Points of Presence. Part III: Aalborg and Leuven

The next destination point of the rectors’ expedition was Aalborg University (AAU) in Denmark. It was inaugurated by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark in 1974. Some time ago, Denmark had 12 universities but the number reduced to 8 after several reforms were implemented. Comparing to other European universities, AAU with its 20,000 students is very young. It has developed a lot over the last 10-15 years. Aalborg used to be a blue collars city, but turned into a research center, known all over the world. Aalborg is a center of telecommunication industry. Siemens Mobile, BenQ, and Motorola conduct their production here.


Aalborg differentiates itself from older traditional Danish universities, which allowed it to follow major educational and research trends of the last 20 years, connected with problem-centered, real-life projects, and interdisciplinarity.

We all know Maastricht University as a center of problem-based learning (PBL). They have been doing this since the 1960s. AAU has succeeded in it so much that today the whole world knows the Aalborg Model. It is based on social action as an activity aimed at solving meaningful problems and oriented towards other people with shared values. Cultural identity of the Aalborg Model is based on the idea that research projects should be carried out not out of curiosity, but with a goal to help people.


Students organize themselves in groups, assign roles (functions) to each other, and vote to decide the future of projects. Lazy ones get excluded from teams. Loners cannot survive in this system. Discipline is important because students work on real mega-projects, for example, satellite solutions, racing cars, or building construction. Every student must participate in three projects within a year. Sometimes it means working in three project groups simultaneously. Students may face difficulties with motivation and coordination, working on three projects at the same time. It takes 3 hours for one project to be evaluated by a group of experts. The whole team is responsible for the results, as well as each team member. Bad presentation is a team problem too. It is a rather rough system, in general. 20% of bachelors’ projects and 7% of masters’ projects get rejected, which equals the performance of Danish universities. But those who survive are truly ready to meet the challenges of the real world. 4.png

The Aalborg Model provides students with the following opportunities:

-          to accumulate knowledge by themselves on a very high academic level;

-          to analyze, using interdisciplinary and problem-based methods;

-          to cooperate with business, while working on real-life projects;

-          to get ready to compete on the labor market.

In February 2007, the foundation of the UICEE Centre for Problem Based Learning (UCPBL) paid recognition to Aalborg University, which subsequently led to the appointment of AAU as UNESCO Chair in problem-based learning. 


AAU has achieved a lot in research and developing technologies for health-care industry, warless communication, power economy, computing, innovation economy, the CubSat and others. In 1997, AAU became a member of the European Consortium of Innovative Universities, dedicated to the development of an innovative culture in their institutions, and to a catalytic role for innovation in industry and society.


Today, AAU is one of the leading universities in five spheres: 1) sustainable energy, environment, and construction; 2) global production, innovation, knowledge development, and coherency; 3) information technologies; 4) nano-technologies and nano-production; and 5) technologies and design. AAU has established its centers in Italy, India, Indonesia, and China.


AAU is managed by the Board of 11 members: 6 members are invited from outside the university, two are elected by its academic staff, one is elected by its administrative staff, and two are elected by its students. The Board elects the Rector, and the Rector elects the deans. The deans install the heads of other departments. In other words, professors do not participate in elections as they do in other European universities.

The MIT ranking by Dr. Ruth Graham put AAU number four in the world among universities that specialize on engineering education. Danish companies consider it number one in Denmark and its graduates as engineers with best developed soft skills. Despite its specialization in engineering, two out of five AAU faculties are classical: the Faculty of Humanities and the Faculty of Social Sciences. The former has the Department of Communication and Psychology, the Department of Culture and Global Studies, and the Department of Learning and Philosophy. The latter has six departments, including the departments of business, management, law, political studies, and social work. These faculties prepare employees with soft skills for corporations and teach soft skills to the students of other faculties. 

AAU pays great attention to designing its environment, which embodies the best features of the North European style: simplicity, geometrical forms, natural color 8.pngrange and materials, and amenities. The Faculty of IT and Design contributes a lot in organizing the place.

AAU is equipped in accordance with the newest trends. Back in 1980s, it started “demanding” the best for its students from the Danish companies in exchange for the best graduates, new developments for the Danish industry, and society-oriented projects. The Danish business met such requirements and ever since that time, both parties have been keeping their promises.

I can talk about this wonderful Danish university furthermore, but we need to proceed, as I want to share my impressions on visiting KU Leuven in Belgium. It was the last place we visited as part of the rectors’ tour, organized by the Skolkovo School of Management.


KU Leuven is the oldest university among the three universities that we visited. It will turn 600 in 2025. However, its history was interrupted by the French Revolution in the 17th century. It was closed and re-opened in 1831. Officially, the University is called Catholic, but it is not anymore, since the first civil rector was elected in 1978. The KUL is famous for its philosophical grounds.


Rectors here are elected for two terms tops, only from its own professors and with active participation of its students. The Academic Council consists of the rectorate and the deans. They make all the decisions. The Governing Council and the Supervisory Board control how the decisions are made.


KU Leuven has 15 faculties with 60,000 students (17% are international) and 5,000 post-graduates. One can choose among all kinds of majors, from IT to humanities and social studies. There are 4 bachelor’s programs and 64 master’s programs in English, out of 48 and 127, accordingly. Interesting fact: they admit all enrollees, using no filters. “Natural selection” takes place later.


