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Copenhagen held back by Europe

Elite PhDs from abroad can help put this university among the world’s best. The problem: European degree formats and the Bologna process, says prorector

Four months into the job, and second-in-command Thomas Bjørnholm will not let up. He will just not lower the bar: The University of Copenhagen should be one of the top 25 universities in the world, no less.

For a university that is ranked good, but not near these dizzying heights on the most quoted rankings, the new prorector’s standard will leave most university people awkwardly fidgeting.

But it is out there: Top 25! And an important part of the way to go about it is to attract the best international PhDs, he explains.

»My analysis is very simple. If you want a world class university in a country of five million people, you have to be international. In the top 25, no matter what ranking you look at, you find completely internationalised universities. That is the starting point. We need brilliant people from the outside. We just don’t have enough talent here to be a world-class university,« he says.

A benchmark in this respect is the physics department, the Niels Bohr Institute, which has always been internationalized.

The University of Copenhagen takes in 800 PhDs every year, and several hundred of them are already international.

»There is potential in this segment,« Bjørnholm says, adding that »they can inspire us and help us improve our standards«.

Ambitious students go elsewhere

The trouble is, Copenhagen is in Europe.

Elite students from throughout the world with a good bachelor’s degree are able to sign themselves up right away to a five-year programme in the United States. Once they are in, they face tough academic requirements, but the students know that when they get in, and fulfill these requirements, they will get their PhD from a top university.

This leaves ambitious European universities out of the loop, unable to attract the ambitious students.

»So I suggest we launch scholarships for international students coming for a full PhD for five years instead of three, in order to recruit the best students from the bachelor level,« he says.

A 5-instead-of-3-PhD flies in the face of 12 years of standardising degrees in Europe through the Bologna process. Bologna hoped to standardize bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees in Europe, but critics say it just entrenched the master’s degree and devalued the bachelor’s instead.

Surprisingly for a top man in a university in the core of Europe, Bjørnholm is frank in his criticism of these standards.

»Bologna may be beneficial in Europe but internationally it is shooting us in the foot,« he says, adding that French and German colleagues have expressed the same sentiment to him.

For elite bachelor students looking for a PhD in Europe or the United States, Thomas Bjørnholm says, »a master’s degree is just a detour«.

»We need to face the music on the international scene. For the top universities in the United States, a Master’s is considered a failure. As a system, Bologna counteracts our attempt to attract the best world wide,« he says.

All chasing the same

As of now, the specifics of a 5-instead-of-3-PhD are yet to be determined. Details on how, and where, the university is going to find the best students, and how to raise the funds, have not yet been worked out.

»Study administrators have to be heard to see how we can manage this, and this is not trivial. The idea is to offer a hundred places a year under this programme: But then the question is, who should these 100 be? Should we find them through our traditional partner universities, should it be through a specific topic that we want to allocate resources to? We have to work out the details, but this is what I am working for«, says Bjørnholm.

For University of Copenhagen administrators and staff, with Copenhagen already ranking well among the best national education and research institutions in Europe, the new push for global supremacy may seem overambitious. As it is now, Copenhagen has peers like Amsterdam, Uppsala, and Humboldt in Berlin.

Are you using the right scale? Are Harvard and Yale, seriously the universities we want to imitate? Why should we be different from what we are already?

»Maybe a place like Berkeley would be a good peer for us,« Thomas Bjørnholm muses, pointing to the 35,000 student California public institution, ranked 28th on the QS ranking where Copenhagen fares 45th.

»We are analysing what it takes, but why shouldn’t we have a top-25 university? If we want that, it’s my job to find out how we should do it. It’s not just internationalization. These top universities have a lot of money, they have endowments and degrees of freedom that we don’t have, but one thing is certain, they all have a higher degree of internationalization«.

Are we all chasing the same PhDs?

»Yes I think so!« he quips.

»In one way we are. But if there is a change in the market, the UK has been hit by tuition hikes, and the US market has stalled, who knows? Maybe there is an opportunity for us if we can come up with the right offer«.

Read more of the Thomas Bjørnholm interview: New friends in 48 hours? Not here in Denmark and Prorector: Denmark’s tax system not fair.

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