Interview with Henrik C. Wegener, Rector, University of Copenhagen (UCPH)

Interview with Henrik C. Wegener, Rector, University of Copenhagen (UCPH)


Although not a large country, Denmark stands out as one of Europe’s leaders in tertiary education, with seven universities including UCPH as top contenders according to the 2024 Times Higher Education rankings. How has Denmark created a world-class education sector? What are its key strengths and how does it stand out from the rest of the EU? 

Universities have improved in quality tremendously over the last 20+ years due to policies acknowledging that Denmark must succeed through knowledge. We are a knowledge society as we have very few natural resources, we had a little bit of oil and gas that is now gone, and then we have a little country standing on a piece of chalk with one-and-a-half-meter soil on top of it, and on that, you can grow stuff. Historically, we have been an agricultural country, but we cannot dig the value out of our underground. We must make do with what we have – our knowledge – and be extremely innovative on top of that. Innovation is facilitated by knowledge. The more you know, the more innovative you can be and the more potential futures you can imagine.

Insisting on being a highly advanced society, and always aspiring to be even more advanced, is essential to drive innovation. If you aim for the middle of the road, nothing happens. But if you insist you want to be a role model, or you want to be a first mover in this or another field, then things happen. It is a necessity, but also determination at the same time. That is important.

Around the start of the millennium, the government realized that globalization was probably here to stay. In those days, it was clear that globalization and global trade were a huge thing, and that also big countries in the East were on a very rapid ascent. We had to step up to be able to maintain our knowledge lead or be among the leaders in various domains, and therefore, we needed to educate more. There was a political ambition to ensure that 25% of the youth cohort obtained a university degree, which was not the case then. It was also decided that 1% of GDP should be invested in publicly funded research.

That meant that universities got access to a lot of funding, and a lot of students. They grew up both in size, but also in terms of research intensity. At the same time, the EU also started accelerating research funding to European universities. Because we were growing in quality, fast and maybe faster than some of our European competition, we also very quickly accessed a lot of EU funding, which enabled us to carry out excellent research.

Nothing comes without funding, not even good ideas. The will to fund universities, the will to insist on excellence in research more so than maybe politicians dictating what we should do, but mainly stimulating independent, high quality, high impact research, has been a driver. When society creates more wealth, more funding, as long as you just insist on 1% of GDP, it rolls back to universities.

In recent times, it has been funds by private foundations for research that has been growing, because most of the large Danish companies, like Maersk, Novo Nordisk, Carlsberg, Danfoss, Lundbeck, and many others, are foundation-owned. Those foundations take out a part of the proceeds from the companies and reinject it back into society for the greater good, and mostly, the greater good is defined as research. R&D is the main area of investing from foundations into society. This has now reached a level where external fundings equals the permanent funding from the government in several of the universities.

We are hugely research-intensive. Even if we have many students, it is certainly not our main business in financial terms. We are number three in the Leiden ranking for Europe in terms of research output. That is a reflection of the excellent access to funding for research, which in turn, has helped us to attract some of the best researchers globally. They can come here and do things that are hard to do elsewhere because the funding is not there, or because the infrastructure is not there. When it comes to international collaboration, we are fifth in Europe and when it comes to collaboration with industry, we are also ranked fifth on the continent. When it comes to publications by female scientists, we are rated third in Europe.

That is mainly, of course, a function of the combination of money and insistence on quality. We will always believe that high-quality research creates innovation. We would historically say it happens on its own, by itself; we do not have to do anything, it just happens here. But now we agree that we can do more, and we will do more.

If you look at the Novo Nordisk company, which is now the most valuable company in Europe, it is around a century ago that a professor from our university took the recipe on how to produce insulin back from Canada and started a small insulin producer; and that is now the most valuable company in Europe. It has taken 100 years. Their latest product, Wegovy, an anti-obesity medicine, is going to take them to another level. The drug is based on a hormone that was discovered here. If only for these two inventions, society’s return on investment from this university is taken care of.

Now we are working among stiff competition, but also in huge collaboration on developing the first error correcting and fully functional quantum computer. That is also based on a 100-year-old legacy, because Niels Bohr was one of the fathers of quantum theory in this university. Some of these discoveries have had almost a 100-year lead time, so this ability and insistence on sticking with high-risk, but also potential high-gain activities, even in periods where it seems extremely difficult, or maybe others would give up, a university like UCPH can permit itself the tenacity to stay in the game. For quantum especially, it has been a very long game.


Founded in 1479, UCPH is the second oldest in Scandinavia and the top-ranked university in Denmark. The research-dedicated institution unveiled a new innovation strategy last year that has transformed the university’s mission. Can you give our readers an overview of the recent milestones you have passed and how is its new strategy changing the face of the university?

Maybe in the past, we would say if you just did great research, innovation happens on its own, and if someone sees something they can use, they can just cooperate with us and things work. But some things have changed. We believe that we have to accelerate the transition from great, radical, new discoveries based on research into solutions that impact whatever the world needs. The reason why we need to accelerate it is quite evident.

