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If necessary, EU Commissioner Vestager got up at 4 in the morning... and studied

Honorary alumna — Saturday 6th October 2018, Margrethe Vestager became an honorary alumna at the University of Copenhagen. Here she talks about her life as a student of economics. About studying when others went out on the town. About changing her study programme from the inside. And about what she took along with her when she graduated.

Once – before she became a politician, a party chairman, an EU Commissioner and on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world – Margrethe Vestager was a student.

Her world was the Department of Economics in the Studiestræde area in inner Copenhagen. A large part of it, at least. Here, she studied, worked as an assistant lecturer, was active in student politics, and committed herself so much to her student life, that even today, some 30+ years later, reciting a typical day’s programme gives you hypoxia.

“There were just so many things I had to do,” she says. “If I had not prepared the classes I was responsible for, and had not studied the number of hours I should have, I got up at four o’clock in the morning and prepared for both. And then I taught the classes, and went to other classes myself as a student, attended meetings, went home and studied. Then I went out with friends, went to bed, got up, prepared, and so on and so on. It was really intense. ”

Margrethe Vestager started at the University of Copenhagen in 1986, handed in her his master’s thesis in 1993, and it only occurred to her many years later what it was that she had learned.

A conscious choice

The European Commissioner for Competition pours out the coffee in an anonymous office in the European Commission’s building on Gothersgade street. She has been delayed in today’s programme, which has so far included a lecture at the Technical University of Denmark DTU, a conference at the Innovation Fund, and an interview on the P1 radio station. This evening she boards a plane back to Brussels. Between all this, she has her photos taken for the University Post and does an interview for the Zetland news site.

Many people want to hear Margrethe Vestager speak. On management (DTU), on gender balance (Innovation Fund), on her clash with tech giants like Apple, Google and Amazon, and her future (Zetland). Two days after this interview, she explains at a press conference in Paris that she does not expect to be recommended for re-election as Commissioner by the Danish Government when her term expires next year. But this is not about this.

I got up at four o'clock in the morning and prepared... And then I taught the classes, and went to other classes myself as a student, attended meetings, went home and studied. Then I went out with friends, went to bed, got up, prepared, and so on and so on.
Margrethe Vestager

The 6th October Margrethe Vestager returned to the University of Copenhagen to be appointed honorary alumna.

We congratulate her and asks what she thinks about it. Does it mean anything?

“Well, I was a bit surprised to learn that you don’t necessarily have to have studied at the University of Copenhagen to become an honourary alumnus,” she says.

The author Paul Auster and the former president of Yale Rick Levin are distinguished alumni, who have never attended the university. Other recipients of the prize like Søren Ulrik Thomsen, Stine Bosse and Suzanne Brøgger have all studied at UCPH.

“But that being said, I think it’s fantastic that your own university honours you. I’m really proud of that.

Have you identified yourself with being from the University of Copenhagen over the years? With having taken your education here?

“Yes, I think so. Write from the start. Because it was a conscious choice to move to Copenhagen instead of Aarhus when I, at the end of the last millennium, started to study.”

The newcomer

This choice was made in Ølgod, a small town of almost 4,000 inhabitants 25 km from Varde in the west of Jutland, “where it is completely flat, the sky is huge, and it gets very dark when the sun goes down.”

Margrethe Vestager grew up in the town’s rectory (both parents were vicars) and had taken her upper secondary school exam at Varde Gymnasium. Engineering had been an option, but she ended up being drawn to economics. You can get a master’s in economics in Copenhagen and in Aarhus. There was, according to Vestager, “what Grundtvig called a noble rivalry between the two universities.”

“I had the understanding that if you’d like to do work on societal issues in one way or another, but also wanted to be able to do some math on it and liked the mathematics, then economics was the thing.”

When the study programme was chosen, she had to find a place to live.

“My parents subscribed to four newspapers. They actually still do. So I could look up Kristeligt Dagblad and Information, which also came out over here in Jutland, and look under the heading ‘rooms’. But we couldn’t just travel over there to look at a room, so we had to take it without seeing it first. So there I was with my suitcases and my few things, and that was the starting point.”

The starting point turned out to be a terraced house in the Kartoffelrækkerne quarter in Copenhagen. Today it’s a bit posh. But it did not feel like it at the time for Margrethe Vestager, because she had to go through the family’s daughter’s bedroom to get into her small chamber.

“At first it did not matter, because there was so much going on in the study programme. There was the freshers’ intro tour for new students, there was everything, and oh yes, everything was happening at the same time. From this place I managed to live in seven or eight different places, before I slowly calmed down and was able to say: “This is where I live .”

