me, myself & andrei

06 Jan 2009
Education in Sweden

I have to do mea culpa first. I’m in the danger zone as the Swedish newspaper TheLocal puts it, and I should be careful what answer I should give to the question “How do you like it here in Sweden?” I always have and will let myself be deceived and think this is a multiple-choice question. So forgive me, dear Swedes, for putting some ugly Swedish stuff with a reasonable logic at your feet, to consider or to trash.

I am now after one semester of master courses at [wiki:en:KTH The Royal Institute of Technology (KTH)] in Stockholm Kista, Sweden. Regardless of the unique context/location, I am a student at one of the 3 most prestigious Swedish universities. I could even go as far as saying that I’m a student at, not one, but two Swedish universities, since the campus, the courses and the teachers are shared between KTH and the [wiki:en:Stockholm_University Stockholm University]. So this situation should leave little space for any negative amendments. Yet..

The Pure Educational Experience

Let it be known that Romanian education (my bachelors) is often regarded, although maybe more from the inside perspective than from the outside, as lagging behind, with an old methodology, with old-mentality professors, with little above the read-the-literature & take-the-exam way of educating..

Having said that, and adding that the situation is not unique, the expectations that one can build around Swedish education can seem quite astronomical. Unfortunately, when comparing the pure educational experience between the [wiki:en:Romanian-American_University Romanian-American University] or the [wiki:en:Technical_University_of_Cluj-Napoca] (both Romanian) and KTH Kista.. it is quite hard to draw a line.

I think a comment of another KTH/SU student sums it up quite well “The Data Warehousing course is not that great but I can say it is quite good for a student with a decent database knowledge. Moreover, 6 weeks is not long but enough for everyone to finish reading at least 1 if not 3 excellent books of Kimball. What else can you ask?”.

The educational experience during the autumn semester can, with some exceptions, be gathered in a few words:

  • international literature in English (little or no experienced feedback),
  • courses with slides and speeches reproducing the literature content,
  • unbalanced structure of course material and unbalanced grading of theoretical and practical knowledge,
  • arbitrary or inconclusive grading.

Students - Initiative

During my bachelors, I’ve always thought that students are way below my expectations. I’ve always dreamed of being able to sit around a cup of coffee, brainstorm with a few people and then start this unique IT project.. I’ve been dreaming of the unique possibility of turning a regular situation of gathering skilled individuals into the special situation of having set a direction for a skilled group of individuals. But it was quite clear that there was a wide variety of skill, interest and potential level. All of them low or average enough not to give a fair chance for that special situation to grow wings.

Unfortunately, I don’t see that spirit here either, although I admit the average may be higher than back home. Then again, this is an international gathering, so the human resource pools are incomparable. Even so, I have seen very few and not very solid adventurous escapes outside the curriculum and outside the get-the-best-grade mentality. The spirit of togetherness is also not cultivated. Neither by senior students nor by the IT (KTH+SU) university structure.

Students - Language&Admission

At this moment, I still do not grasp how one student is given a better rating than another during the admission. You would think that English skills are among the most important things. I think we’re on the same side when I say that a student with average-plus English skills and with an average-minus specialized-field skills is slightly, if not a lot more valuable than a student with low English skills and with average-plus specialized-field skills. Of course, this is an extrapolation, yet hopefully not a far-fetched one.

And while I cannot assess other students’ range of skills, I can assess their English skills. English is not only useful to understand the literature and sit the exams. A comfortable and pleasant English level (in an English environment, of course) is a push towards better communication with fellow students and professors, it is a nice step towards feeling at ease which ultimately gives higher productivity and creativity and nonetheless English may be a good indication that someone is eager to adapt and to explore.

All of the above to let you know that English doesn’t look like a priority for KTH admission.

Students - Culture

Culture can take all sorts of aspects. And diversity of culture is one aspect that is very much appreciated. But when culture is more of a disturbing I’m-not-going-by-the-rules-because-I-can attitude, then it’s not cultural diversity any longer.

I think several students have moved to Sweden not only because of the highly ranked education (I’ll come to this topic later) and free tuition, but also because they wanted to take advantage of the Swedish culture. What they might not have understood is that they also need to adhere to basic Swedish culture. More importantly, it seems that Swedes taking care of induction, along with professors and assistants taking care of easing students’ way into the Swedish campus life, are not assessing and contemplating the situation on a realistic basis.

We (international students of 2008-2010)  have been told numerous times that in Sweden women are equal to men. And let me tell you that the audience was far from giving any indication that it was thinking otherwise. Yet the idea was stressed and stressed, almost as if it was something to fill the gap of induction ideas. We have also been told a few times that in Sweden it’s important to be on time. But that has not been reinforced even once after the induction - students are very much OK to enter and leave the class at their will, with the professor getting annoyed or red, but not once communicating that this is not to happen another time. Along the same line, I find it disturbing that students do not turn off their mobile phones, and even worse that they are sitting with their laptops doing anything but supporting the lecturer’s speech - browsing, chatting, giggling with a fellow over some pictures - while annoying some other students and, most importantly, they do that while the lectures are not compulsory.

