Andrea Schenker-Wicki University of Basel
Text: Redaktion ceo Magazin/Photos: Andreas Zimmermann

High-level education

Andrea Schenker-Wicki, Rector of the University of Basel, heads a major institution with over 5,000 employees – one that doesn’t serve what would normally be considered the traditional customer, but rather those people whose hearts and minds are focused on top-notch education.

“We concentrate on our strengths.”

When the Rector’s eyes drift from her desk to the window, Basel sprawls at her feet. In the distance, the Roche Tower, currently the tallest building in Switzerland, soars above the city. The Rectorate housing Schenker-Wicki’s office, where white furniture and light wood dominate, is situated on the second floor of a sober, purpose-built block on the Grossbasel side of town. Basler Handels-Gesellschaft AG and drug industry federation Interpharma reside under the same roof.

We get to talking about customers. When asked who the customers of a university might be, Andrea Schenker-Wicki needs a moment to think. Customers? “No,” she concludes, “we don’t speak of customers here, but rather of stake­holders.” In the case of this 558-year-old educational institution, these include the students, assistants from the lower and upper level teaching staff and the professors, as well as what in certain instances are the highly qualified technical personnel, without whom no research or lecturing would be possible.

However, the Rector is also heavily involved with external stakeholders, amongst them the executive and legislative branches of the funding cantons Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft. Add to that the public, the media, other educational institutions, research partners, third-party donors and private benefactors, as well as suppliers and service providers of all kinds who contribute to the smooth functioning of such a large-scale operation. Although it’s not always easy to discuss the constant need for equipment and resources: “I have great respect for the work of politicians,” says Schenker-Wicki.

Schenker-Wicki has difficulty using the term “customer” to describe the 13,000 or so students who, due to their demand
for education and payment of tuition fees, could normally be categorised as such. No, she’s of that mind because those who learn do so for themselves and their own personal advancement. Knowledge is not a commodity; it’s not a service in the classical sense, she says.

“Contextual know-how is becoming more important.”

When it comes to people motivation, the Rector quickly finds the right words. For her, it’s important to foster autonomy and self-reliance. “We encourage our faculty to make the most out of their freedoms, to take responsibility and act entre­pre­neurially,” says Andrea Schenker-Wicki. The available resources are scarcer and competition more intense, even as teaching and research – especially in the natural sciences – has become increasingly complex and expensive.

Transparency of research projects

The University of Basel is one of the country’s leading universities in terms of raising third-party funds for research projects. Of great help is its proximity to the internationally positioned pharmaceutical and chemical companies that have concentrated a portion of their proprietary research activities in this Rhine-knee metropolis. “Switzerland’s future prosperity depends to no small extent on what our universities achieve. They’re drivers of growth in their respective domestic regions and for society as a whole,” Schenker-Wicki is convinced.

The Rector cites the new eye institute established jointly with Novartis as an example of the opportunities that can come from such collaboration. This project represents a unique chance, in that the fundamental and clinical research as well as product-specific development are all conducted under one roof.  

At the University of Basel, a comprehensive sponsorship doctrine, “one of the strictest in Switzerland”, applies to the promotion of research projects. The contracts with external partners are made public and can be inspected. The Rectorate is committed to full transparency and ensuring the independence of committee members.

From the Rector’s office window, the view over the roofs of Basel reveals a spatial dichotomy: here, the old town, the time-honoured and the familiar, the 558-year tradition of the University. Over there, the cosmopolitan, globally oriented business district, the neighbouring countries, the traffic. Andrea Schenker-Wicki describes her activities as “the most interesting work I’ve ever had the privilege of doing”. She finds the challenging topics, the interaction with young people and the disruptive times we live in “immensely enriching” – but also a tremendous challenge.

How has digitalisation changed the tasks and behaviour of students in recent years?

In the teaching environment, new tools have been added that make processes more efficient, perhaps even a little more anonymous. This already starts upon registration, which today is accomplished independently, online and regardless of the time of day. In terms of the learning experience, the study routine has become more digitalised thanks to podcasts, visual aids and simulations. This makes the classical lecture more attractive. These days, many students come to the auditorium with their laptops instead of a pen and paper. However, a bricks-and-mortar university is not just a place for acquiring knowledge; it’s also a venue for intellectual exchange, discourse and learning to focus. Contextual know-how is becoming more important. The manageable size of our university, with its almost family-like atmosphere, offers optimal conditions for this.

