Speech by Rector Brian Bech Nielsen

Dear Minister of Higher Education Morten Østergaard, Regional Council Chairman Bent Hansen, Mayor Jakob Bundsgaard, ladies and gentlemen, staff and students... Welcome to Aarhus University’s eighty-fifth annual celebration.

I’d like to thank Chairman of the Aarhus University Board Michael Christiansen for a precise analysis of the challenges Aarhus University faces.

On this day, we stop and take the time to celebrate the university, its employees and its students. In the park outside, the students are celebrating the day in their own way, with the Sports Day - so rich in tradition - followed by a big party: Denmark’s Biggest Friday Bar. They’ll have a great time, I’m sure.

Here in the Main Hall, we’re also  celebrating the day by honouring some of our most notable researchers, students and partners, and by thanking those who have made extraordinary contributions to this university.

On this day, we also thank the society we are a part of, and that we are dedicated to strengthening on many different fronts. After all, serving society is our raison d’être, and we are fully conscious of this at Aarhus University. We are able to celebrating our 85th birthday today not least because Danish society has placed its trust in us and supported us throughout our development from a modest local university to a major international one.

I would like to illustrate our interconnectedness with society by casting a glance at the university’s founding.

In the 1920s, there was to talk of establishing a new Danish university among the citizens of Aarhus.  It wasn’t easy to convince the ministry [of education], even though the fact that the Crown had already established universities in Kiel, Christiania (Oslo) and even Frederiksnagore in Bengal during the age of absolutism. Despite this proud tradition, it was with some reluctance that the authorities in the capital finally admitted that the time had come to establish a university on the mainland (a postcard is displayed on screen).

However, the state was not in a position to wholly finance a new university. Therefore, the townsmen of Aarhus took the initiative to produce the postcard you see on the screen behind me. The postcard was available for purchase at all booksellers in Jutland. For the princely sum of 25 øre [pennies], any citizen could support the establishment of the new university. There were also larger donations - hundreds of thousands of kroner - for example from local businessmen. The costs of establishing institutions of higher education were apparently somewhat lower back then.

Aarhus University was created by local, far-sighted citizens who were convinced that knowledge based on a scientific foundation of high quality was a wise investment. As subsequent history shows, they were right.

Striving for quality is still the foundation of everything we do. This is the case when we teach, do research, or advise the government, and it’s the case when we work with foundations, industry and other partners: our focus is always on high quality.

I felt this high level of ambition strongly when I visited all of the university’s academic and administrative units this spring.

I wish all of you here in the Main Hall today could do the same. My round of visits was a unique and educational ‘Grand Tour’ of the university that illustrated clearly what an incredibly exciting workplace Aarhus University is - a place where diversity flourishes. And must continue to do so. We have hugely able and committed employees who create knowledge and deliver knowledge. The results of this speak for themselves. On all of the parameters we’re usually measured by: the number of graduates of Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD programmes; publication frequency; the volume of external grants and university-industry partnerships. By any measure, the university is in a stronger position than ever before.

We’re proud of this at Aarhus University, but we want to achieve even more. At Aarhus University, we are ambitious. In the new strategy for the period ending in 2020, our goal is clearly defined: We want to be a leading globally-oriented university with a strong engagement in our society. We want to find applications for the latest scientific and scholarly advances, and to meet society’s justifiable demand that we contribute to its continued development - culturally, scientifically, educationally and of course economically.

  We can only achieve this goal if quality remains the constant in everything we do. And this brings us back to the beginning, and to the very DNA of Aarhus University. This focus is also perfectly in line with the minister’s recent message to the universities: that we must improve the quality and relevance of our degree programmes - and I am in complete agreement with the minister.

When all is said and done, none of our activities has a higher value for society than the knowledge and competences we encourage our young people to stuff into their heads. That’s why there’s also something magical about this time of year: new students fill the university and the town with energy, enthusiasm and optimism, and the belief that we will be able to help and guide them through their studies and onwards towards a professional career. We look forward to it every year - and we’re fully aware of our responsibility!

We may not and must not educate out of the blue. As far as possible, a high-quality education must be a ticket of admission to the labour market. Therefore, I would like to propose that we and our society’s employers take more responsibility together, and that we strengthen the links between our degree programmes and the labour market.

But our graduates must be able to do much more than get a job. They encounter a dynamic labour market where the new is the normal, and periodic major transformations are the rule, not the exception. Many of our graduates will need to be able to do more than simply adjust to these changes: they must be able to grasp and create change. In our experience, you are best prepared for these challenges if you’ve been mentally, intellectually and professionally challenged to the limit during your studies - which is what students experience in strong, research-based degree programmes.

As a pilot project, we have designed special honours tracks where particularly talented and motivated students are challenged by extra projects and research-based courses at a higher level. This doesn’t mean that we’re starving the other degree programmes or compromising on their quality in any way. But as we see it, the university’s task is to stimulate and challenge all of our students to perform their absolute best. You don’t do that by offering the same courses to everyone. Twenty-five per cent of a year group is not a homogeneous mass.

