University looks to solve world problems one at a time

University looks to solve world problems one at a time

Per Michael Johansen, Rector, University of Aalborg, talks about the academic institution’s international success through specializing in niche areas and its mission to help solve key global issues such as promoting safe practices during times of crisis and combating climate change.


What are the key strengths of Denmark’s education system?

We have a well-established education system in Denmark. One of its greater advantages is that it is free; there are no social differentiations on who is admitted into our universities. If one has the abilities and yearns to get an education, it can be done no matter what social background you come from. In some parts of the country—specifically around the greater Copenhagen area—you see a lot of young people originating from academic families with diverse types of education. However, when you move to the northern part of Jutland or the southern part in Funen for example, there are many people from non-academic backgrounds attending universities and becoming academics. We are socially elevating young people originating from weak academic backgrounds through education; we are active in helping citizens climb the social ladder. This is one of the advantages of having a tax-paid education system. Denmark is a wonderful society to live in. It is well worth it to visit, work, be educated and collaborate with universities in Denmark. Our academic institutions are very international, highly ranked and able to take on the current global challenges required for a better future.


What kind of challenges does Denmark’s education system face?
We have limited access for non-Danish students entering Danish universities as we have a lucrative allowance for students. Those enrolled receive a stipend of about €600 per month from the government to allow them to pay rent and living costs, and this allowance includes students originating from EU countries. The issue is currently under debate in Denmark as we are one of the only countries with such a lucrative student allowance system. Politicians are unhappy that we cannot limit students from EU countries from the allowance and instead must limit the intake in English-taught programs. Another disadvantage is a lack of candidates with science, technology, engineering and mathematics backgrounds. We need more engineers in science, and in particular information technology candidates for the labor market in Denmark. These types of graduates will soon be difficult to find coming from the education system in Denmark, and we will need to recruit from outside the country to fulfill the demand. The same goes for many European countries. There will be a competitive labor market in these areas in the future.


How does University of Aalborg differentiate from other academic institutions?

The university was founded in 1974. We set up the university in the northern part of Denmark when it was a traditional industrial area with smokestacks and blue-collar workers. There was a decline in demand for shipyard sectors and heavier types of industries. Local politicians and businesspeople had the idea to form a university to fuel the transition from an industrial area to a more competitive area that could innovate and cater to the demand for a highly skilled academic workforce. A successful transition has taken place since then. Today approximately half of the workforce in the northern part of Denmark are white-collar workers educated primarily at our university, while the other half remains a blue-collar workforce. The university has thrived on engineering and natural science education because these areas have fueled the regional transition.
The university has a specific pedagogical platform in which all education is transmitted on a problem-based learning platform. Students from day one work together on solving problems posed in the outside world. They work in close collaboration with the surrounding industry and the public sector. This platform is embedded into the university’s DNA. Our public-sector collaborations are all over Denmark. Around 30 percent of our collaborations with industry are located around the greater Copenhagen area. In a recent report from the Confederation of Danish Industry, Aalborg University was named the university of choice from a Danish industry perspective. We recently launched a new strategy called Knowledge for the World that reflects our vision for education in close collaboration with the surrounding world. We want to coin ourselves as a mission-based university that takes on large global challenges and helps the world become a more balanced place. We have committed ourselves to this for many years to come.

We try to combine the various scientific fields of the university in a concerted effort. We must not concentrate only in engineering or science, but rather engineering and science in close collaboration with humanities and social sciences. All fields must be involved to create sustainable solutions to global problems. For example, we have done a respectable job in Denmark fighting COVID-19, not only because we had basic knowledge from our strong health sciences, chemistry and biology segments but because we were able to convince people to make changes in their habits to avoid infection. One needs to incorporate sociology, psychology and history to convince human beings to change our way of life and mitigate challenges like the global pandemic. We do a lot of innovation in the public sector in how municipalities are run and how they can be more effectively administrated by promoting sector coupling, becoming more digital in servicing citizens and having better communication between state, region and municipalities through an information technology backbone.


In what areas does the university specialize in and how has its research benefitted Danish industry and society?