Some of the crises we are faced with do not wait 100 years for a solution. You cannot wait 100 years before you invent the quantum computer if you need to solve the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis, the sustainability crisis, the health crisis, or the conflict situations; all of the crises together just call for us to move much more actively from research and discovery into actually designing and implementing solutions to some of these huge problems.

That is what is in the strategy, that we put in place mechanisms, so we can shorten the time from discovery to product or solution. We do that by creating an innovation hub in the university where all students and faculty can go if they want to discuss with someone if their idea or their new finding could have a potential somewhere where they do not immediately see a use, but others might be able to see it. They can get help to take the idea forward if they want to take it on their own, or someone else can take it over and find someone who would be willing to take it on and bring it into a market or into a situation where it can be funded by external funders. The plan is to accelerate what is already taking place.


UCPH recently launched the Center for Modern European Studies alongside two other institutions and is also spearheading the EU’s CLEVERFOOD project to transform the EU’s food system. How would you assess Denmark’s R&D ecosystem and capabilities compared to other markets? How has UCPH positioned itself within the local R&D community?

Food is a strength of both the country and the university, as we are based on an agricultural history, and have gradually taken products from agriculture into a higher level of refinement, from bacon to insulin, and whatever you can take out of a plant or an animal via biotechnology and life science; it is somehow all connected.

We probably have one of the world’s best life science ecosystems where food, pharma, and biotech coexist in the same southern Sweden, Eastern Denmark region, greater Copenhagen, and if you include a huge part of Sweden as well, where there are hundreds of businesses in that field. Some of them are the world’s largest in the field, but there is also a huge ecosystem of small and mid-sized businesses, and then several universities working together in this broader area, where food is like one outlet, but pharma is another outlet, and biotech is a third outlet, but built on the same competencies.

That means that skills and competencies can move about freely. That also means that if someone fails, it is not the end of the world, because there are always jobs to be found elsewhere. You can work with a much higher level of risk. That is where this part of Europe, southern Sweden, and Eastern Denmark, is unique, because we have all these capabilities in the same place and have constantly refined them with new technologies, and with new research-based inputs, so they constantly develop and redevelop, invent and reinvent, and innovate and manage more. That is probably the most active startup scene we have that is in the food-pharma-health area.


Part of UCPH’s new innovation strategy is to drive entrepreneurship across the campus alongside UCPH Ventures, UCPH Lighthouse, and new partners such as SME incubator Accelerace. How is UCPH’s new focus on entrepreneurialism playing out and what kind of support is it receiving from public and private players to create and accelerate new SMEs?

Historically, because we had such strong companies, entrepreneurship or entrepreneurialism was not such a big thing here because most of our graduates and most of our ideas sieved into the big companies: if you did your research, the next aspiration was to get a great job in one of the big companies or smaller companies, but not necessarily to create your own company.

Changing the mindset of both our faculty and students to the point where they also see creating your own company as an aspiration and also a possibility, has taken almost a decade. But now we are certainly there. There is a huge desire, mainly among the students and the younger faculty, to try out, not just to get a great job, but to start a great company, and see how far you can take.

What that has required is in part that we have supported with advisory systems, with incubation facility to give for the very first period, but the most important thing has been access to venture funding. We cannot use universities money and put it into private companies. That is where the private investors have been very important, because historically they have not been present in this country very much, in part because of the welfare society, it is assumed that these things are covered by systems and that the government will take care of that. But now we see the private foundations very strongly engage in the startup and scaleup scene, and both create physical infrastructures where all the startup companies can live and receive all kinds of support, whether it is technical or legal advisory, and also find funding, initially maybe from the private foundations, but with time also, to be made visible to external investors, including from the US, where there is a huge investor scene.

Here, it requires a little bit more work. But we have managed to create a great startup scene. Also, the big companies now appreciate far more that this scene is to their benefit, which is why they support it. All these companies start, and if they see something attractive, they can just buy it. They should not fear the competition. On the contrary, they should just wait and see what matures and to what level, and when it becomes sufficiently attractive, they can pick it up.

One of our professors and his fantastic team just sold off his company to Novo Nordisk. A deal which potentially award his spin-out company more than €450 million if it succeeds. Such a story is also inspiring to others.


You mentioned before that you are jumping behind the government’s latest drive to invest in quantum technology, with 10 million Danish kroner recently invested in quantum research. Please tell us a little bit about these new digital technologies and how you are getting on board here.

It’s important to note that Denmark, as a society, and also as a population, is highly digital and digitized already. That helps in every aspect of being a university that we have all the digital infrastructure we need, we have also digitally skilled students and faculty. With COVID-19, we could close down the physical university in two days, move over, and stay completely online for almost two years, and when it was over, the students had progressed as well. When we had to reboot after the pandemic, there was not a drop in workforce numbers and we continued filling all the vacant jobs throughout society. That is a nice example of why it is useful in this day of age to be digital.

Going forward, quantum is going to completely, if not disrupt, change computation as much as when the first computers were invented. It can do things that you cannot do in conventional computers. Some of these things will give us new tools, and new means to do things, both for good or for bad, depending on whose hands it is in, of course. It is hugely exciting, and it will be incredibly important.


How close are you to the breakthrough of producing something ready for market?

