Top research universities show how to beat the economic squeeze

Three years after the global credit crunch led to economic downturn and widespread austerity budgets, and resulting cutbacks in resources and staff at many universities, some have been able to swim against the tide and expand.

Lund University in southern Sweden recruited 471 new staff members in 2011, a 9% increase. And that came on top of hiring an extra 310 members of staff in 2010.

Lund now has 6,300 staff members and 47,000 students on an operating budget of SEK6 billion (US$890 million).

According to Per Eriksson, the university’s vice-chancellor, Lund’s expansion is built on its success in applying for research grants, specifically long-term ones.

“This has given us that possibility of growth,” he says. “Many of these long-term grants support research that addresses complex problems requiring the interaction of researchers from different disciplines. Communicating and forming research groups across disciplinary and faculty boundaries is easy at Lund University and this is a key factor behind our success.”

Lund has a remarkable track record in securing research contracts nationally, and in particular from the European Union’s research and educational funds, including those for aspects of internationalisation.

According to a 2007 EU report, Lund is one of the top 10 universities for Erasmus student exchanges.

It is prominent in Erasmus Mundus, providing six masters programmes for students from all over the world. It has over 30 partnerships under Erasmus Mundus Action II, coordinating three with China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal; Iran, Iraq and Yemen; and Jordan and Syria. It also participates in six other Erasmus Mundus programmes, making it one of Europe’s strongest participating universities, besides Katholieke Universiteit, Leuven.

It is one of the strongest participating universities in the EU’s Framework 6, with 110 research projects, at a cost of SEK445 million, with a special emphasis on medicine and engineering sciences. Lund also received 14 European Research Council (ERC) starting or advanced grants from the EU in 2008-11.

A member of the League of Research Universities (LERU), and the Universitas 21 and Øresund university networks, it is currently in line for the role of coordinating the European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC) in food sciences with Danish universities, and all major food producers in Europe, which has a yearly turnover of SEK980 million.

And it leads the field in participation in Swedish Research Foundations with 30-plus centres of excellence in fields including stem cell therapy, a diabetes centre, nanoscience and quantum mechanical engineering, climate and terrestrial biosphere interaction, mobile communication and so on.

Lund has also for 25 years hosted the largest science park in Scandinavia, IDEON, with 260 companies accounting for 2,000 staff.

Georg Heuwing, who works on international affairs at the City of Lund, told University World News: “Internationalisation has always been at the very core of Lund’s strategic development. The investments in our international future have been crucial for our successes, as has the close cooperation between the city, the university and our diversified business sector.

"Together we are committed to maintaining and investing further in a globally attractive package of first-class education from pre-school to post-doctoral studies, cutting edge research and development, an excellent business climate and a high level of quality of life.”

Work is in progress for a major expansion over the next 20 years with the construction in Lund of the world’s most powerful neutron source, the European Spallation Source, to host 5,000 visiting scientists a year from 2020, with 17 countries participating in the financing. The development is being carried out by the city of Lund in cooperation with Lund University.

In addition, MAXLAB IV, the world’s largest materials research infrastructure based on synchrotron radiation, will be built in the city by 2015.

These two developments will make Lund a leading world centre for materials and biomolecular-related research for years to come, according to Lars Börjesson, secretary-general to the Swedish Research Council.

In 2010, when AstraZeneca, the medical company, decided to move its research division out of Lund, Lund University managed to secure 80,000 square metres of space. Of this, 30,000 square metres have been devoted to laboratories at a cost of SEK450 million. Mats Paulsson, a founder of Peab, one of the leading construction and civil engineering companies in the Nordic countries, made an initial donation of SEK100 million.

The laboratories have been named Medicon Village and will support Lund’s Life Science research, notably within cancer research. The land was formally handed over to the university on 12 January 2012 and will provide space for 500 researchers and other staff, to double when fully in operation.

Curt Rice, vice-president of research and development at Tromsø University in Norway, and a specialist on issues related to leadership development at academic institution and improvement of research funding, says one of the interesting lessons from Lund’s growth is its success with innovation and garnering external funding.

“They have built research groups around internationally leading scholars who have then attracted major support from the Framework programmes, and they have worked in close cooperation with business and government in their region,” Rice says. “This may be the most successful formula for continued growth of an institution in these difficult economic times.”

This remarkable manoeuvring space is found not only at Lund, but also at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Uppsala University and several others, but not with the same degree of budget flexibility as in Lund.

Rector Eva Åkesson, vice-chancellor of Uppsala and a former pro-rector of Lund, says Scandinavia’s oldest university is thriving.

“The number of students and employees has risen dramatically,” she said. “Our researchers have been hugely successful in garnering external grants, both from Swedish financiers and from the EU. This has given our research a boost, leading to new employment.

“In competition we have also landed a major portion of the strategic research funding that the government has committed to fields vital to society, such as energy and health. In a total of 10 such areas, we now shoulder the national responsibility for building up research of the highest international level.”

In recent years Uppsala has also carried out two self-evaluations of all its research with the help of international panels, and this has facilitated the setting of strategic priorities at all levels of the university. During the year multiple strategic recruitments were made to strengthen its operations.

For Swedish universities the conditions for expansion of research are going to improve further thanks to the planned improvement of transport links with its southern neighbours.

Daniel J Guhr, managing director of Illuminate Consulting Group, who has advised Swedish universities on internationalisation strategies, told University World News: “Lund has been successful because it put three things together: the recognition of strategic development opportunities; an evidence-based, expert-driven approach which involved taking in external advice and perspectives; and the implementation of recommendations through hiring and policy changes.

Together with Danish and German authorities, Sweden is involved in the Fehrman Belt Fixed Line project planned for completion in 2020. This is a combined transport infrastructure project, involving railways, road and an immersed tunnel (20 kilometres long) connecting the German island of Fehrman with the Danish island of Lolland, known as the “birds flight line” project. This will allow for more direct transport from the continent to Scandinavia.

This connection will also open up Lund and the Øresund region for mutual use of major research infrastructures with those on the continent, and further enhance Lund’s position attracting scientists from abroad.

Lund and Copenhagen universities are currently coordinating an ambitious push to become world centres for food innovation when the first round of the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programmes are announced, by coordinating a bid by the consortium Foodbest to land one of the first three knowledge and innovation communities (KICs), worth €50 to €100 million (US$67 to US$133.6 million).

Guhr says Lund’s success demonstrates that universities can make significant progress with regard to their research and internationalisation capabilities if senior management focuses on performance outcomes rather than getting bogged down in processes or singular issues.