Aarhus streamlines in search of higher rank

Danish university implements reforms in bid to join European top table. Hannah Fearn reports

May 26, 2011

Credit: Aarhus University Boat Race/Soren Kjeldgaard
Steering a new direction: Aarhus University will be implementing reforms that are intended to cut bureaucracy and make the institution more efficient, as well as focus more efforts on research and academic partnerships

The Danish government has a bold ambition: that by 2020, one of the country's universities will be ranked among the top 10 in Europe.

From September, Aarhus University will undergo a radical restructure aimed at reducing its bureaucracy, streamlining its administration and, ultimately, improving the quality of its research. To what end?

"I guess the rector wants that (top 10 university) to be Aarhus, so this is about competition between Danish universities - Aarhus and Copenhagen," explained Anne Marie Pahuus, head of the department of philosophy and history of ideas at the institution.

Aarhus has edged slightly ahead in the race for European pre-eminence. In the 2010-11 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, it came 62nd in Europe, with Copenhagen in 70th place (167th and 177th in the world, respectively).


But despite Aarhus' successes to date, its rector, Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen, has bigger plans for the institution. This autumn, Aarhus will cut the number of its faculties and departments, and departmental administration will be abolished in favour of a single finance and administration service for all staff.

Professor Holm-Nielsen said that there were several factors driving the proposals, which also include consolidating the university on one site at its city-centre campus.

Research funding from a range of non-governmental sources is now increasingly important for sustaining academic work at Aarhus, he said, with public funding cuts due to hit hard in 2013.

He added that he also wanted to address criticism from his own academics that the institution had become too bureaucratic.

"This was never the aim, so we started to think about how we could make a much leaner organisation," he explained.

After the overhaul, Aarhus will have just four faculties - arts, science and technology, health, and business and social sciences - and the 55 academic departments that currently exist will be merged to create just 26. Of these, 19 will be led by new department heads who are now being recruited via an international search.

The four faculty deans, too, will be newly appointed. Some may be internally recruited, but many existing managers at Aarhus are facing uncertainty.

Professor Pahuus' department, for example, will cease to exist.

"I quite quickly realised we could not be a department as we were too small," she explained.

Instead, philosophy and history of ideas will form part of a much larger department of culture and society that will also take in theology, religion, history, archaeology and anthropology.

For rank-and-file academics, as well as for managers, the change is inevitably unsettling.

"For a long time they did not know what kind of department they would be part of, and I did not know either," Professor Pahuus said. "It is a management decision, but it was a decision where we were supposed to say what we preferred.

"I made a huge map of all the collaborations we had with different departments and unfortunately the picture still wasn't clear."

When the decision was finally made, she said, it led to new fears.

"Staff were also worried because these are big departments and they are used to my door being open - I know what they are doing, but the new head of department will have 350 people and he or she cannot leave the door open in the way that I have been doing," Professor Pahuus added.

The university in its new form will be geared up to focus on research and academic partnerships.

It is clear that those academics who have spent years holed up in their offices will find it more difficult to succeed at Aarhus in future.

This is good news for career researchers, with the new structure breaking down the barriers between departments and allowing academics to work with a wider range of colleagues and ask new questions of their disciplines.

But what does it mean for students? Professor Pahuus said that many of her staff were worried about the potential impact on undergraduate teaching. There was a particular concern that there would be no clear line of responsibility for the content of single-subject bachelor's degrees.

"They are afraid of the department being a hotel for researchers," she said. "They are afraid of 'hit- and-run' teaching.

"What I'll be working with in the future is research that is not necessarily connected to teaching the discipline. This very close connection between education and research is extremely important and we don't want to lose it."

She is also worried that the focus on interdepartmental research will affect the university's partnerships with institutions and colleagues outside the academy.

In philosophy, for example, academics have routinely partnered with doctors, nurses and psychologists to carry out work on ethics.

"I think it's quite clear that this restructuring has to do with the competition between universities, national and international, and this competition can destroy some good things," she said.

Greater collaboration

However, Professor Holm-Nielsen and some researchers within the institution welcome the possibilities for greater collaboration offered by the new structure.

In 2002, Flemming Besenbacher, a professor of physics at Aarhus, established its Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Center (iNANO). Nine years later, it boasts 170 PhD students and 70 postdoctoral researchers.

iNANO is now being used as a template for future interdisciplinary research at the institution.

"In the beginning it was difficult. But in the end we agreed that one plus one plus one was more than three," Professor Besenbacher explained.

Yet despite his successes, even he has concerns about one of the main elements of the Aarhus reforms - the creation of a single administrative service for the entire university.

The aim is to improve efficiency by using one accounting and IT system, but the reform will also break down the old departmental boundaries.

This change will be hard to manage, Professor Besenbacher predicted.

"I have been supporting the process all the time, but I have also said it requires very strong leadership from our rector and the four new deans," he said.

Professor Pahuus, meanwhile, is worried about a loss of specialist knowledge among administrators.

"I think (the reform is) necessary, but I also think it's extremely dangerous," she said.

"The administrators are accessible, they know the students by name, they know the faculty. (What is being proposed) is a more professional administration, it is streamlined, but universities aren't companies."

Under the new structure, Professor Pahuus will no longer be head of department but will have a senior research management role, which she is looking forward to.

Other senior staff, she said, had either chosen to leave Aarhus or return to their research - a cultural norm in Denmark after five to 10 years in university management.

"I think that in future, Aarhus will be a playground for researchers who like to work with people from other disciplines, and who like to write articles together with others," she said.

While this approach may not appeal to some academics, others will be attracted to Aarhus specifically because of its collegiality.

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