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We stepped on the budgetary brake on time

rektor VŠCHT Praha Pavel Matějka

As the summer semester begins, UCT Prague’s Rector Pavel Matějka talks about the university’s finances, its primary goals for 2023, and the current status of the development of the university’s infrastructure, buildings, and equipment. He explains the necessity for limiting the number of economics and management students, and also reflects on artificial intelligence and its potential impact on teaching and learning. He concludes by discussing if he would like to continue as Rector for another term as the next election approaches.

As we start 2023, how are UCT Prague’s finances?

Just like last year, we achieved a positive economic result. Thanks to savings from previous years, transfers of money to objects with higher interest rates (including funds obtained from the sale of Vítězné náměstí land) and last year’s vigorous efforts to save, we have savings that we can transfer from one year to another and these funds can be used, among other things, to balance the 2023 draft budget. This year will bring significantly more expensive not only due to energy prices, but mainly as a result of double-digit inflation, which will affect all operating expenses. One must also consider the necessary measures associated with fire and safety requirements for the operation and storage of pressure cylinders and expenses related to the Prague master urban plan, in preparation for forthcoming construction activities on Vítězné náměstí. As for the regular operating budget, we will continue to be very frugal in terms of expenditure planning this year. If there is an unexpected stabilization of the economic situation as the year progresses, such as a visible drop in inflation, we can start talking about whether to support some temporarily subdued development activities financially.

Do you know how our university compares to others?

In general, we operate quite decently, which means that (even if it doesn’t seem like it to some) we sensibly heat in offices and lecture halls and we haven’t introduced online teaching or announced forced work from home because of energy prices. And that’s because we stepped on the budget brake in time.

What are UCT Prague’s main goals for 2023?

In general, they will be based on the goals described in the university’s strategic plan, in its specifications for 2023, in the recommendations of the International Evaluation Panel (IEP), and also in the HR Award action plan. Specifically, for example, we want to improve the conditions and environment for doctoral candidates and early career researchers. We are reforming the concept of the Dagmar Procházková Fund so that faculty participation is not necessarily tied to salaries, and that projects can run over three year years instead of two. We are putting together new European project proposals for increased internationalization and the development of university-wide positions. We want to at least maintain the number of students in the chemistry and food technology programmes. Furthermore, we will try to optimize teaching, taking into account an adequate number of students in a subject, so as not to waste the instructors’ time. In June, the results of the architectural competition for Vítězné náměstí will be announced, which will mean that intensive preparatory work lies ahead of us. We are awaiting a modification to the Czech national scientific performance evaluation model, which should better reflect international trends and be based more on the overall impact of creative work than on bibliometric indicators. I would also like to devote myself to the development of cooperation with industrial partners, which is a natural direction for our universities, but something that the ministries are placing emphasis upon. We will also focus on the topics of Open Access publishing and, more generally, our Open Science strategy.

This academic year, the number of first-year students has increased significantly, with the largest increase recorded in the Economics and Management study programme at the School of Business. Are university leaders planning to transform this school into a new faculty?

We do not want to establish a new faculty right now. I do not rule out organizational changes in the future; everything will depend heavily on what the trend will be in terms of the number of applicants, how the newly accredited master’s teaching programme will fare, and whether it will be possible to further develop the area of training future (secondary school) teachers with significant involvement with another university-wide department, the Department of Education and Human Sciences. Many students applied for and enrolled in the School of Business last year, but this can also mean a problem with the excessive drop in the coefficient of the cost for studies in a particular field, which affects the average amount of the funding per student from the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports. We are currently setting clear limits on how many students we will accept, especially for the Czech language Economics and Management programme, so that this does not have a negative financial impact overall. However, this does not change the fact that at UCT Prague, the study of economics is based on mathematics, statistics, and exact predictions, taught by engineering-minded economists with a focus on technology. At the same time, we want to provide adequate breathing room for international students studying in English and paying full tuition, because they bring new perspectives to study groups and also provide economic benefits to the university. For chemistry programmes, I am pleased with the Erasmus Mundus programs in English, which I hope will continue to develop and spur further progress in courses taught in English.

Earlier in the interview, you mentioned the architectural competition for the forthcoming re-envisioning of Vítězné náměstí, which will also include a new UCT Prague building. What will the announcement of the winner of the competition mean for the university?

The results of the competition will mark the start of intensive work, especially in terms of documentation, various permits and, of course, modifications to construction plans. Construction will actually start, if everything goes without a hitch, in 2026 at the earliest. Until then, nothing that will significantly limit activities will happen on the square itself. The existing parking lot for employees and students will continue to function in the coming years.

How do you assess the extraordinary success of our early career researchers in the very prestigious and highly competitive (5% success rate) JUNIOR STAR grant competition, in which four scientists from UCT Prague succeeded in receiving funding?

In one case, we can directly see the effect of the Dagmar Procházková Fund, thanks to which Dr. Perlíková was supported in starting a research group, and now this great additional project received funding. Last year, Dr. Kovaříček was similarly successful in the previous JUNIOR STAR competition. I sincerely congratulate all the successful grantees and am extremely pleased with their success. At the same time, I would like to mention that, in addition to the talent and hard work of those concerned, the key foundation of that success is fostered within the faculties. I am talking about the working atmosphere and the support of mentors for researchers starting their careers—including the creation of conditions for independent growth.