When it comes to studying, is there still the necessary leeway?

The Bologna system has made studies more rigorous and demanding. The number of examinations has increased. Students need more time to accumulate the necessary credits and, at least during the semester, they have a tight schedule and less free time than before. Many also have to work part-time to make ends meet. But we’ve also seen growth in extracurricular activities, such as sports. 

How do you come in contact with the students?

With today’s digital possibilities, you can reach out to many of them very quickly and very easily, for example by means of an e-mail newsletter – but whether we actually get through to the addressees is another question. Mailboxes nowadays are often cram-full. I can’t find the time for some other route such as social media, since that presence needs to be continuously administered in order to have an impact. Of much greater importance to me is the personal contact and exchange with our students, during which I can win their confidence and spark their enthusiasm.

Educational offerings at the university level are increasingly competing with each other. What does this mean for your curriculum and services?

Especially with the young students, we need to spur their enthusiasm not just for studying, but also for the field they’re majoring in – otherwise they’ll go somewhere else after earning their bachelor’s degree. Other, larger universities offer a broader range of subjects than we do, and we charge comparatively high tuition fees. This forces us to excel in what we do and focus on our strengths in order to keep up with the competition.

Swiss universities are also highly regarded by foreigners. How do you reach those potential students, and what can you offer them?

Compared to other Swiss universities, the proportion of foreign students at Uni Basel is below average. The cost of living and relatively high fees here may be a reason for this. But the non-Swiss proportion of doctoral students and postdocs is significantly higher at over 50 per cent. These up-and-coming scientists are attracted by our top-notch professors and quality of research.

Rankings attempt to make the quality of universities comparable. Where does Uni Basel stand, and what is the point of such comparisons?

Some of these rankings are justifiably criticised. But they do exist, whether you like it or not, and they serve as orientation. In the “Times Higher Education” ranking, the University of Basel is most often amongst the top 100; sometimes just above the threshold, sometimes below. I see a clear causality between budget and student enrolments. More money at a university leads to more and better offerings and thus to a higher place in the rankings. This puts smaller universities at a disadvantage. Moreover, competition from Asia is growing. We are currently seeing how China is progressively becoming a knowledge nation.

What do you expect as a customer?

What would you definitely not want to do without?

I absolutely adore sweets – Basler Leckerli for example. It’s always been that way with me. But when it comes to services, I can’t imagine getting by without my household helper. I’m very busy professionally and wouldn’t be able to cover all the bases if it weren’t for her.

If you had a magic wand . . . 

If I could, I wouldn’t travel anymore, I’d beam myself. Despite the increasing number of ways to get from point A to point B, travel is becoming more and more bothersome. Beaming . . . wow, that’s the way to go!

What do you like that’s just the way it’s always been?

Having a good old-fashioned newspaper in my hands. Simply sitting back, taking time and sipping a good cup of coffee.  

What’s on your shopping list?

A new washing machine, but I don’t have the time. Maybe I’ll get around to it in 2019.

Andrea Schenker-Wicki

Andrea Schenker-Wicki (59) is Rector of the University of Basel. After studies in food engineering at the ETH in Zurich and economics at the University of Zurich, she received her doctorate in operations research and computer science from the University of Fribourg. She began her career at the National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC). Andrea Schenker-Wicki then became Head of the University Section of the former Federal Office for Education and Science, as well as Full Professor of Business Adminis­tration at the University of Zurich, where she also served as Deputy Rector from 2012 to 2014. She is a member of numerous commissions and committees, is married and the mother of two children.

University of Basel

Founded in 1460, the University of Basel is Switzerland’s fifth-largest canton-supported com­pre­hen­sive university, with almost 13,000 students today, including some 2,700 doctoral aspirants. The university’s annual revenues amount to about CHF 750 million, almost half of which comes from its two patron cantons, Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft. With around CHF 150 million third-party funding raised each year, the university holds a leading position amongst its Swiss peers in the attraction of financial backing for research.

www.unibas.ch