Tallinn University of Technology

After the pre-election debates held in the spring, primarily in virtual form due to the coronavirus crisis, TalTech University Board elected a new Rector for the university for the years 2020–2025. Rector Tiit Land took the oath of office on 31 August.

We met up with him right before the beginning of the new academic year at TalTech Student House and talked about what lies ahead for the university now. By that time, most of the rector’s office had been staffed already, and a number of objectives had been set and thoughts had. Tiit Land promises to bring a new culture of engagement to the university, and contribute more to interdisciplinarity, sustainability and support to young researchers.

Mari Öö Sarv | Photos: Karl-Kristjan Nigesen, Harry Tiits

The title of our last interview said you are a Rector engaging people. How do you find your way to those you want to engage?

It is true that people are not easy to engage and that it is not possible to engage everyone. It is difficult to reach people and make sure the information gets to them.

By engagement, I mean that we should talk to people. I remember how the rector leaving post at my other alma mater, Stockholm University, replied in an interview to the university newspaper asking what took the most time in the rector’s position, or what had been the main activity throughout the years. The answer was talking to people. And it really is that simple: we should talk to people.

People can sense whether they are being heard and whether their opinion matters and results in anything. Not all leaders are approached – some are felt to be hard to get hold of and that nothing will come of it anyway. But if the team members feel they can talk to their leader, they certainly do that more. Any kind of communication is good.

By engagement, I mean the spreading of information, too – which channels we use and how, for letting people know what is going on at the university or what the management is doing or planning to do. Communication within the university is of paramount importance. However, it is the same with information channels as with people: it is never possible to engage everyone. There are lots of people who do not read information letters because they don’t find them interesting or they prefer focusing on their own activities. Others, however, read them and complain about too little information available, and yet others say there is too much information to find what is really necessary.

It all takes time and right now, I do not have the formula for the balance that the University of Technology is going to have, but time will tell and I will use any experience I have. Looking back at my time at Tallinn University, I believe it is possible.

In the spring, you said you won't be coming to TalTech to change anything, but only to get to know it first and see what needs to be changed at all. What have you learned over these five months?

Students first: there has been lots of feedback from students on how they would like to have more interdisciplinary studies so that students from different schools could meet in one room. Interdisciplinary studies, or cooperation between different specialities, was part of my election platform as well.

In the process of staffing the rector’s office over the summer, the topic of developing entrepreneurship education and entrepreneurship has come up as something all activities at the university should attach value to.

It is very important to support the researchers who have failed to receive a research grant from the Estonian Research Council regardless of their scores – those who remained below the bar by perhaps only 0.5 points. During the elections already, I proposed a clear plan to establish an internal grant foundation at the university out of the resources for the core funding of research. Throughout the summer, the future Vice Rector for Research and I have been discussing the measures that would be topical; for instance, an additional entrepreneurship-related grant, a development one, and a kick-start grant for young researchers could be available. It is very important for the university to train future researchers.

Of course, the funding from the university’s grant foundation would clearly be linked with the university’s own strategic goals.

Also, the new rector’s office is planning to increase the scientific support capacity: how the university could centrally provide researchers with the best support for writing, managing and completing projects.

At the elections, there was a lot of debate on the governance model as well, and this is where we get back to engaging people, again. I promised I will start a discussion on how the Senate will turn out and whether the management body of the university should have more spokespeople for the academic staff, and top researchers instead of the current position-based selection.

These topics, plus engagement and communication – that people feel they are explained what is going on at the university and why, so that they could understand the decisions and plans – will be on the table of the new rector’s office right in the autumn. The first thing I am planning to do is to invite myself to visit all departments to listen to the joys and the worries and propose ideas and solutions.

In the spring, you promised you would raise the subject of academic career model to provide young researchers with a sense of security and perspective, and the topics of research funding and support. What are your thoughts on that?

Speaking of the academic career model, I am not planning to change it right away – the tenure system is working –, but we are planning to find and tend to the bottlenecks.

One of the bottlenecks is that the current model prefers those coming from outside, but we need to provide our young researchers with career prospects as well.

