New in AU’s strategy: More sustainability, more women researchers and more visibility in public debate

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A university that makes its voice heard more in public debate, at least one new interdisciplinary research centre and educating students in the fundamentals of sustainability. These are three of the new initiatives in the draft version of AU’s new Strategy 2025.

2019.10.24 | Marie Groth Andersen

The university is approaching the strategy development process differently this time. “When we made the previous strategy for 2013-2020, we went out and gathered input from the entire university at the different departments and standing committees. When we finished, the input pointed – to be completely honest – in basically every direction,” Bech Nielsen explains. “What we did this time was to say: Now we’re going to assume our responsibility as leaders and write a draft version of the strategy and then have a consultation period at the university.” Photo: Lars Kruse/AU Foto

AU Strategy 2025

In collaboration with the AU Board, the senior management team has written a draft version of AU’s new strategy. Employees had an opportunity to comment on the draft during a consultation period ending on Thursday October 24 at 9 am.

The board is expected to approve the final version of the strategy at a meeting on December 13. 

Aarhus University’s vision:

A research-intensive university that aspires to the highest international quality and excels in creating value through knowledge, new insights and collaboration. Connecting Denmark and the world.

The strategy defines the university’s six core activities:

  • Basic research of high international quality
  • Research-based degree programmes of high international quality
  • Contributing to society’s development and prosperity
  • Research-based solutions to societal challenges
  • Graduates for the labour market of the future
  • Development of research talents and research integration

Read the draft Strategy 2025  

This isn’t the first time Rector Brian Bech Nielsen has helped to shape AU’s strategy. But it’s his first time as rector.  Together with the rest of the senior management team, and with input from the university board, he’s been working on a draft of AU’s strategy for the next five-year period since last fall.

“The strategy we’re laying out here doesn’t mean that everything will now be different and completely new. A lot of the initiatives we describe are already in progress,” the rector says.

Intellectual freedom is what we live on

And at the same time, he stresses that the strategy isn’t a constitution. 

“It’s important for us to respect what’s happening in the research groups without trying to micromanage them. After all, this is where the vast majority of the university’s activities take place. And this has to be allowed to take place with freedom of research and the open dialogue that characterises the university. So what we’re doing is setting an overall course. This is how you have to think at a university, of course – this isn’t a factory. Intellectual freedom is what we live on.”

More emphasis on sustainability – but not at the expense of intellectual freedom  

The new strategy is fundamentally in line with the prior one. But there are a number of new projects and focus areas in the 19 pages that define AU’s central initiatives for the new five years.

One issue that’s completely absent from the current strategy that plays a prominent role in Strategy 2025 is sustainability in relation to our climate and environment.  Because the university has an important role to play in this area. 

“This applies to our research activities in relation to finding solutions to the climate problem. Specifically, we’ll establish at least one interdisciplinary research center with a focus on the sustainability aspect. We don’t yet know precisely what it will be – we’ll listen to our researchers in relation to what makes sense. But there’s no doubt that the centre will be established,” the rector says.

In this connection, Bech Nielsen stresses that it’s important for the university to insist on intellectual freedom even when it comes to an extremely high-profile issue like sustainability. So AU’s researchers don’t need to worry about being forced onto a green bandwagon.

“We’re not going to be putting the UN’s sustainable development goals on a sign at the entrance to the university, so there’s no need to be concerned about that,” he states.

Sustainability literacy

But this is also a matter of providing students with a basic understanding of sustainability, he notes.

“With respect to our degree programmes, and how we educate students to have a greater awareness of sustainability, there are different ways of doing this. For example, Berit Eika (pro-rector, ed.) is working on some courses with a sustainability theme that will be open to students from a lot of different subjects. And a number of degree programmes are already working with sustainability, but our efforts haven’t been coordinated. And it’s clear – as the chair of the board also says – that just as we need digital literacy, we also need sustainability literacy,” the rector says.

Better gender balance – It’s time to crack the code  

Another new initiative that was absent from the prior strategy is a concerted effort to improve gender balance among the university’s academic staff. A code AU has been struggling to crack for a long time.

“We have to succeed in the period covered by this strategy,” Bech Nielsen states. 

Earlier this year, AU appointed a diversity and equality committee that has been tasked with coming up with an action plan for increasing the number of female researchers at AU. The plan will be announced next year.

But the goal of increased gender equality has also been included in the new strategy for the university as a whole, where it is described – along with career development and research breakthroughs – as a precondition for the university’s performance of one of its core tasks: producing basic research of high international quality.

