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Department meeting: Plenty of questions for the rector

Rector Brian Bech Nielsen paid a visit to the Department of Biomedicine on Friday 21 August as part of his annual round of visits to the departments. He received many questions on finances and working conditions. After the meeting, it turned out that the university's top manager had not only come to listen.

2015.09.22 | Mette Louise Ohana

The rector values his visits to the departments and the opportunity to hear about what is happening.

The rector values his visits to the departments and the opportunity to hear about what is happening.

Many employees from the department came to the meeting to take the opportunity to put questions and comments to the rector and hear answers from the horse's mouth. But first the rector had the floor and began by taking stock of the situation at AU, which has been through two very difficult years. However, seen in a wider perspective, it is still a strong university which is very research-intensive and which offers a wide range of strong degree programmes. And even though some despondency about the cost reduction measures may still hang in the air, he encouraged the employees to be proud and give each other a pat on the back.

There is no prospect of the financial framework for the university improving in the coming years. According to the rector, this means that private foundations are therefore the only place where it is possible to increase revenue, and they are also the way to increased quality in both research and education. AU is therefore now also in a closer dialogue than previously with the Novo Nordisk Foundation and the Lundbeck Foundation, as the foundations are operating more strategically than previously. With regard to the university’s finances, the rector also stated that it would in future be necessary to prioritise without, however, smothering autonomy. In the same breath he encouraged everybody to show a common sense of responsibility at departmental, faculty and university level. He meant it was important that people did not just focus on themselves, as he had begun to see a tendency towards suboptimisation at AU.

A final point concerned the new political landscape, in which a new higher education minister has been appointed, who has been very active during the summer. Esben Lunde Larsen has opened up for a discussion with the universities during the autumn of both the study progress reform and the degree programme resizing plan. The rector was looking forward to this discussion.

Concern for young research talents led to action

When the floor was opened for questions, concern about the next generation of researchers was brought up. Aarhus University’s Research Foundation’s new grant strategy makes it impossible for many young associate professors at the Department of Biomedicine to apply for Starting Grants. Combined with the previous hiring freeze at AU, this has made it difficult to see how it is possible to support young research talents. This information was new to the rector, who assured everyone that the university wished to support young research talents, and that inappropriate rules would be discussed with the foundation. As it turned out, turning words into deeds was quickly done, as the rules were amended a few days after the meeting, so that young associate professors at Biomedicine had better opportunities for applying.

A similar comment concerned the difficulty in obtaining scholarships to finance PhD students, which has the unfortunate knock-on effect of researchers being employed as postdocs instead, which is also cheaper. But this is a case of shooting yourself in the foot in relation to future recruitment. The rector's reply to this was that AU must, of course, train PhDs, but that its finances must also be able to keep up. And that AU's basic funds cannot cover the current level of PhD admissions with full funding.

The senior management team discusses financial models and double rent

A smaller teaching staff, a larger number of students and more and more tasks were also highlighted as a problem, one which is particularly challenging for young members of staff, as a lot of effort is used teaching and applying for funds, in addition to conducting research. And as the faculty’s financial situation is fine, it was hard to understand why the department's finances should be under so much pressure. In reply, the rector again stressed that everyone has a joint responsibility across the entire university and should not only look at his or her own department. The senior management team would also discuss the financial model at AU at a seminar in September. The rector did not believe that the model functioned in its present form, as people were, as it were, punished for having success in attracting external funding, which is a poor incentive. This is precisely what has been experienced at the Department of Biomedicine. Another topic to be discussed at the seminar would be the double rent, which the department will be subject to when the new building is taken into use. The rector's personal position was that the university community should step in in such a situation, which was a message that the department was happy to hear.

Concerns were also raised about a general underfinancing and there was a call for greater support internally to research groups who have difficulty finding external grants. Here the rector mentioned that this would require a prioritisation of the funding, and that this should be carried out as close to the academic environments as possible. In addition, AU now sends an increased amount of strategic funding back to the academic environments, while at the same time, the university is in the process of finding savings in the administration of DKK 100 million, in addition to making savings last year of the same amount.

Stress must be combated

Several studies show that there is a high stress level among members of academic staff – partly because of the pressure of applying for external funding – and the rector was asked whether it was possible to do something to reduce stress levels at AU. He did not have a miracle cure at hand, as he also viewed this as a result of the competitive situation in the society we have created. But he acknowledged the problem and urged the researchers, who are to a great extent their own employers, to be aware of when they reach their limits and to have the cynicism to say that enough is enough and take time to relax.

Among the audience it was also proposed that the university should work for a more appreciative culture to counteract stress. The rector also thought that it could help if people at AU were clearer about career paths, so that e.g. postdocs were given an early indication of future job prospects. 

Innovation is needed

Innovation – or the lack thereof – was also brought up by several people at the meeting. A number of them thought that it would be a good idea to increase the focus on innovation in Aarhus, and in his speech the rector had emphasised the importance of the recently increased collaboration with business and industry. Though AU has not allocated funds to the area, the university will focus on better applications to Innovation Fund Denmark. At the same time, the rector also mentioned that it was possible to emphasise more than research qualifications when appointing members of academic staff – this could be e.g. competences within education and innovation. Postgraduate courses were also discussed as a possible new development. There is already a tradition for these at Aarhus BSS.

The meeting concluded after one and a half hours. Judging from the rector's statements about how rewarding this round of visits is to him – and hopefully also to the participants – he promised to show up at the department again next year. 

Policy and strategy, Academic staff, Department of Biomedicine, Health, Events, Technical / administrative staff, PhD students