December 09, 2005

Letter to the Editor

Here is a draft of my letter to the editor:

Comment on article by Rasmus Thirup Beck, Danish Elite Research Pales and on the report by Dansk Industri comparing the Danish 'Superuniveristy' (Danish Technical University/DTU + Ris? + Copenhagen Business School) with MIT.

Like Dansk Industri, we think it is extremely constructive to compare the current state of Danish higher education with institutions abroad. According to a popular ranking system MIT is the fifth best university in the world, while DTU is somewhere between 153 and 202. A more 'even' comparison is between the University of Copenhagen and its American sisters: Carnegie Mellon University (54), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (55) and the University of Florida, tied with the Universities of Copenhagen and Zurich at 57.

We know that the University of Copenhagen can do better, but every day we see how our institution is held back by the conditions under which it is forced to exist. There are many reasons why we believe these institutions have the competitive edge on our own. The most important is that they are self-owned, and have the capacity to design and execute independent long-term strategic plans. An integral point is that these institutions have significant financial resources. The richest of the three is the public university in North Carolina, with an endowment of $ 1.6 billion. Carnegie Mellon (private) has $ 600 million, and the University of Florida $ 500 million. In addition their income is diversified—roughly half comes from local, state and federal grants for research and education. The remaining income comes from several things including publishing and investment income, and on average, only 10 % of the income of American public universities comes from student fees. The universities are strong financially because of this diversity—if for example the federal government cuts its funding for education, the university could react in the short term by drawing slightly more money out of its capital reserve and in the long term by planning carefully about how to adjust its resources.

This is in sharp contrast to the current state of Danish Universities. Through most of their history the Danish universities owned a significant amount of land, like their American sisters. In the past generation however the Danish state has assumed ownership of the university property and buildings and is now starting to charge them rent for occupying buildings that were originally built by the state for the people, as an investment in the future. In addition, the Danish government is not a reliable funding source to the Universities, and since we do not have a diversified source of income we are only that much more vulnerable. One example is our own institution which in mid-October learned of a 6% cut in our salary budget for 2006, and in mid-November of an additional 2.5% cut. It is obvious that long-term strategic planning is impossible under these circumstances. On top of these cuts to our institutional budget there is an additional budget shortfall at the faculty which is scrambling to find any 'extra' money it can in order to pay rent to the government. The Department of Chemistry is in desperate need of strategic long term planning. 17 of the 40 scientific staff are 60 or older and it is therefore a special opportunity to build a department that will last for at least another generation. Instead of taking on this important challenge, we are busy figuring out how minimize layoffs. We are not the only Institution with this age profile or need for strategic thinking.

We have absolutely nothing against competing in the global marketplace or with using market forces (like rent) to influence decision making at the university. However a problem arises because we have not been given the tools we need in order to compete well. We do not have the freedom (in contrast to the American universities) to sell an old building in a good location and use the interest on the capital to pay rent somewhere else, or to build a parking structure or a stadium to generate income. We are victimized again and again by short-term financial crises. There is a huge gap between the encouraging political messages we have heard from the government since they came to power, and the day-to-day reality at the university. It is easy enough to establish a fund for bio, nano and information technology. The problem is that these are only 3 of about 50 interesting and competitive fields of research at the university. The targeted research programs that have been created only pay the marginal cost for high status projects. This sort of program is not an investment in the day to day resources (including human and physical infrastructure) that are needed to produce the next generation of Danish technical experts.

We call on the government to either show genuine leadership, or to give the universities the freedom and resources needed to do the job themselves.

Yours, the undersigned.


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