Overall, I wonder how come Swedes are then surprised to see immigrants not fitting into the Swedish patterns. The simple answer to “Why?” and then the simple strong answer of “No!” can do miracles, don’t you think? Explaining why Swedes like it this way, and not the other way, and then reinforcing that they are not eager to change these habits would be the key. Instead, the approach is fairly superficial, the communication as well, and there’s only one outcome: disapproval. Looking into the future, the situation is not going to get any better for the Swedes, if there’s no energy being put into making non-Swedes act in the Swedish spirit! Segregation is definitely not the answer.

**Teaching - Culture
**

It may be Swedish to say something once, and everyone will follow. Don’t know. But it’s definitely not common-sense to think that everyone pays attention to every little thing you’re saying. I must say that I have seen that a couple of times with respect to the lecturer’s attitude and I cannot really grasp that. I cannot and will not take that approach as being Swedish, Romanian or anything else, since it doesn’t follow any logic.

Express the wish, write the guideline, enforce the rule! I say. Instead, it seems that apologies are the new fashion of Swedish practices. Apologies can be found even for students who were found guilty of plagiarism. The cultural defensive attitude seems not only to work informally, but formally as well. “This is what we/they do!” is the new motto, and nothing is to be done since it breaks diversity.

Teaching - Practices

Practical projects, whether individual or group projects, are mostly graded with pass or fail. For any student that is not engaged in the course, this means little input. Why? Well, why put a mountain of energy into something that can be moved with a drop of energy?

Theory on the other hand seems to prevail. And it prevails in an unhealthy way. Nobody can deny that theory, pure information, has an important place. Yet I don’t think (and I guess I’m not the only one) that information has a value on its own (e.g. “40 people died”). It’s the linking and the result of this linking that is valuable (e.g. “40 people died today in Gaza, after an UN school was hit”). Yet I had the surprise to see that Question Base exams are still a practice. The same type of exams that my friends and I saw as a nice way to let even the worst students pass, while creating little or arbitrary difference among students’ skills. But wasn’t that supposed to happen just in Romania? Apparently not.

Another aspect is related to the people that teach - researchers. For a multitude of reasons that I won’t enumerate, this cannot be an advantage. Researchers must find new things. Teachers must duplicate current findings in people’s minds as thoroughly as possible, using a wide area of techniques adapted to the student. A good researcher is rarely a good pedagogue as well.

A true teacher is not to be ironic or sarcastic. A true teacher is the one that organizes their course thoroughly and in such a way to convey the basic message to as many students as possible, while adding the spices for elevated students to keep them engaged as well. A true teacher will also explain the same basic message in many different ways to the same student, so that the student is ultimately enlightened and challenged to pursue, deepen and widen their education. But no.

Add to this a lack of proper administration and communication between the university, the professors and the students.. and you have a nasty picture with different confusing moments that bring down the delivery of information and that challenge the basic purpose of being in a university: to be educated.

Conclusion

It is quite hard for me to read about how KTH wants to improve its position among the international university elite, when I see the IT University so far from doing some of the most simple things right with its international students. Growing elites is not going to bring a university or a society up. Elites grow on themselves. It is almost, if not more important to lift the non-elites from an average level to a highly qualitative level, and that implies a thorough structuring, a realistic approach and high-quality teaching.

And what I see at KTH Kista makes it no surprise to read that rankings of Swedish education has been falling for 12 years now. Education-wise I see little unique/specific differences at my programme. Those differences that can tell you that the institution is on its track to provide its contribution to a qualitative education - not perfect, but challenging and with a certain spirit and flavor. Instead I see researchers that are unhappy with the admitted students - either resigned to the situation, either annoyed, either ironic and sarcastic - and not seeking to meet the students’ needs. And! And.. I see students that are comfortable where they are - students of a well-known university that carries a catchy title (“Royal”), students being given classes and homework and being tested, students that are not eager to think outside the box and ask “Is this needed? Is this something that I wouldn’t be able to do on my own? What am I winning off this experience?”. There are exceptions of course, but this is the general flavor.

And while my above experience talks about an international education, the education for Swedes doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Lack of accountability - both from students and teachers, both from academic people and administration personnel - takes no society further.

Short Conclusion

How do I like my education experience at KTH Kista? - Jorå!

Post Scriptum: I am writing this after 7 years of being in and out of Uppsala, and meeting hundreds of international people from all corners of the globe


Andrei