Aarhus University Seal / Aarhus Universitets segl

Rector: The governmment’s relocation plan presents major challenges

Rector Brian Bech Nielsen sympathises with the ambition to foster development across Denmark. But he has major reservations about the plan the government announced this week.

2021.06.03 | Thomas Sørensen

Brian Bech Nielsen is sceptical about the government’s plans to relocate degree programmes. Photo: Lars Kruse

The prime minister was given a tour of AU’s Foulum campus before she and the other ministers presented the plans. Photo: Lars Kruse

Up to 10 per cent fewer students in the four largest cities in Denmark. Reductions in degree programmes taught in English. And in return a forceful call to establish student places in smaller towns.

These were the main messages for Aarhus University and the other higher education institutions in the Government’s relocation plan presented this week. 

Specifically, the government intends to establish 25 new degree programmes in smaller towns across Denmark, including a law programme in Esbjerg, a medical programme in Køge and a veterinary programme in Foulum, which was the venue for the announcement of the proposal by the prime minister, the minister for higher education and science and the minister for the interior and housing. 

Fewer choices and more academic limits

Aarhus University’s rector Brian Bech Nielsen is extremely concerned about the government’s plans:

“Fundamentally, it make sense to take steps to support a Denmark in balance. But I believe that it’s very likely that method that’s been chosen in this proposal will not work – and it carries a major risk of a considerable loss of student places. First, the proposal will mean that we will have to make considerable reductions in student intake to degree programmes that are highly sought after by the young. According to the proposal, the university will be able to offset this by creating new student places outside the four largest cities. However, realistically speaking, this can’t be done in a rational manner to an extent that matches the 10 per cent reduction. At the same time, this new form of degree programme ‘rightsizing’ – which is in reality what this entails – will mean that we will be unable to strengthen degree programmes in Aarhus or Copenhagen that there’s a demand for on the labour market without cutting back on others at the same time.”

Bech Nielsen also points out that the government’s objective with the relocation is to give young people outside the largest cities more educational opportunities. But this could be done without putting existing degree programmes in the largest cities in a straitjacket:

I’m well aware that the point of the proposal is to give more young people an incentive to apply to degree programmes in smaller towns. But if the point is to give the young a choice, then you could invest in establishing new programmes in these locations and let the young make up their own minds. But with this proposal, the government is snuffing out the dream many applicants have about an academic career in a specific city and at a specific institution,” he explains.

He stresses that the university intends to wait and see how much of the government’s proposal ends up being adopted: “But if things turn out as the proposal indicates, we will have a very difficult but unavoidable task: figuring out where we can cut the number of student places we offer. At the same time, we will have to clarify where and to what extent we will be able to create new student places in smaller towns.” 

“What we care about is quality above all. We don’t establish new degree programmes unless there’s a basis for ensuring their quality. That takes demand on the part of new students, local support and a healthy financial situation – and not least that it’s possible to create a strong academic environment. We will have to consider this very carefully – as we always do when we develop new degree programmes. But to be honest, I don’t think it’s realistic that this can be done at a level that corresponds to a 10 per cent reduction in the large cities.”

More local universities – and less international

Brian Bech Nielsen also notes that according to the proposal, the relocation is to be funded through additional ‘rightsizing’ of the degree programmes taught in English.

“And of course, that sends a clear message that the politicians would like to see the universities look inwards instead of outwards. We have to be less international and more local. As universities, we have to be very cautious in this regard. We need to contribute to strengthening our society as much as possible. We can only do this by striving to achieve the highest possible level in research and education – and by that I mean the highest international level.” 

The rector points out that Aarhus University already contributes a great deal in collaboration and strengthening all areas of the Central Denmark Region. Both with regard to research and innovation, but also to ensure workers for local companies.

“The majority of our graduates from Aarhus find jobs outside of Aarhus Municipality. And the majority of our Aarhus students who write their Master’s thesis in collaboration with a company and do external collaboration on projects, do so in cooperation with partners outside of Aarhus Municipality. Our strategy of collaboration with the municipalities of mid-Jutland works because we give them a carrot instead of using a whip. I believe that this is the best way we can contribute to ensuring better balance in Denmark.

A veterinary programme in Foulum – a small rose or a bouquet of thistles?

The government’s plans also involve the partial relocation of the veterinary programme from the University of Copenhagen to Foulum..

If this succeeds, it will be a positive development for Aarhus University’s activities in Foulum, says the rector: “They will be considerably strengthened by degree programme, and it will contribute to a positive development. However, it is not an easy process, and at the very least, we owe our valued colleagues at the University of Copenhagen that we demonstrate respect for their perspective on this initiative, which is probably the reverse.” And the rector also emphasises that AU has pledged to participate openly and constructively in future discussions with the University of Copenhagen and the ministry.

“I do not doubt that we would be able to build a strong degree programme in Foulum, where it’s already been proven that it’s possible to cultivate an internationally respected research and teaching environment. However, the finances of the degree programmes must be ensured both short and long term. There must be a strong financial foundation before we start something new.”

Research, Research, All groups, All AU units, Aarhus University, External target group