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ETHistory 1855-2005 | Living memory | Departments | D-INFK | Impediments and Challenges |

Impediments and Challenges



The multi-faceted history of computer science at the ETH Zurich would be blurred if only stories of successful research projects and growing student numbers were mentioned. The development was just as much influenced by disputes, mishaps and dead ends. The path to the D-INFK of today was no walk in the park.

As at other universities nearby and abroad, it was necessary to define an individual profile for the research policy and for the newly set up curriculum, which had to be constantly adjusted over the years. Computer science needed to be distinguishable from other disciplines. The vocabulary to carry out this separation is not fixed either, a term like "informatics" - which in Europe is the preferred term for the English "computer science" - has another meaning and significance today than in the 1970s. The new division also needed to position itself outside the university and had to offer a professional perspective for the computer scientist on the job market, giving a suitable job description.

The fast growing numbers of students required an immense effort of support and assistance which was extremely time-consuming and put enormous pressure - in spite of the great efforts to expand the numbers of assistants and professors - on the teaching staff. On the one hand, the quality of student assistance could hardly be keep at the wonted high level. On the other hand, a serious decline of research activities occured as most of the ressources were spent for teaching and administrative purposes. Although the division was given financial means for additional positions, the problem of finding qualified personnel for vacant chairs and assistant positions persisted because of the dried-up job market. A means to reduce these difficulties was the change from elections to calls for vacant chairs. To keep at least some of the graduates at ETH, the position of assistant professor - a time-limited employment - was introduced to offer better perspectives. Problems were not only confined to teaching staff, but also came up among with the rising number of students. Bad results of intermediate exams became more and more common, particularly in core subjects like programming, producing unrest among students as well as professors.

For a long time, the efforts to set up a separate division for computer science could not count on effective support from the economy and industry. At the end of the 1970s, the situation abruptly changed. The ETH was accused of having slept and missed the initial phase. The companies could hardly find qualified personnel for their vacant positions. The creation of a graduate course could only partially solve this problem as the industry did not wholly agree with the characteristics of the curriculum. From their point of view, the transfer of know-how was too cumbersome, what the students were taught at the ETH did not match their expectations. The need for qualified personnel for clearly defined positions persisted. Thus, industry leaders began - sometimes even before the establishment of the university graduate course - to set up alternative schools and courses according to their own guidelines.

© 2005 ETH Zurich | Credits | July 26, 2005 | !!! This document is stored in the ETH Web archive and is no longer maintained !!!