In the past, Denmark had a large problem in the field of medicine with the supply of general practitioners. In 2010 we were granted a medical school that allows us to educate medical doctors through our problem-based learning methodology. We now supply the entire country with medical doctors and general practitioners. Consequently, we have a new leg in research in health sciences where we focus on digital health, artificial intelligence and big data. We also focus a lot of energy on engineering sciences. We have more than 200 researchers working in the field of sustainability and energy. Additionally, we are quite strong in the field of information technology. We annually educate the largest number of candidates in the field of information technology in Denmark—teaching as many candidates as University of Copenhagen and IT University of Copenhagen combined. We have been ranked as one of Europe’s best universities in the latter segment. We are different than the University of Copenhagen, for example, which is three times the size of our university. We cannot be present in every field, but we are small, agile and focused. We make a difference in selected areas.

We are among the top ranked universities in the world in the field of energy, specifically in the field of power electronics. We have the number one cited researcher in engineering in the world in this field. Power electronics is the key component in connecting sustainable energy from wind turbines or solar cells to the public grid to distribute electricity. It is hugely important. Power electronics is also necessary to charge computers or steer cars. A part of the success of turbine manufacturer Vestas is due to research at this university in the field of power electronics. Additionally, part of the success of Bang & Olufsen’s audio systems is due to dedicated individuals in the field of digital signal processing at our university that collaborated closely with the company to develop new products and services. Additionally, the background research and patent for the internal antenna in mobile telephones originates from our university. We are currently working on digital health for people to combine medical data with big data and artificial intelligence to aid patients through telemedicine. If you catch a disease, we can keep you at home and digitally send your health data to the doctors so that they can help you adjust your medicine.


What is the university doing to support the development of small and medium-sized enterprises in Denmark?

We recently started a new business school at the university where we would like to focus on innovation in small and medium-sized companies. A total of 99 percent of Danish industry is small and medium-sized entities. These companies have huge challenges in innovating their products and moving up the food chain to commercialize themselves on an international level. Many students have ideas on how to form their own company in various fields, especially in information technology. We try to support them as much as we can by teaching entrepreneurship. We are also building a new center that will host students who want to become business leaders of tomorrow. Our architects designed it as an ensemble of garages in the spirit of many big tech company inventors who began in their parent’s garage or basement. If the students have an idea to start a company, we allow them to start building it in this facility.


How closely does the University of Aalborg work with the international community in its research and development segment?

We are ranked quite high in comparison to the age of our university. We are doing well due to our internationalization. Universities cannot develop properly unless they are highly international in their scientific collaboration. We have substantial international collaboration and mutual publications with many top-ranking universities. The global knowledge area is more of a trade arena; one only gets access to the most recent international knowledge if one can tap in and deliver knowledge oneself. We also tap into EU programs, such as the Horizon 2020, where we focus on collaborating with universities and European businesses in various projects, particularly in energy. University of Aalborg and Technical University of Denmark together attract around half of all the energy grants from the European Union. We are very strong in this particular field.


What is the university doing to support projects involving sustainability in the country?

We are in the process of initiating a large program in the northern part of Jutland regarding carbon capture. Together with several local industrial companies, we are launching an initiative that allows companies all over Denmark to participate in the program. We have one of Europe’s largest cement-producing companies. Cement production is one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the country. We are helping them transform their production through a carbon-capture initiative. We are also involved in a large power-2-x program where we work on sustainable biofuels. Furthermore, we have a local demonstration facility at the university where we produce sustainable biofuels based on things like food waste.  We also have many programs on sustainability stemming from life-cycle assessments to cradle-to-cradle initiatives in close collaboration with industrial partners. We analyze products and footprints to see how we can minimize carbon dioxide emissions and take responsibility for the entire life cycle of our products.


What would you say is the overreaching ethos of University of Aalborg and how has it kept the university on international rankings?

The higher ranking and the higher quality of research produced at a particular university, the more attractive it is for people from abroad to enter. Therefore, it is so important for us to focus on a restricted number of areas in which we can be among the best in the world. We can make a large impact on society and attract the attention of the international academic community. PhD students and researchers from abroad are interested in entering our program or responding to our job ads when we open positions in these select areas. Other universities seek to collaborate with us in our best fields. It all comes down to quality. Quality is the rhythm section in our orchestra, the drum and the bass keeping time. Now that this rhythm section is in place, we are kept on track. For the future, I would like to allow more leading guitarists at the top of that rhythm section to play solos for the world, metaphorically speaking. I would like us to capture what the world needs for the future, attack global challenges and prove ourselves to be a mission-based and collaborative university. The challenges of the future are already here today, and we need to meet them head on.