«If stored on the blockchain, it's valid.»

The University of St. Gallen is certifying its diplomas with SWITCHverify. Tania Stephan (SWITCH) interviews the University of St. Gallen’s Dr Marc Meyer (Dean of Studies & Academic Affairs), Hary Rotter (Head of IT Services) and Andreas Mayer (Head of Software Development) about the institution making the move towards blockchain.

Text: Tania Stephan, published on 11.02.2021

Tania Stephan: Why does the University of St. Gallen use SWITCHverify?

Marc Meyer: We believe that certifying our diplomas with blockchain is the logical next step in digitalising the university’s operations. By using SWITCHverify, we’re giving our students the ability to demonstrate their academic achievements and graduation from our institution at any time. Protecting ourselves against diploma forgery means we’re investing in the authenticity of our qualifications in the long term. We’re also sending a strong signal to the outside world that we use intuitive, modern technologies to guarantee greater security.

Tania Stephan: Andreas, as Head of Software Development, what do you like about this solution?

Andreas Mayer: Blockchain is extremely exciting from a technological perspective. By implementing it here, on the one hand we’re giving our employees the opportunity to learn something new, and on the other we’re updating our existing system. For a number of years now, our site has had an integrated feature that allows people to verify whether the University of St. Gallen genuinely did issue a particular diploma in the last 20 years. While this service is called ‘verify’ too, it only checks whether an individual studied for their diploma with a matriculation number during their degree course.

 

Tania Stephan: What obstacles needed to be overcome when implementing SWITCHverify?

Hary Rotter: There were hurdles that needed to be overcome during the process – until all internal stakeholders were convinced of the huge added value. It was difficult in the beginning, because we took on the issue with Prof. Fabian Schär (the original mastermind from the University of Basel) as a trailblazer, so to speak. We managed to promote the project in cooperation with individual programmes and our business partner. SWITCH’s takeover of the service means we’re now reaching product maturity – and hopefully widespread use in the Swiss university landscape too.

Andreas Mayer: There were next to no technical hurdles. The additional effort for users is very limited too. We implemented SWITCHverify by extending the normal diploma creation process in the background. Meanwhile, the certification of the documents and the transfer to the blockchain happens automatically. SWITCHverify makes verifying whether the entirety of a diploma is genuine an absolute breeze.

Tania Stephan: How many IT specialists are responsible for SWITCHverify?

Andreas Mayer: As I said before, there’s not much effort involved. We have a developer and their deputy, who take care of the technical connection, someone in service management and then Harald and myself at management level.

Tania Stephan: Hary, from your perspective as CIO, why do you recommend SWITCHverify to other universities too?

Hary Rotter: SWITCHverify is an innovative solution that will enable us to give our students the guarantee of their diploma’s value in the future by protecting against diploma forgery. The initial effort is minimal, the added value for all the stakeholders is huge, and with SWITCH as the provider we have a platform that all universities can participate in and join forces on.

Tania Stephan: What does the SWITCHverify roadmap look like?

Hary Rotter: We’d like all the digital diplomas, certificates and confirmations that the University of St. Gallen issues to be verifiable using SWITCHverify by the end of the year. In the next phase, we’ll examine whether there might be other use cases for smart contracts – such as thesis submission and so on.

Tania Stephan: Have you thought about providing blockchain certification for alumni diplomas?

Andreas Mayer: Yes. But, as things stand right now, there’s far too much involved in the verification effort and process. In particular, reviewing the legal implications shouldn’t be underestimated.

Hary Rotter: In addition to the effort mentioned above, HSG Alumni (the University of St. Gallen’s alumni organisation) is set up and organised under private law.  All legal clarifications carried out for the university, plus technical modifications to the core system with respect to data protection and compliance, would have to be examined and then implemented if necessary. This is not a straightforward task by any means with this setup – in the short and medium term, at least.

Marc Meyer: Another thing worth noting is that diplomas haven’t been issued digitally up until now. That’s where we believe there will be a natural limit. If diplomas are issued digitally, the effort involved in subsequently adding blockchain certification is relatively small. But this isn’t as easy to do for the older documents.

Tania Stephan: One last question: is there anything you’d like to see SWITCH integrate into SWITCHverify?

Marc Meyer: We believe it’s fundamental that our international students accept the verification solution. SWITCHverify should be linked to international standards such as Europass, and we’d be thrilled if SWITCH would incorporate such a feature.

Hary Rotter: I’ve always thought it’s important that the solution ought to become part of the existing ecosystem: the SWITCH edu-ID, the portfolio, the blockchain. I’d also like to see SWITCH approach the private sector over the next few years with respect to linking SWITCHverify to the various HR suites. My hope is that, in the medium term, companies will call for validity checks in the recruitment process and that appropriate interfaces will be built. HR could then adopt the attitude of ‘If a document is stored on the blockchain, it’s valid’.

Marc Meyer: Finally, I’d like to say that I’m grateful that SWITCH is bringing the Swiss university landscape’s digitalisation issues together. But I’d like to see academic institutions make far greater use of the synergies in digitalisation. I think it is in everyone’s interest if we can exploit them to consolidate Switzerland’s role as a centre of knowledge, research and innovation.

 

About the author
Tania   Stephan

Tania Stephan

Tania Stephan joined SWITCH in 2019 as Head of Procurement. Previously, she worked in various positions in the field of artificial intelligence.

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Marc Meyer

Marc Meyer

Dr Marc Meyer obtained his PhD in Physical Chemistry from the University of Bern. He then became Headmaster of Kantonsschule Seetal (in the Canton of Lucerne), before switching to the University of St. Gallen in 2015, where he is responsible for operational management of the Vice-President’s Board of Studies & Academic Affairs. Marc Meyer is responsible for study programmes at the University of St. Gallen and teaches mathematics as a visiting lecturer.

Hary Rotter

Hary Rotter

Hary Rotter was originally a carpenter by trade. After starting out as a programmer for production machines, his career path first took him from Austria to Switzerland, then into the field of IT. After launching in IT infrastructure (server, network, virtualisation, etc.), his career progressed to team and department management. He spent years on international assignments in various countries. Since autumn 2017, he has been Head of IT Services at the University of St. Gallen.

Andreas Mayer

After studying technical computer science at the HTWG Konstanz, Andreas Mayer founded an SME in the field of software development, which he managed for 17 years. In 2010, he moved to the University of St.Gallen and has since been head of the application management department. Andreas Mayer is responsible for software development with a focus on "study administration" and teaches software development and agile project methodology as a lecturer.

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