We are within 10 years of the first fully functional and error-correcting quantum computer, which is very close. Now we have moved from mainly being in the very basic areas of research into also doing the engineering and all the material sciences and everything that you need to do to build it. Ten million Danish kroner does not get us there, but because of more than €200 million in support from private foundations, and more coming in, we can now actually progress and we also believe that it will be possible to succeed.

At the same time, around quantum, there is also going to be, and there already is, a huge ecosystem of quantum software and quantum hardware companies. We have already sold off the first companies and many more are coming along. We are not building a rocket to go to the moon, but something as complicated and as revolutionary. Around that, all kinds of things are being developed and invented. The ecosystem is huge. It is very inspiring to see. Also, to see how a 100-year-old theory that we have worked on ever since suddenly turns into something real that can move the world to an even better place. Maybe it can solve the climate issues. Maybe it can create much better medicine for all of us. There are a lot of maybes, but the promise is big.


In your opinion, what is the reasoning behind Denmark’s focus on inviting more foreign students to participate in its education sector, and what efforts is UCPH making to attract international students – particularly from the USA?

When the Minister for Higher Education and Science, Christina Egelund, says that she is willing to open the doors – because they have been quite shut for some time, much to our regret – we are grateful. It is just the right thing to do and is exactly what we need to be able to invite more international students to Denmark and our university. That is all good. I do not think we have to do very much because we are already extremely attractive and sought after. But, looking at the new global world order, there are some areas where we will be more active in trying to attract students.

One of those would be the USA. There is huge potential for US students coming to us both part-time and full-time. The quality of education is extremely high, and also the international experience is manageable in the positive sense of the word. Copenhagen is one of the most livable cities in the world – it is regularly voted as one of the most attractive capitals – so the whole student and study environment is different, but also, throughout, very positive; we have a lot to offer.

But most importantly, students from outside also have a lot to offer us because they put in international inspiration, new ways of thinking, new ways of addressing challenges, and new ways of working together. A lot of our students work in groups. If you work in diverse groups, more exciting things happen than if you work in extremely homogenous groups. The more we can diversify our student body, the more interesting education we can develop together with our students because, in Denmark, we develop education together with the students. Students are not given one-way instruction. You are an independent individual, who also has to develop your own education, in cooperation with your university. You can, to a certain extent, find your own way, build your own curriculum, and also demand, request, or inspire the system to do things the way you would like it done as a student.


You stepped up as Rector of UCPH in 2017 as the first rector in its 500-year history who has neither studied nor done research at the university, which is quite unique. Since then, you have successfully seen the school through some extremely difficult times to where it is today. What are your current top priorities as Rector of UCPH, and what vision do you have for the university in the next five to 10 years?

I remind myself that five to 10 years is something like 1% of its lifetime. It is not very long in the UCPH context, but certainly maintaining our free radical curiosity-driven research at the highest academic level is the foundation for everything we do. We are a comprehensive university. We do research in very different fields. Our faculty, our researchers, and our professors have very high degrees of freedom to study and investigate whatever they feel is most important. It is this curiosity and this ability to think outside the box that creates radically new things that the world needs. Inventing a quantum computer requires that you think outside the box. That is what I always hope our professors do, imagining completely unimaginable things.

With the extremely complicated problems that are facing the world and all our societies, and where time is of the essence, the university must play a much more active part in accelerating the transmission from knowledge creation to actual solutions. We cannot just say someone else has to do that. We have to participate and ensure that those ideas are put to market in whatever form or shape. We also have to insist that all our knowledge is used to support society in making the best possible decisions in extremely difficult circumstances, like during COVID-19, where our university, like many other universities, suddenly saw itself advising the government on a day-to-day basis on critical questions about what to do now. Experts are good, and experts are here to help society move forward, and they cannot just lean back and say: “I am the expert, you can read my papers”. They have to actively engage in society and have this engagement to accelerate the transmission of knowledge. That is what we are pushing.  Innovation is just one of them but an important one.

The other thing is, not to reinvent education, but to extend more education to those we have already educated. We want to be your lifelong learning partner. Historically we have said that if you get a degree from here, you are set for life. You now have the skills to upgrade yourself for the rest of your life because you have learned how to find knowledge, how to critically appraise it, and how to translate it into something that adds to your competencies, needs, and job. You are independent, you are capable, and you can upgrade yourself throughout.

We have come to the realization that, especially with Artificial Intelligence (AI), we likely need to do more in upskilling and reskilling of the academic workforce, and we are committed to doing that. Becoming a lifelong learning partner for our students, which is a new thing, is also in our strategy. Both refining and protecting the academically free curiosity-driven research of the highest quality, and transmission which is in part innovation, but also other things in terms of working with stakeholders outside university and lifelong. We are there for our graduates for life.


Any final message for readers of USA Today?

I would love to see more American students coming our way. American students would appreciate spending some time in our university and Denmark. Likewise, collaboration with American universities has been essential; working with the best and finding out that if you are at that level and want to remain at that level, you have to continue collaborating. Of course, I cherish the cooperation we have, and I hope we can build more and even stronger in the future.




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