“It was so incredibly expensive”

Margrethe Vestager was, in a certain sense, blown away when she started at Economics.

“It was a huge upheaval. Partly because many of the books were in English, and my English wasn’t that good at the time. And then our lecturer in economics from the Skåne region in Sweden. For all I knew he could just as well have been from Russia.”

They had not been able to see Swedish TV in Ølgod, so the throaty Scanian dialect was, for her, gobbledygook.

She knew “absolutely no-one” on the programme. A few from her high school class had moved to Copenhagen, but they studied something else. She remembers the matriculation ceremony That it “felt nice” to be admitted to the University of Copenhagen’s ceremonial hall on Frue Plads, and that it was jam-packed with people.

“But before we knew it, we were sitting in a small room with linoleum floors or in a lecture theatre down on the Bispetorv square annex with a really long way down to the lecturer. And if you were lucky, it was a modern style of lecturer, who had an overhead projector – this was as up-to-date as it could get.”

And before Margrethe Vestager knew it, she was in a study group, with people that she still sees socially today. She remembers almost nothing, by the way, from the freshers’ intro tour.

“What is much clearer for me were the first lectures and the first exercises . Just finding out what books you had to have and to go into the academic bookstore and try and find out if you could get a discount or not. Or whether you should try to buy them used… And it was so expensive. It was so incredibly expensive. And we didn’t have any money.”

Hard work, no nights out

Money meant the same thing as a Danish SU study grant, and it was tight. Even when she, later in the programme, had the time to take a student job.

“The most important job I had was … something we were called … assistant teachers, teaching assistants, where we did the exercises. We were a group of four female teachers who met during the weekend when our students had submitted assignments, and made out correcting guidelines and corrected them. It was a huge, huge assignment. But the good thing about teaching in your own field, is that you learn it on a completely different level. When you communicate your own specialised knowledge, it becomes second nature to you.”

Could you keep up with the subject, academically?

“I scraped through with an economic dictionary at hand. In other words…”

She stops.

“We just worked all the time.”

Studied all the time?

“Yes, we studied, studied together, went to lectures. I think that, just like today, the economics programme had a lot of hours to get through.”

I've had loads of bad grades. I do not have a particularly flashy university degree
Margrethe Vestager

Sofie Carsten Nielsen, a political colleague, has referred to Margrethe Vestager as a hard worker in her political work. It is when I mention this, that she talks about the super intensive days of studying, where she got up at four, four-thirty, in the morning to study and prepare.

You could also have studied less. Were there any of your fellow students, who did not study as much? Did you not think ‘if I just relax a bit, then… ‘?

“No,” she says, and suddenly thinks of something.

“But this modern, brand new thing had opened: A café. Sommersko.”

In fact, Café Sommersko opened in 1976, 10 years before Margrethe Vestager started university, but French café culture was still a new thing, especially for the larger part of the metropolitan Copenhagen population that was not a yuppie.

“There were some that went down there at regular intervals. But we, the people I was close to, could not afford it. We did not understood at all how anyone could afford it. We bought the filtered coffee, but there were some who went to Sommersko and bought sorts of coffee that we had never heard of. Cappuccino and stuff like that. It was all very advanced. And then they did not come back.”

She says ‘back’ as if it had a question mark after it, so it sounds perplexed and naive.

“Because then they started hanging out there, and the cappuccino turned into beer, and then that was that. But it wasn’t like that for me, as the reason why I was in Copenhagen, was that I was going to university.”

How to write an incomprehensible master’s thesis

What did you do when you were not studying?

“Then we went to parties, I think. And then, I was very interested in student politics.”

In secondary school, she had been a member of the student council. At university, she was on the study board. Her commitment was not for any particular political party, she says. She was interested in the things that did not work on her study programme.

“I thought, the university owes it to us to explain why we had to learn things. And there were many mysteries associated with the courses that we had to go through, where you thought: Why? In other words, brilliant that you drag us through these open sets, three dimensional spaces and microeconomics, but where on earth is it taking us? We’ll get it, it is not that, but … a little more context, please!”

What did you achieve?

“Next to nothing. Yes, well, we achieved two things. We managed to get a economist students’ house ‘polithus’. It was my generation that started it up.”

Polithuset was in Skindergade 36 and contained student associations, study spaces for students writing their thesis, and a Friday bar. It closed down in 2006 in connection with the relocations that ended with the Department of Economics being moved to the CSS campus in the old municipal hospital.

“And we set up a new course called economics communication. We thought we would need this, because the idea was that we needed to communicate our expertise to a wider audience, i.e. to people who were not economists. Economics is important, and it is clearly off limits for a large number of people.”

