“I am very confident about UNYP students and graduates”
Education was one of the areas profoundly affected by the current pandemic. In June, Time Magazine dedicated a double issue to “Generation Pandemic” with regard to the global crisis changing the lives of kids and teens. As a working parent of two teenagers, I witnessed the shift from in person to on-line education and it was not always a walk through a rose garden. Or if it was a rose garden, then it was a very bushy and thorny one. While switching to on-line education was a mission impossible for many state schools and universities, as they often misinterpreted on-line education as one-way e-mail communication about submitting assignments and strict deadlines; private schools that pride themselves on computer literacy curriculum and strong IT infrastructure, passed this transition rather smoothly. It was a privilege for me to interview Mr. Sotiris Foutsis, General Manager at University of New York in Prague (UNYP) regarding UNYP’s transition, the future of education and the positioning of the private tertiary education facility in a country with a strong tradition of free public education. Read more how on-line education differs from on-line learning and why we should not be persuaded to remain only in the on-line world.
Mr. Sotiris Foutsis has been a General Manager of UNYP since 2007. In numbers, the University of New York in Prague represents 50 employees, 125 faculty staff and 800 students of more than 60 nationalities. Since 2016, five years in a row, UNYP was placed in the Superbrands category for outstanding brands in the field.
My first personal encounter with UNYP was thanks to TEDxUNYP 2019. I had a chance myself to experience the dynamic and progressive environment of this private university, valued not only for teaching but also for many innovative approaches to education, including events for a larger expert public. Do not miss the TEDxUNYP event on November 21!
Mr. Foutsis, at the end of June you addressed UNYP’s Class of 2020. Do you really view them as Generation Pandemic? How are they prepared for a volatile and uncertain world? I remember graduating from international relations in early October 2001, and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks I felt that my university did not prepare me for life.
First of all, nobody was prepared for the pandemic. You can prepare only as much as the situation allows. The experience and the education we provide to our students is what makes the difference. Having students from more than 60 countries is already a big differentiator for UNYP and a great learning opportunity for our students. When they come to class, they not only change the environment, but also adjust their habits while being confronted with different cultures and mentalities of other students and faculty. Such experience and adjustment make them more flexible, allow them to change their perspective and enables them to apply critical thinking. These skills combined with the level of education we provide gives our students all the tools necessary to face and successfully overcome challenging situations, including the current pandemic. It is true that this generation has not had experience with such a challenge. However, we teach them how to look for solutions and think out of the box, so I am confident that they have the skills, the power and the strength to overcome even this crisis.
As the school year 2019/2020 came to its end, now looking back how do you evaluate the transition to on-line learning at UNYP? I became an IT administrator for my kids for a while, but I imagine that transitioning online and adjusting to more than 60 nationalities must have been a challenge.
As to the on-line education at primary and secondary levels, I have three kids, so tell me about it. I am proud to say that at UNYP, we prepared well. We started meetings discussing possibilities of a lock-down in late January. I am lucky to have a great and proactive team. We sat down and started to work on“what if”scenarios. From February, we had scenarios ready for partial lockdown and complete lockdown. During the week of March 9, when the government had decided to close the schools, we were already piloting on-line courses to identify all the possible problems and issues regarding technology and the students’ and academic staff’s needs. Thanks to such a thorough preparation, we were able to completely shift on-line within three working days! We invested in our IT, both software and hardware, and we managed to create on-line courses allowing us to continue presenting outstanding academics from all over the world. Our students did not lose even one hour of class work and all finished their terms, including the state exams. UNYP delivered on top level all what it had promised.
Both on-line teaching and on-line education are very broad concepts. Today, you see everything available on-line. For us, technology is part of edu- cation, and it should not be only reduced to the form of delivering the classes but more and more implemented in teaching as such. This generation is growing up using this technology. The traditional way of teaching in class, facing both a lecturer and other students, has its own value. You make acquaintances, friends, grow your network and sometimes even meet a life-partner. The challenge is in finding the best possible combination for the best quality of services delivered to the students. And also, let us not focus on the content of education only. I have already mentioned soft skills that you gain during the interaction in and outside of class.
Speaking of skills, there seems to be a never-ending debate discussing teaching relevant skills for the 21st century. However, the debate about the nature of education should go beyond the focus on skills.
Definitely! For me, one of the most important approaches is the innovative mode of thinking. In order to do that, you need to master critical thinking, which is also one of the cornerstones of our teaching here at UNYP you need to apply analytical skills to collect data, analyze them and get to results quickly, and last but not least, walk off the beaten path in terms of looking for opportunities together with creating new possibilities. All these approaches are part of our curriculum for adapting to changes successfully. I also want to stress that we want our students to be prosperous not only in their professional lives but also in their personal lives. Many people have been missing the personal life part, life is not only about your career and one must learn to find a balance.
Thank you for mentioning both parts of our lives, I believe the pandemic has also taught us the importance of well-being. Two parts of lives bring me a parallel to two types of universities, public and private. Both part of the system, both having own different value. How do you view the situation of private universities in the Czech Republic?
The Czech Republic has a great tradition of public university education when it comes to top universities, such as Charles University or Czech Technical University. No one doubts their quality. However, the perception of the need for private schools and their special offer, is missing. Some people are even still questioning the role of private schools. Luckily, more than 800 of our students think differently. There are things that private schools can offer, and public schools cannot. Private schools have a different approach. Although the situation has improved recently, we are still facing challenges and barriers on the systemic level. For private schools, it is much more difficult or close to impossible to access to various funds or extra money for research projects. Such limitations prevent private schools from the realization of many projects that would help them to invest to improve and become even better.
I do not think there is an easy solution, particularly given the high-quality public education acknowledged already. However, let us look at the many benefits that private schools bring to any country where they operate. We provide the Czech and Central and Eastern European students the opportunity to study programs from State University of New York and to get their degree. This means that students will get a degree from the largest comprehensive system in the US with 64 campuses at a much lower cost than in the US. Czech students comprise more than one-third of the total student body and we are glad that the number is rising.
On the other hand, we bring students from literally all over the world which is not the case at public universities with Czech as the language of study. Imagine the added life experience of studying in a class having 10 or more different nationalities. As we bring international students, we contribute significantly to the country’s budget, literally in terms of billions of Czech crowns, if you put together the expenditures for housing, living, travelling etc. Therefore, I advocate for different approach for public and private universities, as both have place in the system.
Now, that we talked about the comparison of private and public schools, let us go one step further. From what I understand, there are actually two types of private schools, differing with regards to the accreditation.
All private schools have the Czech accreditation, some private schools have also foreign accreditation. The distinguishing aspect of UNYP is that it maintains accreditations and high educational standards of two other countries and the respective represented institutions, the United States and the United Kingdom. We are the only private university in the Czech Republic, meeting accreditations of three different countries. UNYP is officially registered as a provider of degree programs by the already mentioned State University of New York, Empire State College, and the University of Bolton. Meeting such high international standards presents reassurance of the quality for our students.
We discussed innovation and technology that you are trying not to teach separately but as a part of the curriculum. Teaching staff also helps students to build their own start-ups. How do you see the cooperation between the academic sphere and private businesses?
The business sphere is interested in cooperation, but less than in the past. Unemployment close to zero was not very conducive or motivational for life-long learning. The situation will change. Particularly on the MBA level, we hope that the companies will work more with us, as their employees will need both new skills and new knowledge to overcome the current crisis. The situation will be challenging also for schools, in terms of adapting quickly and efficiently to the new situation. To view crisis as an opportunity is not a mere slogan, but a challenge not to be missed.
By Linda Štucbartová
Photos By: Jitka Tomečková