More collaboration between Danish universities-why and how?

At the end of September, the eight Danish universities published the paper ‘Viden skaber Danmark – Fælles ambitioner for de danske universiteters rolle i samfundet’ (‘Knowledge creates Denmark – Common ambitions for the role of Danish universities in society’.) This is the first time that the universities have set out common long-term goals. But why is this initiative happening right now and what impact will it have on DTU’s research and study programmes? DTU President Anders Bjarklev answers these questions.

“The idea of making the university sector appear as a unit with common ground and less competition is something that Per Michael Johansen from Aalborg University and I have been working to realize since we took over the presidency of the Rectors’ Conference five years ago. We believe that we can do more and be of greater benefit to society by working together.

If you ask people outside the university sector, I think many people will say that we only agree on one thing—namely that we disagree—that Danish universities can always be relied on for a pointed remark and a fundamental lack of consensus. This is the view we want to change. Of course, people don’t want to see their taxes going towards an arm wrestling match between DTU and Aalborg University. We’ve spent too much time competing with each other. It would be better if we combined our talents and landed some even bigger fish.

In recent years, universities have worked to reach more joint agreements and establish a united front, but we are eight different institutions—each with its own strategy and Board of Governors committed to advancing independent agendas—so to some extent there has probably been a lack of incentive to speak with a common voice. With the new proposal, we want to make it clear that we are a unified sector committed to working together.”

Has there not always been cross-institutional research?

“Yes, but we think there’s potential for a great deal more—and the need is greater than ever. If we are to solve the major challenges facing society, it’s crucial that we work together. Competition for research funding must be toned down. We must unite our competences in several national ventures instead of fighting amongst ourselves for funding.

I think we could achieve so much more if, for example, politicians established some general goals and left it to the universities to decide how best to achieve them—if we decided for ourselves where the competences lay and suggested who to do the job. Then we could get started much faster and produce better and more targeted results. It would also improve our standing in international competition.”

You also envision increased collaboration across study programmes. How will you achieve this?

“We’ve already seen some exciting initiatives with the merger of minor language subjects. We are a small country, after all, and if a research group is to conduct research at a high international level, then it must have a certain size—critical mass. It may make sense to do away with certain study programmes at one university because the critical mass exists at another.

This may mean that some employees have to move. Of course, not everyone should run back and forth because most things are probably where they need to be. However, there may be minor disciplines or disciplines where you are no longer leading the way.

It’s not something we just want to decide from above—it must be the result of open debate. We need to determine what’s best for all parties. For example, I don’t think anyone was too upset to see the study programme Autonomous Systems moved to DTU. We can easily find such solutions that are good for staff and students alike.”

Is it the responsibility of each employee to identify such opportunities?

“Of course, an associate professor shouldn’t try pitching his course to other universities without first talking to management. But if you think your area is becoming obsolete or you see the benefits of working with other universities, then there’s nothing preventing you from discussing it with management.

Naturally, at the same time we expect DTU employees to be loyal to DTU. This should never be called into question. It’s not unfair to raise a discussion about these things, but it is unfair if you bypass management and make agreements to move to other universities and perhaps move laboratories. Nor do we want managers to poach each other’s staff with the promise of higher wages or the like.

But if we can work together to create analyses that identify problems and propose a solution that benefits all parties, all well and good.”

You have said that collaboration should be better rewarded. What do you mean by that?

“I believe that as a researcher and lecturer, the ability to work together is a core competence—to create something and make something happen—possibly with the help of people from other disciplines. It must, of course, be rewarded and be career-promoting. Publications and teaching experience are listed in CVs, but collaboration must also be a parameter.

I think there are many who shy away from collaborating with other departments or institutions because they suspect that management is against it. This may be a culture inherited from previous managers. But our message is loud and clear: You don’t lose your inheritance by collaborating.

Cooperation is desirable, and more cooperation between universities will benefit Danish society.”

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