serious institution. However, I would like to point out that our university is, in fact, more than 100 years old. As stated in Encyclopaedia Britannica, the University of Ljubljana was established as early as 1595s as a Jesuit College. It took quite some time for the institution to finally establish itself as a university because it initially only implemented a high school program. Thus, we are not only celebrating the 100th anniversary of the university, but also 400 years of academic education. Encyclopaedia Britannica clearly mentions the year 1595 and states that the university reopened in 1919. And as far as noteworthy accomplishments are concerned, there have been too many in the past 100 years. The bottom line is that we have progressed from a national university with five founding members to a large-scale, internationally acclaimed and comprehensive university with 23 faculties and three academies. What is more, the university is an influential stakeholder in terms of development and scientific research.

So, we could say that the vision of the university to become an esteemed, international and research-driven university that contributes to a higher quality of life by 2020 is coming true?

I believe so. To state some facts - the University of Ljubljana is one of the most successful members of the so-called EU13 in terms of project acquisition within the framework of Horizon 2020. We are the only national university with ERC Grants, which we are obtaining at an increasing pace, especially in the past couple of years. The University of Ljubljana also happens to be a member of the CE7 Group and the League of European Research Universities (LERU), which is the most prestigious network of European universities. In addition, we are also a full member of The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities which, like LERU, is yet another family of highly successful European universities. I would also like to point out the EUTOPIA university alliance which is a project successfully implemented by our consortium in the first tender for the so-called European University Network. Not only were we successful in the consortium with the University of Warwick, the Paris Seine University, the Spanish University Pompeu Fabra, the University of Gothenburg and the University of Brussels Vrije Universiteit Brussel, we are the coordinator of the network. We are definitely an important university in the region and whenever there are networks being formed, we are one of the first universities in the region, which makes us a highly interesting partner. Last summer, when we were submitting the applications for the first call for European Networks, we had four offers by different consortiums and associations. We wanted to be an equal partner that would represent our own interests. I believe that one of the key factors in the consortium's success was that we stated that future development should be based on equal development across all regions. I am absolutely against all attempts by the most prestigious universities to lure our top experts to France or Germany. If we fail to establish an attractive working environment in Slovenia - and I am not just referring to money - then we probably all know what will happen. Instead of brain circulation, which is a prerequisite for the personal development of any expert, professor or researcher, we will end up with brain drain.

What about the post-2020 vision? Would it include what you just stated?

As it is focused on the period until 2050, the concept of EUTOPIA definitely presents a vision for the future development of the University of Ljubljana. In addition to the equal development across all regions, our consortium places students at the forefront. We are convinced that, unlike today when students are mostly young adults, future studies will be lifelong undertakings. The third element is the so-called Society 5.0 or Society 2050. This is a new concept of development. We have had industrial revolutions before and we are currently somewhere in the middle of Industry 4.0. The next revolution envisions a much greater involvement of social sciences and humanism in technological development. By 2050, we will have reached the stage of Society 5.0. This means we will move from Industry 4.0 towards a more sustainable social development - also in the area of technology. This means that technology should by no means be ruthless.

The University of Ljubljana is the largest and the central scientific research institution in Slovenia and one of the top 3% of universities in the world. The competition is fierce! What is it that sets the University of Ljubljana apart from its competition across the globe?

As far as the ranking is concerned, we are on the charts. Each of them has its own characteristics. I believe that if someone were to speculate today and split the university in half, we could establish a technical university. This technical university would be joined by other institutions such as the Jo┼żef Stefan Institute. Such an establishment would rank far higher in the charts focused on publications and quotes. However, I believe that the comprehensive aspect of the University of Ljubljana is one of its defining features. This means that we also implement certain study programs that are important because of the role that they play in society and not only because they provide staffing for the labour market. If I were to refer to Society 5.0, this is the direction that we are developing toward. Not each of us on our own, but with as many experts as possible tackling the same issue from different angles.

Why are partnerships with other universities important and what are the plans in this area? Where do you see new opportunities?

Currently, the most important partnership is EUTOPIA. As we were drawing up the application for the call, we met with the chancellors. From the initial doubt, where nobody knew what this alliance would actually look like, we came to the conclusion that even if we were unsuccessful with the application, we would implement the project nonetheless. While there are certain European programs, such as Horizon 2020 and Erasmus which we all apply for, the content of these programs is decided upon by the European Commission, but when six universities join forces, they are free to define the program or fields of cooperation by themselves. What I am saying is that we are making a transition from quantitative cooperation to quality - to cooperation on various focus areas that a relatively low number of universities are interested in. Each of these universities is strong in one aspect, so what we are striving achieve is complementing one another.

Cooperating with the economy is highly important, not only for the staffing but also in other aspects.

Aside from the two basic pillars of the university's activity - namely education and scientific research - there is also a third important pillar. I am talking about the transfer of knowledge. And I am not referring only to the transfer of technology, but to a broader transfer of knowledge which includes not only technological innovations, but also non-technological ones. This third pillar helps us fulfil the short-term role of the university in the society, which is to present the society that finances the public university with certain results today. However, education and scientific research are long-term activities. Perhaps the most important role is to educate future experts, but these will only reach the peak of their contribution to the society in 10-20 years.

What is your opinion about the establishment of so-called spin-off companies in Slovenia? The practice is quite common abroad. Also, what is your opinion on encouraging entrepreneurship among professors at faculties?

Spin-off companies are a well-known concept in any foreign university environment. I was one of the people who initially struggled with windmills, trying to find a way to officially address this matter in Slovenia. This year, the first official spin-off company from the University of Ljubljana is celebrating its 10th anniversary. I wish that there were more of such companies, there are clearly not enough of them. Much of entrepreneurial activity also takes place without the university taking part in the operations, precisely because of the excuse that it may constitute a conflict of interest. I am convinced that the mechanism for establishing spin-off companies is constructed in a way that enables each researcher or professor at the University of Ljubljana to, if they so desire, establish such a company without any hassle.

What seems to be the problem?

I am speaking from my personal experience... On the one hand, there is an immense pressure with allegations of commercialisation, questioning whether professors employed by the university should be allowed to work for the economy or external clients. We support this as it provides a substantial extra income for our faculties. By participating in various industry projects, I was able to invest in research equipment at my faculty, which is not available to students. Some will call this commercialisation - that an external stakeholder is dictating what our research should focus on. I cannot agree with the allegations that this is bad for the university. Regardless of how much extra money professors make, we are speaking about money that demanded hard work and dedication. I always say that it is one thing to use the budget, but it is far more difficult to tap into the economy.

While we are on funds and investments. There have been complaints about investments in research equipment, stating that there are no systemic regulations, making investments in modern equipment quite difficult. Are you any closer to finding a solution? 

In recent years we were quite happy that we did not have to worry where we will get the money for our salaries. The problem pertaining to research equipment is a pressing matter which can partially be solved with schemes by the Public Research Agency, but I believe that the construction of new faculties is far more urgent. I am not sure as to how we will solve this problem. If we were to construct them with ordinary credit loans, the state would have to guarantee them for us, which would impact the fiscal rule, so there are many reservations as to how we should go about funding pressing matters. We need EUR 200 million which equals our annual education budget, excluding research. This would cover the current projects for the construction of new faculties.
 

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