Students in the Ars Electronica and JKU’s Festival University Program Present Ideas for a "University of the Future"

The program focused on several topics, including on what a “university of future” should be like in terms of learning and education.

F.l.: Stocker, Gabriel, Merle, Chiara, Nathan, Kai Jui, Lukas
F.l.: Stocker, Gabriel, Merle, Chiara, Nathan, Kai Jui, Lukas

Program organizers and participants explored this question and more as part of creating the new Technical University in Upper Austria. The Johannes Kepler University Linz and the Ars Electronica came together to organize a brand-new Festival University program, giving students a unique opportunity to present their ideas and visions in the Deep Space cube at the Ars Electronica Center. The result was an authentic, international and candid perspective that will be incorporated into the new university’s design and development.

Organized by Johannes Kepler University Linz and Ars Electronica, the very first international Festival University program served as a joint visionary endeavor as well as a field test and prototype for a "university of the future", impressively demonstrating the potential of creating a new, 21st century university in Upper Austria:

JKU Rector Meinhard Lukas explained: "When science and art embark on a journey of discovery together, exciting and incredible creative forces emerge. The JKU and the Ars Electronica have come together to create the first international Festival University program. Over the past three weeks, this joint venture has grown exponentially and everything we are learning and experiencing will most definitely be incorporated into the design and creation of the new Upper Austrian Technical University."

Rector Lukas added: "Over 230 applicants applied to be part of the Festival University and we selected 100 students from 40 countries. These students came from diverse professional backgrounds ranging from social sciences and natural sciences to art, business, law and technology. Mentored over the past three weeks by internationally renowned scientists, artists and managers, they are experiencing an exciting and innovative program that transcends disciplinary boundaries and brings new technologies, science and art together with the key social issues of our time."

Gerfried Stocker, Ars Electronica's Artistic Director, was just as enthusiastic about the new Festival University program: "The past three weeks were very exciting and not just because we couldn’t plan or predict how a pilot program such as the Festival University would turn out. But that's exactly the point. You philosophize back and forth about what a university of the 21st century should be like, talk with experts, look at best practice examples, etc. – all of which we should do, of course - but there is still no substitute for a trial test on this scale. The Festival University has proven to be a successful attempt to talk with young ambitious people from all over the world about contemporary methods of learning and education, not just at a university, but as part of a festival focusing on art, technology and social issues. We are also not just in the classroom but in places such as the voestalpine steel plant, the St. Florian Abbey, and the Mauthausen concentration camp memorial. We are together with professors in the students’ majors but also together with artists, designers, and activists. The students are getting a lot out of the program and we see this when we look at their fantastic results."

Thinking “Outside-of-the-Box” Together
Festival University scholarship holders came from all over the world, including countries such as Italy, Guatemala, Vietnam, Montenegro, Japan, Egypt, Taiwan, Austria, Germany and the USA. These students currently major in art, engineering, social sciences and/or natural sciences, business, and law. Under the motto "Transform Your World," the participants began the program on August 30, taking part in hands-on workshops, interactive presentations, and exciting lectures on six key topics (one group worked online focusing on "Investigative Journalism”, while the other five groups worked on-site in Linz focusing on issues such as "Autonomous Vehicles", "Circular Economy", "Creative Robotics", "Drones & Swarm Behavior", and "Transforming the Body") to develop tools and methods designed to effectively initiate change. They were mentored by internationally renowned scientists, artists and managers, including Josef Penninger, Kilian Kleinschmidt, Joseph Herscher and JKU professors Elke Schüßler and Cristina Olaverri-Monreal.

The Festival University's ambitious program utilizes the JKU's expertise, space, and resources as well as the Ars Electronica's international network, combining these with opportunities in and around Linz. Participants visited the voestalpine Stahlwelt, St. Florian Abbey and the Mauthausen concentration camp memorial.

On September 17, the students presented their findings and provided insight into their three action-packed weeks:

"There were overwhelming and inspiring personal moments and encounters during Festival University. It was really good after the time spent learning online," says Nathan, 22, from France, who is majoring in industrial design at the Eindhoven University of Technology.

Merle, 23, from Germany, studies at the Europa Universität Viadrina in Frankfurt Oder and added: "In order to effectively drive change and advancements, we need to engage in dialogue - it takes different opinions and views. This was all possible during the Festival University program and I found it fascinating."

Architects to Create the "University of the Future"
What will make a university of the 21st century attractive and what will it stand for? What are students missing at their universities today, what would they make different, if they could? During a day-long workshop, Festival University participants outlined what they consider to be the most important characteristics for a “university of the future”.

One phrase that came up time and again was: "It doesn't matter what you learn, but what you do with what you have learned". The students believe that a "university of the future" should always keep society as a whole in mind. New technologies and accomplishments do not have to be an end in themselves, but should be taken into consideration based on the context of their social, economic, health and legal parameters and consequences.

Moreover, the "University of the Future" should be built on this foundation:

Various Levels of Diversity

Students clearly want a colorful and diverse university that focuses on both learning with and from each other. Students prefer diversity and both students and faculty members be come from different age groups, cultures, and regions.

