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The Staff’s Column

Aiming at the university of tomorrow

The word university derives from the Latin ’universitas magistrorum et scholarium’, which roughly means ’community of teachers and scholars’ as stated in Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911. With this column article, I would like to be a bit provocative on how universities are not living up to this phrase right now, and how we might fix that.

By Jacob Nielsen, 1/31/2024

Through the last couple of decades, we have seen a shift in the structuring of many universities – from being this ’community of teachers and scholars’ into becoming educational and research factories with very top-driven, multi-layered leadership structures. This has put a strain on or even an end to the ’community’ structure and as a result, it limits our researchers’ and students’ freedom of thought because of the missing interaction where questions can be asked and discoveries made. What an excellent premise for creating new knowledge, right? This new structure has also heavily increased the administrative burden at the universities, as trust in researchers and students has steadily been replaced with quantitative monitoring. More administration and lower student fees have demanded more funding, and being a researcher has become a daily struggle to obtain funding where university fees have risen dramatically, taking out up to half of the funding value that researchers attract for new research projects. Because of this and a lot of other factors, Danish universities are now among the most stressful work environments in Denmark, as written in the ‘National Overvågning af Arbejdsmiljøet blandt Lønmodtagere’ study from 2021 and 2023, and at an international scale, many great researchers and educators are fleeing the universities. Nature published an article in 2022 on this particular problem, named ’Has the ‘great resignation’ hit academia?’, in which several researchers who have already left or are considering leaving academia are interviewed. Some of the main factors that the interviewees give for this is that the universities have “toxic work environments, where bullying and a lack of regard for their employees’ safety and well-being is a reality”. Several Facebook groups have also been initiated in recent years, where people from academia can discuss their frustrations and exit strategies for leaving academia. One such group is ’The Professor is out – a group for moving out and moving on’ that at this time of writing was counts more than 31,000 members worldwide. People leaving academia demands of the universities to take new pathways. One such current pathway is to restructure educations and put more students into the classrooms to have enough staff to do the teaching and lower the overall costs of teaching. As I see it, this spiral will continue to lessen the interaction with the students and further remove the notion of the university as a society through which new knowledge is created. It is not curiosity that killed the cat but rather misunderstood structuring and administration that is on the verge of killing curiosity. 

If we wish to keep our universities relevant for our societies, we need to return to something closer to the ancient community structure, where we regain the freedom of research and the freedom of study. With more flexible structuring within our lines of education, we could allow students to define better their own education. Learning materials and lessons could be primarily cloud-based – potentially backed by AI and online instruction – and the real role of the physical university would be to provide the students with feedback on practical projects and lab classes allowing us to bridge ongoing research and company collaboration with their online learning. If done the right way, this has the potential to recreate the missing bonds and interaction between researchers and students, where students actively participate in larger projects and contribute and learn throughout the process. Ideally, we would make such a new model economically independent of external research funding, as this would mean that researchers and research groups could make much longer-sighted planning – both for regaining an attractive and less stressful work environment, but also and more fundamentally as a necessary means for solving the mysteries of tomorrow. 

In short, wouldn’t it be great to regain trusting and caring, even cozy and grounded university communities where curiosity is thriving and where we have enough time to ask and answer questions? Where new knowledge is the true product, not constrained by factory thinking, KPI’s, or politically decided funding opportunities? And where teachers and scholars work hand in hand to get wiser on the ways of the world and beyond? 

Jacob Nielsen

Associate Professor and head of our Education in Game Development and Learning Technologies at the Maersk Institute and also co-founder and president of the volunteer organization, Teknologiskolen since 2015.

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Editing was completed: 31.01.2024