Speeches

Speech at the Annual Celebration 2016 by Rector Brian Bech Nielsen

Dear permanent secretary, dear mayor of Aarhus, dear board members, partners, guests, colleagues, and not least students. I would also like to welcome you to Aarhus University’s annual celebration.

By way of introduction, I would like to thank you, Michael, for your great efforts as chair of the Aarhus University board, and for an excellent working relationship. It has been and continues to be very inspiring. I have never met an alum – of the University of Copenhagen with such a passionate commitment to Aarhus University. You must be a closet Jutlander! Naturally, we will say a proper goodbye to you when we get to that point.

We have fantastic students at Aarhus University. The University Park campus is buzzing with life today, and the students are in full swing holding (what they call) Denmark’s biggest sports day – which will naturally be followed by Denmark’s longest Friday bar. This reminds me of what a great privilege it is to work at our university. Each year when summer draws to a close, we are met by curious, hopeful young people who thirst for knowledge and who open-mindedly challenge us as people, teachers and researchers, and this is a privilege. For a moment, all the worries about the Finance Act, the economic master plan, the governance review, the study progress reform, degree programme resizing, accreditation, internationalisation, drop-out rates and degree programme matching evaporate – and suddenly, it all makes sense!

We are here for the sake of the students, and because we are passionate about generating knowledge and sharing knowledge with society.

I would like to extend a particularly warm welcome to the almost 7,400 new students who have just commenced their studies at Aarhus University. Never before have so many applicants chosen us as their first priority. And the average marks of the students we admit continues to increase year for year.  And they have a lot to look forward to. Not just to student life, but also to the encounter with deeply committed lecturers and researchers who will do their utmost to give students the best possible education and a sound ballast for their future lives.

In recent years, the public debate on education has centred on quality and relevance. The two concepts are often used more or less interchangeably, and this serves to muddy the debate.  I would like to distinguish between the two concepts. For us, relevance means that our graduates can get relevant jobs.

And in this respect, things are going well at Aarhus University! Unemployment among our graduates in the period one to two year after graduation is among the lowest in the country for all four faculties. In other words, our graduates are among the most attractive.

With regard to the quality of university degree programmes, the debate has focused on drop-out rates, hours of study, progress to degree and degree programme matching, all of which are important parameters. But I think we’re leaving out what’s most essential. What is the end result? What are the students capable of after finishing their degrees? What academic level have they achieved?

For us, high-quality education means that the students not only are able to match society’s current needs. They must also be able to transform and develop society. They must achieve a high level of academic excellence to enable them to compete with the graduates of respected international universities. Because competition is international, and globalisation is not going to stop!

A high level of academic excellence is inextricably linked to the quality of the research on which degree programmes are based. Not least for this reason, we focus on improving the quality of research at Aarhus University every single year.

This takes talented, committed academic staff who are passionate about their field, and that’s what we have at Aarhus University. Our researchers from all four faculties are extremely successful in attracting competitive funding.  In fact, in our largest area, the natural sciences and technology, we are the best university in the country at putting external grants into play measured in terms of the individual researcher.

And so I would like to commend the university’s employees for their impressive and whole-hearted efforts. This applies to academic staff, but in equally high degree to our technical and administrative employees. You all contribute to the whole which constitutes the university.

So dear guests, I encourage you to give our attending employees a clap on the back. They’ve earned it. Not least because they keep the flag flying high at a time when the educational sector is under pressure.

The reduction of government educational funding by 2 per cent per year and the drastic cuts to government research foundations in last year’s Finance Act hit Aarhus University hard.

We felt the blow – yes! But through constructive dialogue with our board, our local management teams and the liaison committees, we have reached a solid long-term plan which will enable us to get though this by reducing expenditure on buildings, administration, operations and payroll – primarily through natural wastage.

The proposed Finance Bill for 2017 is in tune with our expectations and does not give us any grounds for changing our plan.

In tune with our expectations, I said – but not in tune with our hopes. It is important that we once again increase investment in research if the Danish universities are to maintain their international competitiveness and contribute effectively contribution to society’s development. Especially non-earmarked research funding needs to be boosted. This is where the next generation of talented researchers thrives.

In the words of the Latin proverb: Per aspera – ad astra : through hardships to the stars.  Here at Aarhus University, we’re reaching for the stars, and we will not lose heart. Which is fortunate, because we’re facing a major challenge which we must work with in the coming years.

If the universities maintain their current enrolment levels, in 2030, it will be necessary to find private-sector employment for about 130,000 graduates with an advanced post-secondary degree. In the simplest possible terms: Today, half of the country’s graduates find employment in the private sector. In 2030, it needs to be two out of three. This development will not take happen by itself!

