Connie Hedegaard: "What we need as a society isn’t just a question of whatever the Confederation of Danish Industry imagines we need for the next two years."

Aarhus University’s board meeting on the Thursday before last was the first meeting with Connie Hedegaard sat at the head of the table. Although she does not see herself as "a lobbyist for AU" running around at Christiansborg (the Danish parliament, ed.), she nonetheless intends to help influence the university policy agenda.

[Translate to English:] Illustration Louise Thrane Jensen

When it comes to influencing the current university policy agenda, Hedegaard says:

"You won’t see me coming with some viewpoint every week or two. But things can happen where I think it’ll make sense to say something in public. There will also be some discussions which I will hopefully have the opportunity to influence internally at the university, and also in relation to more general university policy."

What about internally at Christiansborg?

“I don’t imagine myself as some kind of lobbyist for AU running around at Christiansborg. But I meet a great many people, and clearly some of the ongoing discussions are of interest, such as our new minister who has recently sent some new signals, which are in my opinion more sensible than what we’ve heard before."

Pind has a point

Hedegaard is referring to Minister for Higher Education and Science Søren Pind’s (the Liberal Party) initiative for a debate on the concept of education.

"Søren Pind starting to talk about the university's role in the concept of education is very much in line with my own ideas," says Hedegaard. She believes that the concept of education has been defined in a far too narrow perspective for far too long.

"Of course the university must educate people who also have a chance of finding a job. But I think that there has been a very narrow focus on what it is we need as a society. And it has kind of been on the cards that when it comes to those humanists – putting it crudely – really, what are we going to do with them? Do they actually find employment like engineers do?"

That funders send money to the higher educational institutions who get their graduates into work in the labour market has not escaped Hedegaard's attention.

"It's a condition. So it's more about how to conduct yourself, which can be done in different ways."

Video: 6 quirky questions for Connie Hedegaard (in Danish)

Trump, fake news and anti-science 

One example is by helping to expand the perspectives for a debate about political values and what is useful for a society. It is here that Hedegaard believes the discussion should focus on more than what results on the bottom line.

"I think that the proper discussion is about how we can make sure that we don’t constantly narrow down our concept of utility, so we only have a discussion based on an economic perspective. Not least right now with Trump and fake news and anti-science, where we need the university to contribute with other perspectives on what has value in a society. And what is vital in a society."

She continues:

"This is not to say that I’m completely indifferent about whether we educate people to find jobs or not. On the contrary, my point is that there has been an ever narrower focus on what business and industry needs. What we need as a society isn’t just a question of whatever the Confederation of Danish Industry imagines we need for the next two years."

Yes to more engineers
– and all kinds of other graduates

In this context, Hedegaard sees bringing the "universities huge ballast of knowledge" into play as crucial, as she believes that universities can help to broaden our understanding of what is important.

"So yes, we need more engineers. But we also need all kinds of graduates from all kinds of faculties who manage to bring different kinds of knowledge into play, because we have some very complex problems that we need to resolve as a society. I’ve spent many years working in one of the most complex: climate. Here many people say it’s all about science, and many others that it’s also about economy. I would say: Yes, and it’s also massively about behaviour and how people’s brains work and what must be done before we can change our habits."

Should some readers begin to feel nervous at the thought of being enrolled in some undefined form of interdisciplinarity, maybe a snap shot of Hedegaard can help to ease their minds: "No, it shouldn't just be fluffy," she says, while her hands rotate above her head to show that the whole thing should not just disappear into thin air.

"But it could be enormously exciting if AU was really leading the way in bringing different types of academic competences into play, which could help to resolve the complex problems by creating new insights – and by communicating them to those who make decisions in our society."

Being a researcher is also communication

That Hedegaard emphasises the importance of communicating the knowledge generated at the university in a comprehensible manner so that it can form the basis of e.g. political decisions is no coincidence. 

She has her own experience of this as a politician:

"I would say that when politicians have to make decisions, the latest knowledge isn’t always present around the table. Academia will then say: Well, we’ve published it. Yeah," says Hedegaard slowly, "but the Finance Minister didn’t quite get to read it after reading that stack of papers he first finished at midnight yesterday. So I think it’s also important that we as a knowledge-generating institution make sure that this knowledge is brought into play for the benefit of society. We’ve also got several good examples of this from AU, such as the environmental debate, where there were some academic environments that played a role and dared to defend their insights."

Yes, they dared to do that, but as we are now talking about this topic in connection with research and freedom of expression, there are a number of people who have problematised that the university’s senior management teams and the university boards were surprisingly quiet while the researchers struggled through a media storm.

"I took the issue up when it was at its height last winter, and I also asked for us to take it up at a strategy seminar in September. So it's not because the board hasn’t been interested in it. My impression is that the appropriate support has been signalled – I could be wrong, but that’s my impression."

Private universities in Denmark?

Hedegaard is also more than happy to comment on more long-term university policy matters. But while she compliments the job being done by the sitting minister in the education area when it comes to his ability to get important issues on the current agenda, she takes a dimmer view of the government's visions for the future of the sector. 

What is your position as chair of the board on the government’s statement that it is "open for private universities and other institutions of higher education", as it is formulated in its government platform?

"I’d really like to hear what they’re actually thinking and whether it’s something that Liberal Alliance – or the Liberal Party – have written into the government platform. But in my opinion, one of the special things about the Danish social model is that we have free education for all."

In the midst of upheaval

In connection with this, Hedegaard predicts that in the coming years we will have a major discussion about how we should organise our society in the future. She believes this discussion will in particular end as a choice: 

"Do we want to have some type of American model, or would we rather have a European social market economy model? I believe that we in Europe have something else and that our tradition is different to the American, and that one of the places where you can see this is in access to education. I think that’s something we must be really, really careful not to mess around with."

Translated by Peter Lambourne