Today’s hot topic is artificial intelligence (AI), which has become a great aid to many in searching, formulating texts for written work (including theses), and for scans of theoretical contexts. How prepared is UCT Prague for AI? Will educators work with it?

The number of non-original theses at UCT Prague is absolutely marginal, and we definitely do not intend to change this. The essence of a thesis will always be an individual’s original contribution and the creative impulse targeted at creating new things, whether in the laboratory, on the computer, or in the field. We have not and will not go towards encouraging mere compilations of existing knowledge. Using AI for searching and critical evaluation are certainly fine, and I don’t see a problem with students using adequate AI tools to help them—provided, however, that students are able to defend their results independently. And that they are fully aware of the pitfalls and limitations that come with AI regarding false/unverified information, sources, and a perhaps somewhat mysterious path to a result. I also consider it important that the use of AI is acknowledged as part of a transparent description of the methodology and technology used in a work. As far as university operations are concerned, AI has great potential in automating administrative activities and making the lives of many people easier, people who will then be able to devote themselves to other, perhaps even more meaningful activities at the university. We certainly intend to monitor and harness the potential of AI.

In January, you entered the final year of your first term as Rector. When you look back, how has reality differed from the expectations you had when you started your term?

Many plans have been implemented more slowly than I would like, but in some cases, this was due to external circumstances such as the COVID-19 pandemic. However, I did not abandon my original vision, and I can say that we have achieved a lot during these three years. We received the HR Award, albeit after revision. We put together a meaningful strategic plan, the goals of which are being met. We passed the evaluation of the International Evaluation Panel with honours. We have put together a new International Advisory Board that is willing to actively help us in strategic decision making, but also in development activities, to a certain extent. Despite initial concerns, we stopped using print study transcripts without protest or difficulty. We’ve emphasized the development of modern forms of education and we managed to organize pedagogical conferences. We have a nationally-awarded Counselling and Career Centre. I consider the establishment and operation of the Project Centre to be a success, even though I know that not everyone at UCT Prague perceives this step in a positive light. However, let’s look at the extraordinary number of project proposals submitted for various national and international calls in 2022 and the first few months of 2023. I am convinced that, thanks to the Project Centre, we have received new funding for 15 international post-docs working with six mentors in three faculties, which is the same number as all of Masaryk University for the same calls. Of the 18 Marie Skłodowska-Curie (MSCA ERA) postdoctoral fellows coming to the Czech Republic, those coming to do their research at UCT Prague represent a full sixth.

We have made progress in our approach to international employees and have established a new Welcome Office. We are continuously working to improve the conditions for doctoral candidates, who are perhaps already noticing the partial results of our efforts. We have been inspired abroad and have become members of the EU Council for Doctoral Education (EUA-CDE) and Professionals in Doctoral Education (PRIDE) networks. We managed to establish the School of Business, even although there are many tasks ahead of us in this regard. We have a new building in Jankovcova Street, where, in addition to the economists, is home to the new Department of Sustainability and Product Ecology, which is an important part of the future of the university with a broad network of national and international contacts. If it was not for the new building, this faculty would not have been established  and, at the same time, a number of workplaces in the main buildings on the Dejvice Campus were freed for other departments by relocation of the staff of the new faculty to Jankovcova Street.

I think we operated very well during COVID and in relation to the challenging 2022 environment; we helped continue our educational activities on a large scale and radically changed our educational models and ways of working creatively. I am pleased that it was possible to complete the extraordinary reconstruction of Building B, where the Dean’s office staff and most of the Rector’s staff are located. We have excellent new laboratories, including a medicinal chemistry laboratory and a virology department. We made progress in the electronic circulation of documents thanks to OKBase, which happened because of the tremendous efforts of a considerable number of people in the Personnel Department. Thanks to Dr. Jirát, his colleagues, and our collaboration with NTK, we have taken a huge step forward in the field of Open Access, and we are preparing a broader Open Science strategy.

Is there something that makes you feel that you didn’t succeed?

I am very sorry to see the departure of several key people from the Centre for Information Services; however, we are gradually moving to other information systems. I would like to thank everyone who contributed to the transition to the multi-faculty version of the SIS Educational Information System. We will have a new “e-doctorand” module as well as a newly launched way of managing accreditation documents. Our situation has significantly improved in terms of solving the issue of occupational safety and fire protection, both in terms of educational content and its communication. However, it is clear that we still have a long way to go in this area. I am glad that we still maintain a friendly academic community atmosphere, in which extraordinary students, scholars, and staff continue to blossom. Thus, we still have great candidates nominated for external and internal awards, such as the Emil Votoček Medal, the Julia Hamáčková Award, and the Rector's Award.

Rector elections will take place at the end of the year. Are you interested in another term, if you are nominated?

The tasks described in the university’s 2021 strategic plan, as well as those in the HR Award action plan, extend beyond the horizon of my first term, so I would be eager to complete them. I believe that I still have a lot to give to the university in the future in terms of productive collaborations with other universities and respected institutions at the national and international level. This is because I’ve always been one who connects rather than one who competes with others. If there is interest, I would also like to be involved in deepening the internationalization of the university, its cooperation with industrial partners, and the development of the university in new areas of green chemistry, sustainability, and the like.

Updated: 13.3.2023 14:24, Author: Michal Janovský

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