Margrethe Vestager was – and still is – concerned with communication. She wrote her master’s thesis with a fellow student on the top floor of the Polithuset and still remembers her supervisor’s feedback on the first draft.

“We had given in the first couple of chapters based on our approved synopsis, and our supervisor looked at us and said: “This is not supposed to be a newspaper article.” Start again! So we went home and wrote up the thesis, so that it was the three of us that had the ability to understand it.”

The thesis, if you are still interested in reading it, is called ‘Flexible specialisation in industry – a theoretical and empirical analysis of flexibility, specialisation, innovation and networks’ and deals with business strategies and includes empirical research on the Danish engineering industry.

“It is probably different today, but academic language as it was, was extremely esoteric. Better to say something in a word that has 15-20 letters than to unpack it in five to seven sentences, so you can open up the world. This strikes me, even today, as being a really strange priority,” says Margrethe Vestager.

Poor grades and street wisdom

If you think that Margrethe Vestager’s hard work made her an A-student with only the top Danish ‘11’ and ‘13’ grades on her diploma, you are wrong.

“I’ve had loads of bad grades. Most of them came in secondary school, as I had good grades in primary school. In secondary school, my grades dropped slightly – and then I got to university and really met resistance. Don’t get me wrong, but it was uphill for me in the bubble that was academia. I’ve had loads of bad grades. I do not have a particularly flashy university degree.”

There were some that went down to Café Sommersko at regular intervals. We could not understand how anyone could afford it
Margrethe Vestager

She worked hard for seven years. The most important turning point was when she passed an exam in statistics. “It is a killer subject. Everyone almost died doing it. When you passed that, you thought: I’m going to be an economist.” She spent a little too much time on her thesis – “we had empirical data, and you shouldn’t mess with this, it’s really hard work” – and along the way she starting engaging in politics outside university, and was on the main board of directors of the Social Liberal Party, and in 1993, she graduated.

How did you change in the course of university? If you look at the Margrethe that moved to Copenhagen, and the person who submitted her thesis, what had changed?

“I think first … what do you call it in Danish … getting streetwise in Copenhagen. From having a Kraks street map in your bag – remember, we did not have mobile phones – to knowing all the street names, because you had to be able to find your way around then. Just shoulders down, deep breath, and saying to yourself: “I live here, and this is my city.” And being deeply in student debt. And you didn’t throw yourself into the harbour then, I tell you, not if you wanted to stay alive. Copenhagen was a much more dirty place back then.”

The economist implant

Margrethe Vestager might be streetwise in Copenhagen, but it took a long time before her study days and her homework, settled.

She can remember the feeling she had when she and her studymate gave in their master’s thesis.

“It was only when we gave it in that we were ready to write it. We were a bit disappointed, until some time after it dawned upon us, that this was the point of it all: When you are finished, you’re ready.”

Margrethe Vestager got a job as a clerk in the Ministry of Finance and advanced to specialist consultant and head of secretariat, before her political career took over. And along the way, she found out what she had learned during her studies:

“I understand supply and demand and thinking in terms of economics. Next to everything else I’ve learned through life, in secondary school, in my spare time, in political work and everything between heaven and earth – the Danish folk high school songbook and stuff – then I think mostly as an economist. I see economic mechanisms playing out. It took a few years to settle down and get stuck. Also because I’ve worked on everything else but economics. But this does not mean I’m not an economist today. When you are an economics student, you get an economist implant in your spine, and it’s not going to get out of you again.”

A bit of advice for the students of today

Margrethe Vestager is an economist. She has taken this with her from university. And she has taken her friends with her. There is the reading group, which still meets every six weeks -she can’t be there every time, but they come to Brussels sometimes – and she also sees socially the people that she did student politics with.

Finally, I ask if she has some good pieces of advice to students today.

“To commit yourself to it. Unless stuff has been completely changed, even though the teaching seems incomprehensible and out of context, then commit yourselves to it. Because there may be a secret hiding somewhere, which they for reasons unknown do not tell you about. Why it is important. And all secrets will be revealed if you commit yourself to it.”

Right now the students feel pressured, we reckon. This Study Progress Reform and the speed of things is a big problem for them.

“Yes, but I think the most important thing in this connection – apart from creating space and making Danish universities use this space, and this is a political struggle – is to think: The others are like me. It’s not me, that is under pressure. We are in a situation where our study programmes are the way they are. When you’re a part of something that others are a part of, then it is much easier to bear the burden, as we are all doing it together.”

Margrethe Vestager’s appointment as honorary alumna at the University of Copenhagen took place on 6th October as part of the Alumni day. Tickets for the event were sold out.

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