Connecting Denmark and the world  

The subtitle of AU’s new strategy is ‘Connecting Denmark and the world’. A phrase that refers to the strategy’s international focus.

“If you’ve noticed which way the political winds have been blowing, this isn’t exactly what’s been the trend,” Bech Nielsen says wryly, and adds: 

“We want to be a relevant university in Denmark – and actually more broadly than that. And to be that, we have to attract talents from the rest of the world, and to generously deliver some of our talents to the rest of the world.”

There is an isolationist trend in Danish politics, according to the rector. Nonetheless, he insists that welcoming people with other passports is a necessity. 

“If we listen to the discussion taking place in the business world and elsewhere, the message is that we’re going to have a shortage of labor, and that we actually can’t supply that labor ourselves – in any case, not the ones with a very, very high level of education. And this is where a university can help bring that kind of talent into the country.”

The rector makes no bones of the fact that there has to be international competition for the permanent academic positions advertised by the university. But always with an eye for ensuring day-to-day operations and quality. 

“I don’t by any means envision a university exclusively populated by non-Danes. But believe me, that’s nowhere near the case today. When you look at where our staff comes from, we’re still strongly marked by Jutland.”

On the other hand, when it comes to the university’s own international staff, the rector also believes the university needs to make its requirements clear.

“When hiring, we can certainly be a bit more insistent about our expectation that employees learn Danish. Not just for the sake of the organisation, but for the sake of the individual as well. If you get a permanent position here, well, it seems clear that you’ll have the most enjoyable life if you can also function in Danish.”

Making our voice heard

Being a relevant university is also about being visible and vocal in public debate – and about putting knowledge into play and contributing to the democratic development of society.

“That’s one of the things that’s more clearly expressed in this strategy than the previous one, and of course, that’s influenced by the development we’ve seen in the last few years.” 

The rector is here referring to the concept of ‘fake news’ and the increasing need for fact-checking in public debate.

“One of our tasks is to provide support for what we refer to as a sustainable democratic society. And it’s important that we raise our voices and say: Let’s make sure our democratic debates are based on knowledge.” 

Bech Nielsen continues:

“This is not least an issue our board has emphasised. The board wants us to do an even better job of making our voice heard when it comes to participating in our democratic debate. Precisely how we’re going to do that is one of the things we’re going to be debating,” the rector says. 

So is then when you join Twitter?

“Ha ha! I’m sure we’ll get a rector with a Twitter profile at some point. But I don’t think it’s the most appropriate platform for debate, because it’s so concise. But naturally, the electronic platforms are included as we consider the issue,” Bech Nielsen says.

Career development – not just academia

The new strategy makes it crystal clear that research and education are the university’s main focus. 

“Research is the foundation for all activities at Aarhus University. This is not least true for the university’s most important task: to educate students,” the strategy states.

And AU’s graduates are described as the university’s most important contribution to society. The university wants to do a better job of helping graduates transition to the labour market – and it’s not just researcher career development and researcher talent development that need to be improved. Career development also needs to apply to PhD students and postdocs who will make their careers outside academia in the public and private sector, Bech Nielsen explains.

“And we have to get a lot better at this,” he concludes.

Not a word about technical and administrative employees  

On the other hand, there are no references whatsoever to technical and administrative employees in the strategy – or to the university as a workplace. Both were included in the previous strategy.

”Touché!” Says the rector, who adds: 

“It’s definitely possible that there are things we haven’t included in the draft, and we’ll have to add them during the consultation phase.”

Bech Nielsen also wishes to stress that: 

“The fact that they’re not mentioned doesn’t mean they have a lower priority, because the university quite simply couldn’t exist without them.”

According to the rector, the management was trying to keep the strategy as concise as possible, which is why some groups and job functions aren’t mentioned.

“There’s a lot more at a university than what’s covered by the strategy.”

AU Strategy 2025

In collaboration with the AU Board, the senior management team has written a draft version of AU’s new strategy. Employees have an opportunity to comment on the draft during a consultation period ending on Thursday October 24 at 9 am.

The board is expected to approve the final version of the strategy at a meeting on December 13. 

Aarhus University’s vision:

A research-intensive university that aspires to the highest international quality and excels in creating value through knowledge, new insights and collaboration. Connecting Denmark and the world.

The strategy defines the university’s six core activities:

  • Basic research of high international quality
  • Research-based degree programmes of high international quality
  • Contributing to society’s development and prosperity
  • Research-based solutions to societal challenges
  • Graduates for the labour market of the future
  • Development of research talents and research integration

Read the draft Strategy 2025 

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