As Socrates is reputed to have said, ‘Let him that would move the world first move himself.’

 With that in mind, at Aarhus University, we are approaching the challenge along three different tracks: We must change the competency profile of our graduates. - We must build bridges to the private sector.

The adjustment of the competency profile of our graduates means that Aarhus University will increase admissions to degree programmes whose graduates primarily find employment in the private sector and reduce admissions to degree programmes whose graduates primarily find employment in the public sector.

This is why the board approved four major strategic initiatives looking forward to 2019 just before the summer holiday.

We will pour considerable resources into the engineering degree programmes with a view to a major increase in admissions. This development is already in process, and we received a considerable increase in applications again this year.

We are also investing heavily in the research foundation of our business programmes.

And we are working with the possibility that students on health sciences degree programmes can orient their courses of study towards the private sector, for example the pharmaceutical industry.

The resizing of our degree programmes means that admissions to humanities, theology and educational degree programmes will be reduced by 30% over the coming years. But although admissions will be reduced considerably, we will give the students we educate an even better education than they receive today. The university has allocated considerably funds to ensure that we will continue to be able to recruit extremely prominent researchers to these areas, despite the reduction.

In addition, we are merging the business and humanities language programmes, which will ensure that future generations of students will be able to study German, French and English as languages of business and culture at a high level at Aarhus University.

These adjustments to our graduates’ competency profiles are a very signficant contribution to meeting society’s needs going forward. But it’s not enough. We have to build a bridge between our degree programmes and the labour market, in the private sector as well as the public. And the bridge must be constructed so that the piers on our side are solidly anchored in both education and research! We won’t compromise on quality.

Last year, we introduced the idea of one-year Master’s thesis projects to be completed in collaboration with a private business or a public institution. Of course, the University Act does say that the Master’s thesis should take six months for most degree programmes – but I’m sure we’ll find a way around that. After all, we’re in Jutland!

Bridge-building involves intensification of collaboration between students and employers, primarily in the form of projects, case competitions and company visits. And we also hope that the minister will propose an ‘industrial Master’s’ scheme soon, which allows Master’s degree students to be employed by a business part-time, with a corresponding extension in time to degree.

This brings my to a desire for more spin-out companies.

A number of companies are already established as a result of the activities at Aarhus University. But honestly, there are too few by far. The problem is not a lack of CVR numbers. The problem is that a lot of these companies never really get off the ground.

A young entrepreneur’s path is dim, winding and uncertain. Our aim is to shed light, provide road maps and signs – for the students and researchers who have the courage to establish their own businesses.  Through our good friends at the Aarhus University Research Foundation, we have direct influence on a number of local players on the field, and we are currently analysing the possibilities of a coordinated effort.

From spin-outs, let me get back to the university.

On Tuesday morning, I biked through the University Park and could not avoid overhearing one of our new students talking rather loudly in to a mobile phone:

“I don’t know where I am, but there are lots of big buildings here – and they’re all yellow.”

Fortunately, that problem was solved, but I couldn’t bring myself to explain that we actually have lots of different colours of buildings – and soon, a lot of them will be red.

The Research Foundation real estate company’s purchase of Aarhus Hospital is giving the university a unique opportunity to continue its development as a cohesive urban campus. Our goal is to create a ‘campus 2.0’ which is integrated into the city, and where the university, residence halls, innovation environments and urban life fit hand-in-hand with student life and activities, 24-7. With the generous support of the City of Aarhus, it has become possible to establish several broad tunnels under Nørrebrogade, which will ensure the best possible cohesion between the University Park and the new urban campus.

At the annual student fair here in the Main Hall, I noticed that students have already started generating ideas for campus 2.0. One of the more humorous suggestions I overheard was ‘Increase the density of possible lovers...’ While I can’t promise that it’ll be a place where love will flourish, but I certainly hope so. Because a university without passion and love is a poor thing indeed.

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of our partners – the ministry, private and public foundations, private businesses, other educational institutions and not least Central Denmark Region. The collaboration involving the region, Aarhus University Hospital and the university can only be described as exemplary and a huge asset to all involved.

Aarhus University was founded by deeply committed local citizens with the full support of the City of Aarhus, and since then the city and the university have developed together in harmonious symbiosis. I would like to acknowledge the city’s unfailing support. ‘Rethink’ is the city’s slogan as European Capital of Culture 2017. I’m looking forward to rethinking the Aarhus Hospital to make Aarhus an even more thriving and attractive city for students.

I started my speech by saying that we have fantastic students at Aarhus University. One of them is Isabelle Møller, who will make this year’s speech on behalf of the students.

Please welcome Isabella Møller and thank you for your attention.