On several occasions, the higher education minister has called for greater flexibility in our educational system - for example, that the universities begin admitting more students from vocational education and training programmes and the university colleges.  We are fully willing to do so - on condition that these new students have the qualifications necessary for them to have a realistic chance of completing their degree programme with a satisfactory result. We have noted that the minister has made it clear that increased flexibility must not lead to a fall in the quality of our degree programmes. Thank you for that statement.  However, I must point out that there is no law of nature that dictates that flexibility leads to quality. Flexibility makes the transitions in an academic career a challenge, and  extensive supplementary courses will therefore be necessary. As we all know, the natural consequence of taking a detour - even on a flexible grid - is that the journey take longer.

Like our degree programmes, research is the heart’s blood of the university. Everything we do is based on research, whether we are educating students, advising the government or partnering with industry. High-quality research is the necessary precondition for high quality in all of our activities. Research is the fertile soil our other crops grow and flourish in.

High-quality research requires good conditions - and we have beautiful conditions and good research infrastructure at Aarhus University - both here in the University Park and at our many other locations around the country. But good conditions are also a question of finances. Conducting good research requires quite considerable funds. The Danish governments of recent years have supported Danish research over the Finance Act at a level that compares favourably to the countries we normally measure ourselves against. This deserves our recognition. I would like to acknowledge the current government for maintaining the level of basic subsidies at current levels to research for a new three-year period in the most recent draft Finance Act. This will give Danish universities a reasonable horizon for planning the activities of coming years. I would also like to acknowledge the private foundations for the considerable sums they contribute to Danish research. External funding helps make it possible for us to maintain the high quality that characterises Danish research.

At a GOOD university - and Aarhus University IS a good university - there has to be room for researchers of all kinds: both those who participate in large groups with close ties to colleagues here and abroad, and to those who produce results by immersing themselves in research projects either alone or in a smaller group. We must be able to fly alone and in a flock - but in either case, our ambitions must be high and our efforts borne by quality.

The global perspective plays a crucial role for the entire university sector. And although Aarhus University spans the entire academic spectrum and performs well internationally, we are still just a tiny part of a big world. And although we have an extraordinary number of excellent researchers and students, we can’t develop all of the original ideas ourselves. This is why a university must always remain open to input from and cooperation with the outside world. A university that closes itself off from the world will ultimately wither and die.

Exchanging research and education across national boundaries is a natural state of affairs in the academic world.  We want to get better at stimulating Danish students’ desire to travel. At times they can have a bit of trouble taking those first steps. As the Danish author Carsten Jensen puts it, we Danes tend to be farmers who look inwards rather than seafarers who look outwards. International experience is an indispensable quality in a globalised world.

Since 2006, Aarhus University has gone through a series of large-scale mergers. As a result, the university’s study body and turnover approximately doubled in size. The mergers also left the university with many smaller units with significant overlap in their academic profiles and an overtaxed, fragmented administration.  In the same period, the globalisation of knowledge and degree programmes began to seriously challenge our world, and the need for cooperation between strong core disciplines and an efficient exploitation of our resources became more and more pressing. To strengthen the university and prepare it for the future, therefore, we launched an academic development process in 2011, perhaps the most wide-reaching change process to be carried out at a Danish university in recent times.

We’ve come a long way, and we’ve laid a good, strong foundation. But we still have major tasks ahead of us and problems that have to be solved. The necessary changes will be made in dialogue with staff and students and in a spirit of respect for where we are right now and where we’re headed.

At the same time, we must implement the university’s new strategy. And as the university consists of its employees and students, their motivation is decisive if we are to move forward. Most of the university’s employees are not motivated by bottom lines, strategies or high salaries. They’re motivated by their own ambition to produce results, by time for reflection, creativity, epiphanies, Eureka: the golden moment of insight. We’re motivated by the critical approach - there is no scientific quality without a critical approach - freedom - a university employee is not a pawn in a game of chess.  Curiosity, insubordination - We may be owned by our society, but we’re not our society’s obsequious servants. We do our best to uncover the truth, and we tell it - even when the truth is unwelcome. These values are at the core of our employees’ and students’ engagement in their work. They’re hardwired in our DNA - they are the very spirit of the university.

So the Aarhus University we’re celebrating today is not just our yellow brick campus. We’re celebrating our employees’ and students’ engagement, dedication and ambition to learn about and explore the world - without fear. We’re celebrating the spirit of the university.

We create knowledge and we deliver knowledge, and we strive for high quality in everything we do. For the university to truly deliver - and Aarhus University must deliver - the university’s spirit must be able to breathe freely. As rector, I will do my part to make sure it can.

Once more: I would like to extend a warm welcome to Aarhus University.

As I have already emphasised, our students are the university’s most important resource and contribution to society. So nothing is more natural than giving the floor to one of our students on this special day. Therefore, I’d like to inaugurate a new tradition by asking Andreas Hermansen to step forward now.