04 Feb Designing a curriculum for the country
Claude Meisch, Minister of Education, Children and Youth, Luxembourg, speaks on the importance of the nation’s education sector as well as the need to keep private interests in mind through this process.
How has Luxembourg fared in the 14 months of the pandemic and what are your views on how the pandemic is speeding up changes in the future of learning?
Just like every other country, we were incredibly surprised and unprepared for such a situation. We closed our schools on the 13th of March 2020. We came back some weeks later, and then, just before the summer holidays, all the classes resumed, and we got back into our regular rhythm. In September, after the summer holidays, we started quite normally because, by then, the virus seemed virtually eradicated. We came up with a model to manage the crisis and we adapted the system almost weekly and then monthly. There was a second wave at the end of October which continued through December, so we shut down just one week after the Christmas holidays, in January, and the week before the February holidays, taking advantage of the normal days off. This included all school and all youth activities, such as childcare.
I think we handled the situation well overall. Of course, we had infections in schools—pupils, teachers, and educators tested positive—and we had lockdowns. We adopted a kind of rotational schedule in secondary schools. From the age of 15 on, pupils came every second week to school, and in between they stayed at home following along online on a digital platform in sync with the school day. We are quite proud of our approach to keep schools open as long as possible, and I think we have had fewer problems than other countries concerning the wellbeing of the pupils. We quickly realized that children need social interaction. It is a factor of mental and emotional wellbeing. At the same time, homeschooling went quite well because parents, teachers and pupils were completely engaged.
Fortunately, we had already invested a great deal in digital transformation, in both infrastructure and digital materials, before the pandemic started, so pupils were online from day one, which gave us a significant advantage. On the other hand, we recognize it is a complementary solution, and in person teaching is still preferable. A few weeks ago, we received the results from a data analysis study which reported that there was no significant decline in our students’ development in the first wave in 2020. I believe that is due to our efforts to keep everything as normal as possible. Of course, we followed the standard protocols, such as masks and, right from the beginning, we conducted testing campaigns. There is a large-scale testing system in Luxembourg, and if anyone tested positive, the entire class stayed in lockdown for 10 days.
When the pandemic started, our only objective was to manage the crisis, which took all our resources. It was not the time to discuss any type of education or school reform, but of course we learned a lot about remote teaching, blended learning and homeschooling. This will most certainly influence our education system going forward. In fact, I have planned a large meeting with all the stakeholders, school partners, the teachers’ unions, directors, parent’s associations, school representatives, and pupil representatives to discuss what we have learned, what we can keep, and how we can improve.
What is your vision for positioning Luxembourg as a leading innovator?
Luxembourg would like to contribute to the research and development so desperately needed right now for the global challenges we are all facing, such as digitalization and climate change. We recognize that this cannot be done without an important investment in research and development. We have fixed clear and ambitious objectives for investment in research as an ecosystem, especially in the area of public research. The research landscape has changed significantly over the past 20 years. There were several research institutes, but they were not as heavily funded as they are today. In fact, there was no university in Luxembourg until 2003. The philosophy in Luxembourg had always been to encourage our young people to study abroad and bring back their experiences and the contacts they had made. However, at the beginning of 2000, we decided it was time to invest in research and higher education and to prepare for our future as a country by encouraging more young people to study at home. The fact remains that three out of four Luxembourgers still study abroad, and most of the students at the University of Luxembourg come from abroad. This is significant for the economy, because the university is a key player in the attraction of young talent. Many of the international graduates stay here in Luxembourg, find a good job and sometimes adopt nationality. Internationalism is even more prevalent in the research sector. Approximately 80 percent of the PhDs are non-residents and had never been to Luxembourg before they came to study or do research.
The research and higher education panorama here is not really comparable to what you see in other countries. Luxembourg is a small country with just one university, which is very new, though highly acclaimed on an international level with a healthy investment in research. The University of Luxembourg defines its own DNA, and research is extremely important. We also have some other public research institutes, such as the Luxembourg Institute of Health and the Luxembourg Research Institute of Technology. Of course, all our institutes and the university have a certain degree of autonomy as we are a democracy, but, as the only university in Luxembourg, they must offer certain services to the country. These include educating young Luxembourgers, creating enough graduates for certain important sectors, and developing research in certain activities. Decision making is shared. We have designed our first national strategy for research and innovation to have a guideline in our discussions with these institutes and with the university. The funding we provide goes specifically towards the initiatives that are a part of our national strategy. Of course, they can invest in other domains that are not a part of this national strategy, but we wanted to provide a focus for the evolution of the Luxembourgish research and its innovation sectors. There are four key areas for our strategy: personalized medicine, energy transformation, digitalization, and 21st century education. These four essential pillars are also very vital for the national strategy for development as a country, for our society and for our economy. The idea was to align all our sectors with the same objectives. The strategy was established with a large consensus on a political level, but also through dialogue with all the actors in research and higher education.
