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Editorials Annual Report 2020

ZHAW successfully overcomes challenges of 2020

Dr. Silvia Steiner, Government Councillor and President of the Council of the Zurich Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts

What an extraordinary year 2020 has been for the universities of applied sciences and arts in Zurich. The restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic affected all three universities: the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW), the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) and the Zurich University of Teacher Education (PHZH). They all had to respond to unprecedented challenges. The fact that they have been able to successfully fulfil their mandate under these difficult conditions is even more rewarding.

In switching from face-to-face to distance learning, the three universities have demonstrated that they possess the organisational and technical skills needed to efficiently reach and involve their students. However, distance learning has also shown how important social relationships are for the successful transfer of knowledge. This includes the relationship between students and their lecturers, as well as that between the students themselves.

For the universities, however, the biggest challenge is yet to come: finding out whether distance learning and the reduction in personal contacts has caused gaps in the students’ education. These will have to be identified and closed in a strategic and individualised manner to ensure our students’ educational success. The pedagogical and human skills of our lecturers will play a key role in achieving this.

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic overshadowed the past year, the universities marked many milestones in 2020. We would like to highlight the following two: the ZHAW is the first university of the Zurich Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts (ZFH) to successfully gain institutional accreditation in accordance with Swiss Higher Education Act. In 2021, the PHZH and ZHdK will be accredited as well. This institutional accreditation is a prerequisite for being recognised as eligible for funding under the Higher Education Act as well as to receive federal funding. The PHZH, ZHAW and ZHdK will position themselves in the future as more independent within the academic landscape. The ZFH as an umbrella organisation will then no longer be necessary and can therefore dismantled.

Despite COVID-19, the Digitalization Initiative of the Zurich Higher Education Institutions (DIZH) had a successful start, which is very positive news. As the President of the ZFH, I hope that we are soon able hold the planned networking events in person again. Although virtual forms of collaboration can support cross-university cooperation, they can never fully replace face-to-face conversations and physical encounters. We should always remember that education, science and research are provided by people for people.

Our universities are helping to shape the future. This was the case last year, too, when they provided our society and economy with new insights. Our graduates are well known for their innovation and creative thinking, and we need their knowledge and creative drive if the Canton of Zurich is to maintain and extend its competitive edge, especially in turbulent times like these. I would like to express my deep sense of gratitude to all employees of the Zurich universities for their hard work and dedication.

Major milestone achieved: ZHAW formally accredited


Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Andrea Schenker-Wicki, Member of the Council of the Zurich Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts, ZHAW consultant

Dr. Matthias Kaiserswerth, Member of the Council of the Zurich Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts, ZHAW consultant

Dr. Thomas Ulrich, Member of the Council of the Zurich Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts, ZHAW consultant

The ZHAW reached a significant milestone in 2020. The Swiss Accreditation Council granted accreditation to the ZHAW on 18 December. This decision successfully wraps up a process that lasted over two years. The university now officially fulfils the requirements of the Swiss Higher Education Act.

The procedure was executed by the Swiss Agency of Accreditation and Quality Assurance (AAQ). The evaluation is based on a self-evaluation report written by the ZHAW and a positive report from an external expert group's on-site visit in September 2020. Over the course of two days, the group members interviewed more than 100 employees and students about the quality assurance and development of the ZHAW in governance, teaching and research, as well as participation and staff development.

The Council of the Zurich Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts (ZFH), which oversees the strategic management of the ZHAW, is very pleased with the outstanding results of the expert group’s report on the quality assurance system at the ZHAW. It describes the ZHAW as a modern and excellent university in research that has a clear and effective organisational structure and consistently lives by the principle of subsidiarity.

The quality culture is a fundamental element of our quality assurance system: “ZHAW employees are proud to be part of the university and to be able to contribute to the quality of the ZHAW.” Regarding the areas of research and academic programmes, the report emphasises in particular the exemplary organisation, regular evaluation of degree programmes and promotion of international networking. In addition, the expert group attests to the fact that the ZHAW’s academic programmes convey an academic understanding with a simultaneously high level of professional orientation.

The expert group also highlights the ZHAW's high level of agility, which is achieved despite its size. As an example, the experts cite the implementation of the “ZHAW digital” strategic initiative, which has succeeded in developing agile and ZHAW-wide elements beyond existing structures. The management of the COVID-19 crisis is also mentioned as another positive example.

During the COVID-19 crisis, the ZHAW was able to draw on previously established foundations. Many participants, whether from ZHAW digital, Academic Affairs or the Schools, were and still are involved in implementing the partial strategy on education and digital transformation. The ZHAW was in a good starting position when the Federal Council ordered the lockdown in March. Nevertheless, the change from face-to-face teaching to online classes in programmes of study and continuing education within just one week was only possible thanks to the great commitment of everyone at the ZHAW: lecturers, employees and students alike. Numerous new models for teaching and conducting exams were developed during this period. We hope that the ZHAW will be able to benefit from these experiences even when the COVID-19 crisis is over and continue to offer diverse teaching methods.

COVID-19 crisis drives digital transformation

Prof. Dr. Jean Marc Piveteau, President

We have been dealing with these exceptional circumstances for over a year now. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on many aspects of our lives. Universities have been and continue to be strongly affected. Courses in programmes of study and continuing education could not be held on-site any longer, and almost all staff members had to work from home. Within the course of a week in March, the university reduced its activities and launched distance learning. At that point I felt an immense sense of dedication and solidarity coming from everyone. Together, we can do anything. In my opinion, this is a big takeaway from this crisis. When we switched to distance learning, we took great care to ensure that we maintain the high quality of our education and that studies would not have to be extended because of COVID-19. The pandemic has changed many things, and it is clear that the ZHAW will offer a more diverse set of teaching methods in future. The number of online lectures or blended learning activities will increase, allowing for more flexibility and new didactic opportunities.

During the COVID-19 crisis, the ZHAW was able to rely on well-built (infra)structures for distance education and experienced staff. That said, implementation of the strategy on education and digital transformation was greatly accelerated in 2020. An important player in this is the “ZHAW digital” strategic initiative, which brings together a committed community within the ZHAW and supports innovative projects and researchers. For example, as part of the Digital Futures Fund programme, ZHAW digital supported 27 projects that provided an overarching benefit during the pandemic and dealt with digital transformation both inside and outside the ZHAW. These activities are included in the digitisation initiative of the Zurich universities (DIZH). The unanimous decision taken by the Cantonal Council to support the research and innovation initiative with a total of around 300 million Swiss francs marked its official launch in January 2020. Over the next few years, the initiative will link Zurich's universities even more closely and strengthen Zurich as a location for innovation.

Despite the pandemic, sustainability remained a focus in 2020. The “ZHAW sustainable” strategic initiative has outlined various priorities for implementing the sustainability strategy. These priorities include expanding the sustainable development community within the ZHAW and increasing the visibility of our progress in this area by profiling the ZHAW as a leading university for sustainable development at home and abroad. These goals also include ensuring that all students come into close contact with sustainable development during their studies. A strong focus is placed on operational sustainability by implementing the ecological indicators as specified in in our Green Impact Book.

We were able to conclude 2020 by achieving a milestone: the ZHAW was institutionally accredited as a university of applied sciences and thus fulfils the requirements of the Swiss Higher Education Act. The decision of the Swiss Accreditation Council affirms the ZHAW’s work to date. At the same time, it is an incentive for us to continue working on our quality culture. Accreditation is very important for our further development because the ZHAW can now position itself even more independently.