Professors Who Are (also) Mentors

Educators need to look beyond a student ID number and see not only the student, but provide support on both a professional and a personal level. In addition to an academic career, professors should also have real-world experience and bring this experience into the classroom.

Chiara, 23, from Italy, studies industrial design at the University of Johannesburg and remarked, "We are passionate students and therefore we need passionate professors who not only understand but really live what they do with all of their senses. Real, open feedback channels are necessary, particularly when creating a new university. Students and professors need to learn with and from each other."

Overcoming Departmentalized Boundaries

An interdisciplinary approach is very much in vogue. Be it biology, art, engineering, literature, robotics, or dance - none of these should contradict one another. Quite the opposite: A "University of the Future" should not only serve to facilitate dialogue, but also serve to liaison between various disciplines. It's about being creative, making discoveries and conducting research together - interdisciplinary curricula and projects are a permanent part of degree programs.

Kai-Jui, 20, is part of an interdisciplinary program in Technology and Arts at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, and remarked: "For me, connecting different people and an interdisciplinary approach are important building blocks when it comes to creating a new university."

Involvement and Space to be Creative

When it comes to the curricula, young people want to actively shape their degree programs, incorporating flexibility and an individual approach. This would mean having a choice between online and on-site courses, native-language courses, or part-time programs for working students.


Students want a university on equal footing and in this regard, transparency plays a key role. On one hand, students are interested in the selection procedures and grading and on the other hand, they would also like disclosure on structure and financing, particularly in the area of project funding.

It's About More Than Just Professional Expertise

The "University of the Future" should not be an academic bubble, but should holistically prepare students for a (professional) career in terms of both education and personal growth and development. To this end, students want courses where they learn important soft skills (i.e. how to deal with stressful situations, be more resilient, etc.). On the other hand, they also expect hands-on workshops and mandatory professional internships.

Being Climate Neutral Counts

The "university of the future’s" ecological footprint is important to students. They want a university that is actively committed to sustainability and climate-friendly projects as well as a university that allows them to live on campus.

A Summary
Rector Lukas added: "Linz has all of the assets and resources to become an international center of digital renaissance and the new TU Upper Austria could facilitate and support the initiative. To this end, politicians need to courageously break with convention. The new university’s cornerstones need to include an interdisciplinary focus and be more international. This is the only way we can provide young people with the tools and skills they need to grasp our world in all of its complexity and ultimately meet the challenges of our time head on. The Festival University program was borne from the JKU and Ars Electronica’s pioneering spirit, showing how a field test like this can be successful."

Gerfried Stocker continued: "If we were to reinvent 'school' here and now, it wouldn't look at all the way it did during Maria Theresa's reforms of 1774. If we want to establish a university of the 21st century here and now, it can’t be 'more of the same' either; we have to inevitably follow a different path and initiate new ways of thinking. The Festival University program aims to address those who think just like this: young people from all over the world between the ages of 16 and 24 who want to make a difference. Inspired by artists, researchers, designers and activists, everything they have been testing, discussing and developing over the past three weeks is not a concept, or an organizational chart or a curriculum for a 21st century university; it’s a guideline on how we need to envision and establish learning and education at a university of this kind in order to advance our knowledge-based society."


About the Festival University

  • The Festival University is an international blended summer university program initiated by the JKU and Ars Electronica.
  • Duration: August 30 to September 17, 2021
  • Location: The first week of the program took place online, the second and third weeks took place on-site at the Johannes Kepler University Linz.
  • Participants:
    • 100 students between the ages of 16 and 29 came from 40 countries around the world, including Egypt, Guatemala, Germany, Vietnam, USA, Montenegro and Austria. They received a grant that covered travel expenses, accommodation, and meals.
    • A total of 230 students applied for 100 spots in the program.
    • In lieu of travel restrictions imposed by pandemic, individual participants took part in the program entirely online.
  • Program:
    • The Festival University program focused on the question of how students can overcome global challenges and initiate change. Each week had a different motto: Week 1 - Questioning the Way We Think, Week 2 - Expanding Your Horizons, Week 3 - Shaping the Future Together.
    • Hands-on workshops, interactive presentations, and exciting lectures with international experts, artists, scientists and managers (such as Josef Penninger, Elke Schüßler, Joi Ito, Panashe Chigumadzi, Joseph Herscher, Stefano Rossetti, Adam El Rafey, Cristina Olaverri-Monreal, and Kilian Kleinschmidt) focused on new technologies and innovative (communication) tools and encourage participants to push past subject-related borders.
    • The program included excursions and outings in and around Linz, such as to the voestalpine, Mauthausen concentration camp memorial, and to St. Florian Abbey.
  • Funding: € 440,000 in funding for the Festival University program was provided by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science & Research and the state of Upper Austria.
  • Covid-19 Safety Mandates and Protocols: The Festival University program took place in accordance with COVID-19 guidelines outlined by the Austrian Federal Government. In addition, everyone involved was tested on a regular basis, even if fully vaccinated. Participants were tested on-site and testing kits were provided free of charge. All participants were asked to socially distance, wash and disinfect their hands frequently, and wear face masks.


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Photos from the Closing Event