Where would you say funding is most needed?
When it comes to decisions about funding, all the institutes still have great autonomy. We do not stipulate what they have to do or what not to do. For each institute, we have a funding contract that lasts for four years, and we review the conditions after two years. During the last several years, and for the coming years, funding for public research and for higher education has and will increase. In fact, it has been higher than the government’s global budget, which will give you an idea of Luxembourg’s commitment to higher education and research. A large majority of the funding can be used by the institutes and by the university however they like. Then a specified portion of the funding goes towards government initiatives related to the national strategy. The specific projects are created in a dialogue with the directors and researchers at the university and institutes. When not stipulated in the contracts, the university and institutes can decide on how to act in accordance with the general concept of the project.
How do you implicate the private sector in the national strategy, and can foreign investors and foreign companies also participate?
When we developed the national strategy for research and innovation, we also discussed it with representatives from the private sector, with ministries that represent part of this private sector, as well as with the financial sector and the industries. We wanted to integrate their objectives into our plan. However, that is not the only sphere of influence the private sector can have on the public research sector.
For example, there are a lot of areas that are subsidized by private companies, or a representative from the private sector. There are certain requests that are made by the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR) that genuinely wish to support and encourage collaborations between public research institutes and the private sector. We would really like to have much more funding from the private sector in the public research institutes. Excessive funding by the state is not healthy for the sustainable development of those institutions. These institutions are encouraged to seek private funding. Public funding is also set aside as incentives for those institutes who have collaborations with private sectors.
Private research is also well developed in certain industries in Luxembourg, and a lot of state aid goes in that direction, but it comes directly from the Ministry of Economy and not the Ministry of Education. Funds from both Luxembourg and the EU go toward financing research and innovation in companies that are active in Luxembourg. Many collaborations have thrived between public research institutes and private companies just on this financial support alone, and there at least one or two interdisciplinary centers have been spun off from the University of Luxembourg; for example, the Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT), a specialized center on security and privacy topics in the digital world, and the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technologies (LIST). Both interface actively with Luxembourgish companies as well as international companies that have branches here in the country.
Is one goal to remind people that Luxembourg is not just a small country where people speak three languages and have great banks, but that there is also a lot of innovation and research?
As a minister for research, it is especially important to show that research can contribute to the development of our country, not only to some of the societal challenges that we are facing, but to develop our economy, create new jobs, attract new companies, and create startups, an ecosystem where young entrepreneurs can feel at home in Luxembourg. They can network with different players, establish their projects, invest and succeed. It is crucial to show that this is not just an isolated world in a bunch of laboratories where we do not really know what is going on. We are investing a lot of public money for the very practical benefit of the entire country. We also want to convey to the global community that we are a dynamic country and society. In fact, our research and higher education sector, our economy, and our labor market is totally international.
What we are now achieving in higher education and research is actually just a repetition of what we have always done. When the banking sector began in Luxembourg, there were really no Luxembourgish banks per se, rather many foreign banks that came with their capital to invest here. The legislation was such that it made sense to develop banking more here in Luxembourg, and the whole school system contributed to having well instructed and well-trained young people that could work in that sector. One or two generations before, it was the same situation with the steel industry. A lot of foreign capital came from outside, intelligent legislation was implemented, while the knowhow and skilled population came from Luxembourg. We are doing the same now for research and innovation, although the sector is extremely international, which contributes, once again, to the international image of our country. As you know, people in Luxembourg speak many languages, and in our institutes and in the university, you find the same thing. People come from nearly every country of the world to work here in our research centers. Of course, that also contributes to their excellence.
What are you doing to attract talent?
I think this is one of the most important points for the future development of our country, specifically from an economic point of view, because companies nowadays need talent and highly skilled people working for them. Without highly skilled people, all the other virtues you might have amount to nothing. Therefore, talent attraction is one of the major objectives of our policy. Of course, the research sector and the university play an important role. Many of our newest PhDs and graduate degrees are looking for an academic career, or want to engage in research, but a lot of them also stay here in Luxembourg and work for private companies or for the public sector. Many of our international students which, as I said, make up 80 percent of the PhDs, do not come from Luxembourg. Part of our strategy of talent attraction comes from those that stay after completing their studies. The same thing applies to our undergraduates and master’s degree students, because our labor market is quite dynamic and has extremely attractive offers from the private sector, as well as from the public sector. In nearly every industry, the demand for highly skilled people exceeds the candidates. It is an extremely attractive country for young graduates.