Another challenge is Doctoral study: the number of doctoral students coming from abroad has been increasing while the number of Estonian doctoral students has decreased. We definitely do not want Estonian doctoral students to be in the minority. This also relates to the career model: it is important that the researchers yet in the lower ranks of their academic career would have clear prospects for the future.

Funding the tenure is yet another question: I plan to discuss whether funding Tenured Professors from the departments is a better solution than the central funding of the university would be. Again, I am not rushing into changing anything, but we could discuss and weigh the idea of those funds being in the university’s tenure foundation.

How has the assembly of the team been? Are you ready for your term of office or are there any things you would still like to get ready before the “ride”?

We are almost done with the assembly and only need to have the last few members of the rector’s office approved by the University Board. I have met up with the Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs and the Vice-Rector for Research several times throughout the summer in an informal atmosphere to get to know each other. The third Vice-Rector will be the Vice-Rector for Entrepreneurship, whose areas of responsibility will be cooperation with businesses and increasing the volume of entrepreneurial cooperation, commercialisation and protection of intellectual property and horisontal coordination of entrepreneurial activities at the university. This means that the Vice-Rector will have to cooperate closely with both the Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs and the Vice-Rector for Research. A new Director for Facilities will also take office. Once the University Board approves all these names, we are ready for the “ride”.

The word “green campus” was heard a lot at the election debates, but TalTech’s values do not currently list environmental sustainability, responsibility or sustainability, and these words are nowhere to be found in the mission or vision, either. How is the campus going to change?

One of the criteria for electing a new Director for Facilities was that the person needs to have participated in the design or construction of energy-efficient and sustainable buildings.

We are planning to form a working group who would work out a wider concept for the green campus. We will involve academic staff from the university; Jarek Kurnitski is very much interested, for example, and people from the Smart City Centre of Excellence, but also from outside. If any funds become available from the European Union Structural Funds, we should be able to announce a tender to start constructing, changing and improving. The concept for this must be completed beforehand, as well as the expert working group.

However, sustainable development concerns not only the green campus or waste sorting, which, by the way, students have drawn attention to in this house, but the functioning of the whole university, across both study and research activities. Our greatest asset is our students, outnumbering the staff in the campus by more than five times, and if we do not take the time to take care of them, we are not sustainable. We should think about the students of the whole of Tallinn. In Tallinn, universities are located so close to each other that the Estonian Academy of Arts, the University of Tallinn and TalTech should and must definitely coordinate their sustainable activities.

The subject matter of sustainability reaches right into research projects as well – in the measures for the research funding programme Horizon for the new budget period, the topics of sustainable development are assessed separately for all domains.

Are there any new ideas to promote or increase synergy and the integration of specialities or for applying it in new domains/dimensions?

Let me bring an example of Tallinn University where interdisciplinarity is a strategic goal in the development plan and its development has been placed separate emphasis on in the curricula and in research work. In 2016, we created a new subject that was at first titled IDP, or interdisciplinary project. Now, it is called LIFE – an innovation integrating various specialities. After all, life is indeed interdisciplinary. Everything is related and we need to solve and cope with different problems all the time. This six credit point course is all about team work and teams must include students from at least four different specialities, plus instructors from the specialities. They get together and propose, in cooperation with the instructor, a problem they want to solve, and will defend their work and get a mark in the end. It is a compulsory subject for all Bachelor’s and Master’s students, and a very popular one. There has been a lot of feedback from instructors saying they are getting to know researchers or lecturers of other departments better. So there is no question whether it could be popular in this house as well! We can involve Mektory and entrepreneurial cooperation. I believe there will be more specific thoughts to discuss with the students in the autumn.

Are there any similar ideas for cooperation with Tehnopol as well?

First, I am planning to meet with them and see what they are planning. I would like to see more collaboration with the NICPB located right here in the campus and dotted with great researchers who would definitely be willing to participate in studies or teaching.

We simply cannot finish this conversation up without addressing the subject of internationalisation. What is its value, why does a university need internationalisation?

