Interview with Per Michael Johansen, Rector of Aalborg University (AAU)

Interview with Per Michael Johansen, Rector of Aalborg University (AAU)


AAU stands as an esteemed educational institution in Denmark and globally, consistently placing in the top 2% of the world’s universities. What are AAU’s most distinguishing features and how does it position itself educationally and as a brand?

It is a complex question, but if summarized, our distinguishing feature is our problem-based learning model. Established over the past 50 years, it is a worldwide leader. Students work in smaller study groups from day one, challenging each other’s knowledge.

Teaching is divided into two parts, one dedicated to formal lecturing for half of the semester and the other to collaborative problem-solving. They jointly produce academic results on a given problem, often sourced from the surrounding world. This real-world approach ensures relevance, and as students progress, they engage early on with teachers and researchers, actively participating in research projects. A recent example underscores the success of this approach, with a physics professor and bachelor students having a paper accepted for Nature on Cosmology, showcasing the students’ involvement in high-level research.

Additionally, an advanced study institute in problem-based learning constantly evolves our student platform, aiming to maintain our leadership in engineering education and emerge as leaders for the future. To achieve this, we utilize our university as a laboratory, studying the scientific effects of our learning model. We also house a UNESCO center, aiding countries – especially third world and emerging ones like India – in implementing problem-based learning. This holistic approach constitutes two pillars of our commitment to problem-based learning.


Denmark proudly stands at the fifth position globally in higher education, with the country’s universities renowned for their academic rigour and robust research focus. In light of this strong foundation, how do you assess the current health of Denmark’s higher education system and where do you see Danish universities competitively positioned on the international stage?

That is a relevant question, especially with recent political decisions. We are committed to the Bologna transit tradition, employing a 3-plus-2 cycle model in Denmark with a three-year bachelor’s degree followed by a two-year master’s degree. This differs notably from the Anglo-Saxon system, which generally has a 4 to 4.5-year bachelor’s degree. We adhere to a 5-year level in line with the European model. The Danish youth, like the rest of the world, face increasing challenges.

In Denmark and across Europe, about 20% of the younger generation in secondary schools are psychologically challenged. The reasons for this are varied, requiring solid research to understand the root causes. Older generations may attribute it to divided attendance and the awareness of peer perceptions among young individuals. As a university, we have initiated a mission focused on the scientific background for understanding and assisting the younger generation in fulfiling their education and functioning as strong individuals ready to contribute to shaping the future.

The Danish government has decided to limit the number of candidates from universities with a complete 3-plus-2 cycle, opting for a 3-plus-1 process, possibly to save on education costs. This presents a hurdle for universities, requiring changes to curricula for at least 30% of university education. It is challenging to comprehend as our existing model has proven effective, meeting societal needs over many years. The decision appears driven by political considerations, and its educational relevance needs to be clarified.


How does AAU’s Problem-Based Learning (PBL) model prepare graduates to address future challenges in the labor market. What steps does the university take to ensure its program offerings meet the evolving needs of communities and industries?

As mentioned, we have innovative programs with a unique PBL approach. First and foremost, I would like to highlight that AAU was established 49 years ago in a region of Denmark dominated by traditional smokestack industries, primarily blue-collar workers. Industries like shipyards and heavy industries were declining at that point. So, individuals in this part of Denmark decided that we need to transition our region into a more knowledge-based economy. To achieve this, we need to establish a university.

From day one, this meant AAU had a close collaboration with industry and the public sector to facilitate the transformation of the region, its ambitions, and the public sector. Consequently, the study programs were intimately connected to the surrounding world, addressing the needs of both private industries and the public sector. The curriculum is shaped based on the relevance of what society demands from us and how it requires us to stay pertinent as a university. Students work closely with industry and the public sector as part of the PBL approach. We continually receive feedback.

Upon leaving the university, the university must understand and precisely define the tools graduates need in their toolbox, enabling them to navigate the developments in their field throughout their professional lives. Therefore, we focus on studying how to equip students with the right tools for a successful future professional career.


How does AAU cultivate partnerships with businesses, universities, civil society, and public sector authorities to ensure the relevance and societal contribution of research and educational activities?

We actively collaborate with industry in Denmark, supported by external funds fostering joint research initiatives with industry and universities. If an industry faces a challenge, they can approach the university. If we have the right professionals, we undertake a research project, working together to solve specific challenges for the country and the industry. Moreover, we actively participate in numerous EU programs, engaging with universities from different countries, with European industries also playing a role in these programs.

Internally, the university places significant emphasis on entrepreneurship and start-ups, both initiated by our students during their studies. Students have the opportunity to work on start-up ideas during their spare time, receiving professional support. Annually, we witness the inception of around 200 new companies originating from within the university. This internal entrepreneurial effort adds another layer to our commitment to fostering innovation and practical applications of knowledge.


AAU cultivates exchange programs and nurtures partnerships with universities globally. How does the university facilitate exchange programs, international experiences and foster a global perspective among its students?

We encourage students to spend time abroad for a semester or a full academic year. The success of these programs varies based on the field of study; humanities and social science students are more likely to go abroad than our engineering and STEM students. It is worth noting that students from member or economically collaborating countries can study in Denmark for free within the EU. The Danish government covers tuition for these students. Similarly, if you are an American student or from a non-EU/Monetary Union country, you can come here, though tuition fees apply. Students from Asia and the US are studying here for a semester or a year.

Additionally, we host full-degree students pursuing their entire program at our university. We also send our students abroad and have agreements with some US universities where tuition fees are mutually waived. These exchange agreements, extending to tuition and collaborative scientific efforts, are established with several core partner universities.


How do sustainability and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals shape AAU’s operations, and how do these efforts align with the university’s broader mission and educational objectives?

We are committed to becoming a mission-based university as part of our strategy. One of our goals is to establish a sustainable energy system by 2045. Internally, we have gathered around 400 researchers in energy and sustainability, spanning engineering, science, social science and humanities. This interdisciplinary approach is crucial. For example, consider how Denmark effectively addressed the COVID-19 challenge. Our success stemmed from a strong belief in the public sector, leading to widespread adherence to authorities’ guidelines.

It is essential to involve all scientific fields to tackle global challenges, including sustainability. Whether creating a sustainable energy system or addressing health issues digitally, we bring together researchers from diverse disciplines. This collaborative effort extends beyond our university, inviting participation from the public sector, researchers from other institutions, and civil society. We consider ourselves a mission-based civic university, embracing the responsibility of engaging with the broader public to address societal challenges.


Do you have a final message for readers about investing in Denmark and partnering with leading Danish institutions like AAU?

In the current global landscape, we are witnessing an escalating threat to global society, with conflicts unfolding across Europe and now in the Mediterranean region. Given this situation, I want to emphasize the increasing relevance of international collaboration. It has never been more critical for societies worldwide to work together, fostering open cooperation among individuals and research institutions.

Looking ahead, we anticipate numerous global challenges that can only be effectively addressed through a robust, open, and collaborative environment among countries and universities within the knowledge sector.



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