KU distinguishes between engineering and applied engineering. It also offers medical degrees. Now, 10,000 medical students study on a separate campus with its bio-medical cluster and the largest clinic in Europe (1,800 beds). Its budget is one billion euros per year. The Board of Directors is headed by the Director General of KUL. Every year, 1,200 interdisciplinary projects are carried out there. Two out of three patients participate in research treatment. The most essential projects are those focused on regeneration of human tissue and implants (because everybody needs spare body parts). Several joint companies have been established along with partners, such as Nexus Health.


Such achievements have made KUL number 81 among the top 100 universities in the world, according to QS World University Rankings. It also has been number one innovative university in Europe for the last three years. Leuven has 10 branches in other Belgian cities. The KUL center for technology transfer, the KU Leuven Technology Transfer cell, was opened in 1972. Today, it grows faster than any other center in the continental Europe with its 8 billion euros of annual turnover. In 1998, the University created an ecosystem with 7,000 entrepreneurs and companies as a part of it. Now, it is surrounded by a chain of research and business parks. Twelve hundred business structures were established, based on KUL researchers’ patents.


There are two particular people who contributed greatly in the University’s success. They are Koenraad Debackere and Martin Hinoul. They came here in the middle of the 90s and it took them 20 years to make the University grow exponentially and to turn it into the leading innovative entrepreneurial university in Europe. They created an ecosystem, explained it to other people, showed how to make money on patents, and hired highly qualified specialists. Looking back, it does not seem to be a hard work and may be taken for granted. However, for some reasons, it is not a universal practice. Not only the systems approach, but the human factor as well plays a crucial role in it. Here is our example:

15_Конрад Дебакер.jpgKoenraad Debackere is a KUL Managing Director, responsible for general management, staff, finances, and the information-communication system of the University. He is a co-founder and the Chair of the Leuven.INC Board of Directors, Managing Director of KU Leuven Research & Development, Chair of Gemma-Frisius Fonds, Chair of the Flemish Senioren-Convent, international expert, and a member of the 5-100 International Council under the Ministry of Science and Education of the Russian Federation. Dr. Debackere is a civil engineer and has a doctoral degree in management. He prepared his dissertation and then worked at MIT for several years. Later he worked at several European universities, where he did research on management and policy in innovations and IT. He has been awarded several times for the best research and excellent publications by the American Academy of Management and the International Association of IT Management.

16_Мартин Хинуль.jpegDr. Martin Hinoul is a technology entrepreneur, academic and prolific author, and holds a PhD degree in Physics and a postgraduate degree in Business Administration from the Catholic University of Leuven. He has also conducted postdoctoral research at Stanford University, at MIT, and at several other laboratories in Europe, the US and Japan. Dr. Hinoul is a prolific researcher, writer and author of several well-known published articles and books, including “Silicon Valley” (1998), “The European Knowledge Economy” (2006), “The Threat of the Dragon – Fiction or Reality” (2007), “60 years Transistors” (2007), “Networking” (2008) and “110 years Nobel Prizes” (2011). In 2001-2003, he served as Chief of Staff for the Flemish Minister for Economy. Since 1998, except for a two-year period, Dr. Hinoul has remained Business Development Manager for the “Knowledge Economy Region of Leuven”, based at the head quarter of the KU Leuven Technology Transfer cell.

The “Leuven-style” human factor is about outstanding talents of particular individuals and their contribution in developing the University, as well as about training other potentially outstanding individuals. This combination makes the development of Leuven University sustainable and supports its motto “Inspiring the outstanding!”

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Drawing the conclusion, I would like to give you my prospective on what I saw during our trip around three North-European universities:

-          It is impossible to achieve fast but outstanding results. The grounds for success were set up 25-30 years ago. We need to be ready for long-term marathons.

-          A pay back over 20% is a myth for an entrepreneurial university. This is true even for the best European innovative universities. Choosing the right KPI for the Russian universities cannot rely upon such unrealistic figures.

-          Partnership with industrial companies involves exchanging staff on a weekly basis. People from companies work with students, people from universities work with companies’ staff. This way they get to know each other better.

-          There is no sustainable growth without facilities and resources. It is even more so for the exponential growth. A university must have a nerve to ask for investments from its partner companies in exchange for training their staff, developing technologies, and carrying out ambitious, yet realistic, projects. A university must take full responsibility and remember that betraying somebody’s trust is only possible once.

-          Strict enrollment filters do not guarantee talented students. Problem-based learning and real-life projects play the key role here. They help to open up students’ potential.

-          Teamwork in problem-based learning is based on the principles of students’ self-governance. Teachers should not interrupt with this process, even if the students’ behavior appears to be tough and unfair.

-          Themes for the students’ projects, as well as for research and post-graduate theses, must be chosen based on their relevance to what partner companies and the society in general need.

-          Willingness to take responsibility for the city, the region, and the country, as well as readiness to make people’s life better, must be the key evaluation criterion for any student’s project.

-          Social studies and humanities are required elements of the research and educational structure of any engineering university. They provide soft skills training for future engineers. Students, majoring in humanities and social studies, should be part of any project.

-          Interdisciplinarity implies full commitment from a university, including organizing proper environment for students and faculty staff.

-          From time to time, it is necessary to compare modern activity with those principles, declared in the beginning. At some point, one may find a serious gap between those. Then, there is an option to change the principles or to get back to them.

-          One should not be afraid of turning the world upside-down.

-          The human factor plays an equal, if not more important, role, along with the systems approach. Searching for talented people, finding and preparing them are vital for the sustainable development of a university.


By the specific resource that Tomsk and the Region have in order to develop the experience economy I mean the Tomsk Branch of the Russian Geographical Society