Other factors must naturally be ironed out, however. As Minister of Education, I am confronted regularly with the situation of entire families coming to Luxembourg because the mother or father has found a job here. We need to offer them an appropriate education for their children to flourish. This is one reason why we started to diversify our public school system. We had several private schools charging extremely high fees. Not all the parents that come to Luxembourg working in the research sector, in the banks or other industries could afford to pay those fees. As an alternative, we opened international classes in our public schools, including English, French, and German classes so that foreign students might have a fair opportunity for integration. Our traditional public school system is incredibly complex because of our multilingualism.
What is the significance of the EuroHPC JU choosing Luxembourg? Why Luxembourg and what does it mean to you?
There are perhaps three reasons Luxembourg was chosen for this digital infrastructure which is so important for our economy and for the research sector as well. From the very start we supported the creation of this institution. We also have a lot of experience in digital services from our experience in the development of the banking sector, a sector that is nearly completely digitalized nowadays. The third factor is the presence of other global leaders in digitalization, and our research institute that can manage this high-performance computer. We are excited to house it because it will not just contribute to the needs of the European Union but also to the needs of local companies and the research sector.
What can you tell us about the status of the new MELUXINA supercomputer?
We strongly believe in high computer capacity, and we know that if we want to develop in the direction of a more digitalized country and a more data driven economy, we need this type of high computing capacity. This capacity will also be used by several research institutes. As you recall, I mentioned that personalized medicine is one of our key topics in the national strategy for research and innovation. Without high-performance computing, it cannot be done adequately.
From your ministry, what is being done to stimulate further investment in R&D, particularly in the private sector, and what further synergies can be created between universities and research institutions, government and private enterprises to create an environment conducive to large R&D investments?
I would like to emphasize that we have come extremely far in spending on the research and development sector. We have built a world-class university and have invested a great deal annually, and this will only continue as part of our national policy and development strategy. Of course, we are aware that we have not reached our objectives. We want to invest one percent of the national gross domestic product (GDP) in public research. Currently, we are at 0.8 percent. Our coalition agreement and governmental program for the period 2018-2023 fixed this aim, but we are increasing public budgets from year to year.
It turns out to not be so simple, and I think we have to be realistic with our goals. What has worked well for the moment are collaborations between public institutes and the private sector, but we want to encourage the private sector to invest more in innovation and research and development on its own. It is not just the duty of the government to do so, but the responsibility of the whole society. Of course, it is also true that one single investment in Luxembourg can tip the scales. When one private company launches a new research program, for example, it can make the percentage go up as much as 0.5 percent. Not many countries can say the same.
Could you tell us a bit about the ecosystem of startups in Luxembourg?
The elements for the creation of a startup are intelligent legislation, flexible conditions, the space to do it, the funding, and partners available for collaborations. Those partners can be research institutions and universities. From the inception of the university and the other research institutions, the idea of creating spinoffs and supporting startups was part of the strategy. That is why we have state bodies that support startups such as Technoport at the University of Luxembourg on its Belval campus.
Many important private companies also support startup companies. They do not see them as competitors, yet as actors that can bring something into the ecosystem that the bigger companies cannot bring. They bring a new dynamic, fresh ideas, agility, and young talent that really believe in their ideas and want to create something on their own. Typically, large private companies do not have that same fire, but they know and understand that they need people with that spirit around them. This has been an interesting development in the last 10 years, and we are now at the point that we have a really attractive entrepreneurial ecosystem for Luxembourgers and foreigners alike who have come with their ideas, or who have studied here. The startup community here is also tremendously international.
What would you say to digital nomad investors and private companies? Why Luxembourg?
The biggest advantage for somebody coming to settle in Luxembourg with companies, ideas, or dreams is that we are a small country. The proximity to decision makers makes it easier for you to set up your venture. You can see the policy makers every day in Luxembourg, and it is easy to find a partner to discuss a certain project and get support on a specific aspect of your endeavor. The administration is also very tuned in and really tries to support new ideas and innovation. Our ecosystem, with its proximity, international nature, and the commitment of the entire country to go in the same direction, creates the ideal environment for investors. I would say those are the primary incentives for someone who is looking around for a place to settle down and create something innovative.