The president of the European Commission and the head of the Finnish telecoms giant, Nokia, have been awarded the Freedom Prize by the Max Schmidheiny Foundation at the University of St Gallen.
The awards to Romano Prodi and Jorma Ollila were bestowed at the 30th management symposium being held at St Gallen's world-renowned university. The value of the prizes - which were awarded for the men's contributions to the areas of economic and social development - is SFr200,000.
Although it may not be as influential as the annual World Economic Forum meeting in the Swiss resort of Davos, it still manages to attract some big names. Among those attending this year, along with Prodi and Ollila, is the former director of the International Monetary Fund, Michel Camdessus.
The symposium was set up 30 years ago in the wake of the student unrest in 1968 to express readiness for constructive dialogue with the business world. Now, every year a new team of students takes on the responsibility of organising the event.
"I think it’s one of the most important things for our university," said the establishment’s president, Professor Peter Gomez. "We get people from all over the world to discuss very important topics here and this opens doors for our students."
One of the two students in charge of the organising committee this year is media and communications student, Bettina Wild. She says there is a dichotomy at the heart of the symposium’s success.
"It’s the mixture of professionalism and non-professionalism," says Wild. "We are students but we try to organise like professionals. Someone told me yesterday, you work from the bottom to the top. You talk to CEOs and you clean tables."
Students, academics and business leaders flock to the three-day event from all over the world. Among them this year is the Singaporean Education minister, Teo Chee Hean.
"Like Switzerland, the only resource we have is our people," he says, "So we think that with education and training they will become knowledge-users and knowledge-creators and in this we look to the Swiss because we have a great admiration for your society and your people."
The International Students’ Committee also awards Wings of Excellence to three students whose contributions win the annual competition based on that year’s theme.
Entrants this year had to write an essay based on the question of time. Among the winners was the Taiwanese student, Pei-Fu Hsieh, who submitted a diary written by a man at different stages of his life.
"I felt very surprised to win," he says, "but I’m really glad because it’s a great chance to come to Switzerland and explore this part of the world."
Pei-Fu Hsieh also injected a little controversy into the awards session. Instead of presenting his essay, he chose to make a speech about the harmful effects of globalisation on emerging economies.
"Some countries do not have the capability to open themselves up but they seem to have been forced to and this has harmed them in many ways."
Pei-Fu Hsieh’s brave contribution to an audience containing many leaders of international business may have ruffled a few feathers. But it also proves that the spirit of 1968 isn’t quite dead and his independent stance is certainly in keeping with the spirit of the symposium.
by Michael Hollingdale