New pro-rector: Education changes you
Interview with professor Berit Eika, Aarhus University’s new pro-rector for education.
“Education changes you. It changes how you perceive yourself and the world around you. I’ve always been incredibly fascinated by this process.”
This is how Berit Eika, Aarhus University’s new pro-rector for education, describes what her reasons for giving up her medical career in favour of an academic career in the field of medical education in 1996.
At that time, the university was looking for someone to help update the academic regulations of the medical programme.
This was initially a one-year commitment. Now 18 years of involvement in medical education have passed. Eika has made education her speciality: she established medical education as an independent academic field at Aarhus University, co-founded the AU Educational Development Network (UPNet), and has made a crucial contributions to ensuring that educational development at Health is based on educational research.
The big picture
On 1 June, Eika will step down from her current position as vice-dean at Health in order to serve Aarhus University as a whole as pro-rector for education.
“It’s a major challenge, because the degree programmes are different and are offered under such different conditions. I will be spending a lot of time learning more about them by listening to teaching staff, students, directors of studies, employers and many others. Because it’s obvious that we can’t just impose Health’s world view on all the other degree programmes,” explains Eika.
However, she emphasises that the insight she has gained through many years of engagement in educational development isn’t limited to the health sciences:
“In the first place, the degree programmes at Health are far from identical. And in the second place, I’ve done a great deal of work with the social sciences and humanities, precisely because my focus has been on education and pedagogics. In addition, the work I’ve done on the Education Committee for AU over the past three years has given me a lot of insight into conditions across the university, and I’m looking forward to applying and building on this knowledge as pro-rector.”
A changing sector
The 56-year-old professor will take up her new position during a time of intense public debate about higher education. The study progress reform, institutional accreditation, internationalisation strategy and digitalisation are some of the challenges currently facing the university.
Most recently the government’s productivity commission and quality committee have sparked new discussions about the very structure of university education.
“We need to keep in mind that Danish university degree programmes are fundamentally solid. But education plays a decisive role for society, and I’m generally in favour of always being attentive to the possibility of doing things better. One of my most important tasks will be to help ensure that we develop in the right direction and that the decisions we make are the right ones - both on the background of research and on the background of dialogue with teaching staff and students,” explains Eika.
Working with Aarhus University’s honours programmes is one of the things she looks forward to.
“We’re gradually gaining more experience with talent development, and I think we’re moving in the right direct with the idea of honours programmes. Just as we have a social responsibility to raise the general level of education, we also have a responsibility to challenge our most talented students to the maximum. For this reason, I will work to encourage the establishment of more honours programmes. Including programmes that involve more than one main academic area - for example, management courses for students who have ambitions along those lines.”
Teaching deserves recognition
Another key issue for Eika is increasing recognition of the value of teaching. The university is the only institution where employees both perform research and teach; research-based education is precisely what characterises the essence of the university. For Eika, this is of fundamental importance.
“I like the definition of the university student as someone who’s learning from someone who’s still learning about the world. Of course, this is a bit of an oversimplification, but it does capture the curiosity that characterises a university. That’s something we must to continue to insist on.”
“But having said that, I do think we have some problems with the criteria according to which the performance of academic staff is evaluated. It’s easier to count citations and publications than it is to measure what teachers mean to their students, and this often affects how you as an employee decide to prioritise when you’re pressed for time. Finding the right balance is a major task, and it’s high on my list. I don’t have any finished solutions up my sleeve, and I don’t think AU can solve this challenge alone. But new hires might be a place to start: our assessment criteria have to reflect the fact that research qualifications are necessary but not sufficient for the university’s academic staff. I also think we can do more to continually improve our staff’s teaching skills, but that’s definitely one of the issues I’ll be discussing soon on a round of visits all over the university.
Berit Eika on:
The study progress reform:
Quality is my top priority, but I do think there’s something to be gained by reducing degree completion times. Of course, the state of the economy has a major influence, and employers want graduates with experience from student jobs, internships and travel abroad, so students take this kind of work in order to give themselves an edge in the competition. You can hardly blame them for that. We’re doing a lot of work on rules, credit transfer and mobility windows, but the really big job for the university’s management teams is to ensure good dialogue between teaching staff and the students - because they’re who this is all about.
Involving prospective employers
As vice-dean, I’ve done a lot of work on improving how the university involves prospective employers. An incredible amount has happened in recent years, and we’re on the right path - among other reasons, because we incorporate labour market relevance in our study programmes in a much broader way. At the same time, I still think that we can develop our involvement of prospective employers and a binding collaboration at different stages of a degree programme. However, this is by no means synonymous with business dictating what takes place in our degree programmes. The timescales involved are just too different for this to be possible: for example, our IT programmes can’t teach overly specific technologies because reality might look different by the time the students graduate. As I see it, there’s an important general distinction between training and education. You train in order to achieve a specific skill - but there’s something more universal at stake at a university. Our role is not just to provide training: our primary role is to educate.
I think that we need to establish more partnerships and more packages that can benefit the students. My dream is for us to be able to give the students a big catalogue full of lots of permanent exchange agreements with universities we know to have a high academic level. That would mean that we wouldn’t have to worry about credit transfer in the same way. These agreements require students and their degree programmes to spend enormous resources on research and quality assurance, and this will be intensified by the study progress reform. I’m concerned that this might put some students in a bind, for example if courses aren’t offered. We can create a lot more certainty if we have permanent exchange agreements. It’s not at all a question of abolishing freedom of choice - but I would like to increase the number of reliable choices available to students.
Direct contact with our teaching staff - among other things, in the form of lectures - can’t be replaced by digital technologies. But it can be supplemented. For example, digital media can help students improve their study skills. Selecting a shared digital platform that can accommodate the differences among our degree programmes is a giant step forward for the university, and I think it has great potential. I’m looking forward to helping to realise that potential.
Berit Eika in brief
- Appointed vice-dean for education at Health in March 2011
- Received the Aarhus University Anniversity Foundation Prize of Honour for Pedagogics (2007)
- Appointed professor of medical education (2005)
- Is behind the coming changes in quota 2 admissions to the medical programme, which will include admissions tests starting in 2016.
- Co-founded the AU Educational Development Network (UPNet).
- Was prime mover behind the establishment of the Centre for Medical Education at Aarhus University.
- Established a skills and simulation centre for medical students at AU,
- Has served as an adviser to the universities of Lund, Tromsø, Bergen and Oslo, as well as Karolinska Institutet.
- Holds a Master of Health Professions Education (MHPE) degree from Maastricht University and a Master of Information Technology (MI) degree from Aalborg University.
- Wrote her PhD dissertation on the urological complications of diabetes (1994).
- Received her cand.med. (Master of Science in Medicine) degree from Aarhus University (1986),