First of all, to ensure, maintain and advance quality. If we had no foreign students, who could we compare ourselves to and exchange experience with, and how would we set goals to improve quality? Also, internationalisation is part of us being visible and attractive and making our significance stand out better. This is what is most important.

However, internationalisation should not mean that we accept all foreign students we possibly can. We should establish principles for international studies, and the goal should be to have all schools and the entire university be part of it. Choices must be made when opening and developing international curricula. Should we focus on those the graduates of which are needed on the Estonian labour market? Definitely! But not only those. If our graduates go back to their home country, they are excellent promoters of Estonia and our university, and will bring us new great students and increase our quality and competitiveness.

It is my clear vision that different countries and cultures should be represented and the university as a whole should be multicultural and appreciative of different traditions. After all, all the foreign students learn about Estonian and other cultures here.

If we want to integrate foreign students into the Estonian labour market and culture, we should teach them much more Estonian, but we train engineers and are not a language school...

Our administrative contract prescribes our fields of responsibility and the fact that the university must provide studies of the Estonian language and culture. One of the options is for the state to increase this volume in the contract and provide more funding, while on the other hand, it is not really conceivable that we should start teaching high volumes of B-level Estonian to our foreign students. I myself, for example, have lived in Sweden for over ten years and got my Doctoral level degree there – I speak Swedish rather fluently and read a Swedish newspaper every day. So, this is where we could collaborate with other universities or language schools.

And it all boils down to money here, again.

Yes. But I think this could be something primarily in the interests of the state.

And yet, we have seen the goals of universities collide with government preferences. What is the direction TalTech should take and who, if anyone, should it harmonise its goals with?

The university sets its own goals.

In 2010, the Estonian Higher Education Internationalisation Strategy was developed in the Ministry of Education and Research, where, among other things, goals were set for universities for the number of foreign students by the year 2020. Those numbers were achieved by 2018 already and right now, there has been some reproach about us being too international and accepting too many.

But, in the eyes of the law, a university is autonomous to make its own decisions according to its strategy and profile, and we should not have to wait for the final say from the state or the ministry in issues like that. Administrative contracts have been signed with the ministry, but a university should have its own clear goals.

Let’s talk about international rankings as well. Is a good ranking something that happens organically on its own or is there work to be done to earn it? That is, is it a goal or a result?

This is the question of the egg and the chicken, and we could start by realising we cannot jump over our own shadow. Let’s take a realistic look at the background system we are in, and the universities we could be ranked among. Looking at our volumes, the number of students and academic staff, financial capacity and research work, I believe we could be among the top 500 in the world.

If the strategic goal of a university is to rise in the ranking, it will act accordingly by funding activities or domains that raise the ranking. If we aimed to reach the top hundred or surpass the University of Tartu, we should act a lot differently. For example, by hiring two Nobel prize winners to each school – that would raise our ranking by 200 to 300 places right away.

But in order for us to rise, someone must fall, and we know that Asian universities contribute a lot of resources towards rising in the rankings. So that is why I am saying it would be realistic for TalTech to rise among the top 500. We do know the criteria that are assessed.

Internationalisation is also important and if we have fewer international students, we may lose a few places in the ranking again. We should be more active in our partner universities, and a good way to promote our visibility is to be part of and active in the EuroTeQi network. We should remain calm and not blame each other for having fallen in the ranking. A fast rise is not possible, I mean, it would not be reasonable.

Could a high ranking be the organic result of a good university and not of any strategic operations?

Yes, of course.

Who is the ranking important for?

It is important for everybody. Foreign students definitely check out the ranking of a university, and academic staff and researchers applying from abroad as well. I believe there is a difference for those assessing grant applications whether the application comes from the top 3% or 6% universities in the world or from the 450th or 900th place.

It is also taken into consideration if we want to recruit great tenured professors from abroad to form a research group around them and succeed in applying for research funding. It is important.

How can a balance be found in this current coronavirus-ridden world between internationalisation as a value and internationalisation as a health risk?

