Winning essay: UNIVERSITY WITHOUT BORDERS, THE BEST OPPORTUNITY FOR ESTONIA
Author: Sergei Bogatenkov, two-time alumnus of TalTech and CEO of Admiral Markets
The year 2021 begins in anticipation for Estonia and the rest of the world. We do not know the long-term prognosis for the economy, people's mental health, or how the green revolution will continue in these exceptional circumstances due to the current healthcare crisis. The present time is also critical for universities. Now more than ever must we answer the question of what kinds of innovations should take place in the university to enrich the students' knowledge and skills even more in changed circumstances.
I am the head of an international finance company and a two-time TalTech alumnus. I believe that discussions on the university's future are much needed, and I recognize TalTech's sense of initiative thus far.
It is important to distinguish the most acute problems the operative definition of which phrases an opportunity to propose clever solutions.
Estonia's strategic plan of research and development activity, innovation, and enterprise for 2021-2035 points out that the role of organizations that mediate knowledge should be strengthened in innovation. This clearly presents an objective which Tallinn University of Technology could be guided by in its research and development activity. The public today does not have a distinct strategic model for how the research and development activity of universities could help to solve wider social problems.
Unfortunately, we still often come across the primitive understanding of "us versus them". Let the scientists and universities do their own thing, we will do our own. However, this way of thinking is not sustainable. Tallinn University of Technology could become the leader that widens the discussion on this topic, phrases the expectation on how the university is a partner and innovation leader in solving social problems, increasing the competitive capability of the economy and the general well-being of residents.
Just recently, I spoke to a doctoral student who expressed that despite the national research and development activity favoring the Estonian economy as a main factor, investments into it are minimal to trail Europe's leading countries in this area. This should be regarded with extreme seriousness as a societal concern because good scientists are leaving Estonia to work in international research institutions. We have to be able to keep talents here because Estonia needs their skills and knowledge. We are too small to allow people to leave. We cannot be a border country but a hub of international research and development activity.
Although the current closing of borders limits international partnership with other universities, Tallinn University of Technology should contribute to collaboration with other universities even more. International renown, recognition, and investments into joint projects should be a formulated objective of cross-border cooperation. There is definitely more potential for international cooperation, which has not been realized yet. In this current unstable situation where the future and duration of distance learning are not known, increasing the number of partner universities would allow opportunities for online learning to expand. Lecture series with other universities would raise the students' motivation and offer new experiences. It would also be possible to send distance learners to partner universities if the limitations allow it.
Cooperation with local businesses could also be increased. I myself am pinpointing opportunities for cooperation that would allow us to carry out ideas to reduce the environmental footprint written in the company's internal document - the Green Manifesto - along with an educational or research institution. Because we have offices in 19 countries across the world and are one of Estonia's most global fintech companies, cooperation in the innovation field is important to us. This kind of collaboration with organizations that would direct additional investments into a partnership with Tallinn University of Technology should be encouraged and popularized. The green revolution is definitely a topic that forces companies to act and inspires cooperation. These complementary sources of funding offer opportunities for building and staffing laboratories and hiring specialists.
This is where we reach the people who are the basis for whichever undertaking. I admire universities, entrepreneurs, and organizations that work to popularize technological education.
The development of technology is a key to bring about changes. Today, the flexibility of location has achieved a different dimension. Lectures can be organized in different forms without all students sitting in the same auditorium. Students can turn their laptops on everywhere - be it Tammsaare Park, Kuressaare Castle, or on the other side of the world in Sydney. It no longer seems probable that students will be made to sit all together in a big hall. The traditional organization of studies has changed and, with it, our way of thinking.
I definitely do not support learning in a university becoming only online-based. On the contrary. I think it is necessary to create activities that would still bring students together. Unfortunately, immediate communication, argumentation, and general cooperation remain in the background in the case of online communication. If students are offered merely online learning, they will miss out on acquiring many important skills that will be essential in the job market in the future. Most of my meetings during the pandemic are also web-based. But I know that once the situation improves, I will have to spend flight hours to have face-to-face negotiations with partners. Direct contact is needed for negotiations to be fully successful.
I sense that a problem that affects job seekers coming from university is their lack of practical skills. Of course, it is understandable that a university graduate does not have experience in the job market except for mandatory internship hours. My suggestion is to increase the capacity of practical learning and bring even more practicians to give lectures.
We open our mobile phone, laptop, or some other technological helper, and find information. We find knowledge and alternative approaches. A professor has to be the person that encourages students to ask questions and have more discussions, to be curious.
A subject is only taught by one professor or visiting lecturer - this approach needs to change. Estonia has an aggravated problem of having too few lecturers. A problem that has to be handled and is already being handled at the root level. There are many details to work on, but the general direction is trying to make the teaching profession more attractive. The number of lecturers is not large and is not expecting as big of an increase as some other fields. At the same time, I tend to favor the argument that the teaching format needs some changes. Regardless of whether learning takes place online or not. An option is that one subject has several lecturers, they might not have the same approach, and perhaps it is more efficient for them to have different points of view. What makes the students of TalTech more successful specialists in the future is an extensive and versatile understanding of what they have learned. Lecturers also need to feel competition around them to make them think and act more, to bring us fresh solutions. The comfort zone is not a source of innovation.
It is not always possible for students to come to Tallinn and participate in courses. Therefore, other alternatives must be found for them. An option that was mentioned earlier is online learning. But we could also create smaller branches of the university in other countries where we see today that many students are joining TalTech, form an international advisory board of local authorities. The world has changed, and approaches are more personal. It can be felt that a one-size-fits-all approach is no longer in demand. There are many examples, but let's focus on the work environment and activity-based offices.
Some people need silence to work, some want to work standing up behind an adjustable desk, and some do not want to be alone in a corner and prefer movement and chatter around them. The spaces of the university have moved in the direction of offering options to students, whether they want to study in group spaces or individual rooms. A more personal approach is an important condition in creating a learning environment that ensures a student's motivation and academic success.
I am convinced that several companies would be willing to offer their rooms so that students could occasionally leave their learning environment. Whether it's for a small seminar or some other gathering. If the university collaborated with businesses even more, it would give students a better feel for whether their major is even suitable for them. Gaining a better practical cognition is a priority for students. It would not be impossible to find mentors from companies and increasing experience and knowledge through this.
We are searching for a book on Amazon. We enter "Creativity" as the search term, and tens of thousands of offers appear as a result. Is creativity something that is much-needed, often talked and written about, but despite this, extremely few have it? Yes, I sense that few have the skill of generating ideas and innovative thinking. This could also be an approach that the university should now incorporate. Most of us have heard the saying "think outside the box" but only a handful can actually do it. I think that a way to spark students' creativity and innovative ideas is increasing the number of hackathons or simply cooperative projects. Tasks where students have to create something new together in groups while, why not, collaborating with businesses. Activities like this have probably already been done in the university, but a wider and more structured approach is needed to enhance students' creativity.
I favor cooperation with high schools. High school students could and should be involved in exciting research projects as early as possible so that ambitious young people could have a real opportunity to experience a future in a university. Because the competition for best students is strong, involving high school students would give them arguments when choosing a university while providing the university with assistance in the form of young specialists.
The French writer André Gide has very aptly said that man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore. We need the courage to take new steps to bring innovative solutions to the university. Today's situation promotes this, and society is ready for it.