As we saw in Tartu in the summer, only a little is enough to make the virus spread again even without any travelling. Right now, the Health Board is successfully mapping the routes of our people, but it is important to avoid repeating the spring situation.

One of the lessons learned from the coronavirus crisis is that we are acting differently in crowded places and wash our hands more often, even though the examples from night clubs are regretful. If we avoid things like this, we can learn to live with the new situation. It is part of the battle for survival in nature until there is no vaccine and a critical part of the population develops immunity.

Climate crisis, coronavirus crisis and other “wicked” problems could be a good way to popularise science, however, both people and governments tend to ignore any warnings given by researchers.

This is a political and technological problem: politicians are operating on the basis of their election cycle and a lot depends on the type of government currently in power. What we have right now is very good, the government has a scientific council advising and being heard on the virus, and this is definitely the reason why we have the virus situation rather well under control. In the United States, however, with the upcoming presidential elections, it is something completely different: one of the most renowned epidemiologists is losing their position due to not agreeing to the “right” political talk. And this is a serious risk.

Here, the duty of the researcher and the university is to stay true to themselves, talk, talk and again talk about evidence-based positions, be an expert and not give up. Researchers should not buckle, give up or get tired; it is our duty to continue telling the society, even in the harshest of conditions, how things really are if we do have the evidenced knowledge.

And researchers do talk, of course. Talking about increasing the popularity of science, the science portal Novaator of Estonian Public Broadcasting has lots of great stuff to offer. Another thing is, how much of it reaches the front pages of other portals or is considered third or even fifth-rank news. So this is where journalists also have a role to play, and we could remind our future journalists to put research and evidence-based news higher up on the news pages.

But how could the reputation of a research career be promoted in the society without any crises? The Estonian Young Academy of Sciences has laid down that one of their goals is to popularise the popularisation of science. How are you planning to inspire the researchers at TalTech to talk about their work so that it inspires others?

I guess researchers tend to be the somewhat geeky type doing their thing in the lab and not really having the need to talk about it. But I believe that if the university acknowledges, in addition to the annual acknowledgement of the best researchers and lecturers, those who popularise science as well, and why not even give out financial awards, we could get more researchers to talk about their work, which, in turn, would bring others along as well – the more people there are to do it, the more popular it becomes.

So how can we increase the popularity of natural and exact sciences among the youth?

One of Tallinn’s three state upper secondary schools, the technology and science oriented one, will be established at Mustamägi. We will have a thousand upper secondary school students in our back yard and the school should be TalTech’s cooperation partner in all domains.

I hope we can open a similar ministry-funded science school in Tallinn like the University of Tartu has. I have been discussing it with the Minister of Education and Research. There simply has to be a place like that in Tallinn.

After all, it is true that not all graduates from science-oriented upper secondary schools remain in the field. Many of them will pursue becoming a doctor or switch for law. So, if we could get these youngsters to the university labs to do research work, the road would be already familiar to them and the subjects exciting.

In a new position: Tiit Land as the rector of TalTech

Introduce yourself, please.

I’m an introvert, rather than an extrovert, but I don’t let problems pile up in me, I get over them quickly. In personal questions, I make fast decisions and bravely accept challenges – if you don’t try, you don’t know what might have been or could have happened. In my school years, I was an active athlete, and sports continue to be very important to me. I believe it’s always possible to find a solution to problems, including those that seem unsolvable. If something irritates me, it’s intolerance and labeling.

What kind of previous work experiences and knowledge do you bring to TalTech?

First and foremost, I bring the experience of teamwork. I know that discussing all thoughts and ideas together pays off.

What do you want to accomplish as the rector of TalTech?

TalTech should become the most enterprising university in Estonia. I believe that through this, we can really contribute to the economic growth and competitive ability of Estonia because nowadays, high-quality education and recognized research alone are not enough. I want to contribute to the improvement of more comprehensive collaboration between Estonian universities, especially in Tallinn.

What is a surprise you’ve had at your new job?

Although TalTech and Tallinn University are different universities as well as competitors, on a human level, they are actually very similar.