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Excellent, but also relaxed


There are many top universities in Sweden. A visit to Lund shows why.

Excellent, but also relaxed© Antoine Beyeler - iStockphoto.com"Students feel at home here" - at the university in Lund
Asked "Excuse me, where can I find the university?", the elderly lady outside the railway station responds with confusion. She looks first left, then right, puts a finger to her lips, ponders. "I don't know", she says. "That's a difficult question." Ten minutes after arriving in Lund, a city in southern Sweden, you realise that it wasn't a difficult question, but a stupid one. There is no university in Lund. Lund is a university. 100,000 people live here, and approximately 50,000 of them are students or employees of the university.

In the old town, half-timbered houses line cobbled streets, the trees are old and high. The city might easily be a health resort. But somewhere here, behind the cute facades, it must be lurking: Europe's academic elite, its excellent teaching, its top-class research. Lund may not be as well-known as Oxford or Cambridge, but the current ranking of the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHE) puts the University of Lund on a level with precisely these top universities. The CHE survey this year concentrated on the natural science Master and Ph.D. degree courses, and Lund was classed as excellent in all four surveyed disciplines - chemistry, biology, physics and mathematics. Particularly the biology and physics faculties stood out thanks to high levels of student satisfaction and sensational research.

The question is: how does the university do it? Gratifyingly, the answer is at least not exclusively related to money. The university's recipe for success is simple and based on three pillars. Thomas Brage describes the first, it has to do with atmosphere. A professor of physics, he has been working in Lund for 14 years. He wears a red jumper, has grey shoulder-length hair and a curious theory: Brage believes that the key to success in Lund lies not just in its laser centre or its nano laboratory or the other high-tech facilities that are only a few minutes on foot from the town's historic centre. If you ask Thomas Brage what is the secret of the university, he points to a pile of red onions. Because it's Wednesday. And on Wednesday evenings they cook, drink and make merry in the physics institute in Lund. "The students feel at home here", says Brage. And he seems firmly convinced that the institute's successful research is directly connected to the young women who are sitting in its small cafeteria chopping onions.

He's not alone in this belief. A student from Germany enthuses about the mentality at the university, the relaxed atmosphere; another student talks about the friendly relationship with the lecturers. A biology professor, asked why Lund is so successful, first speaks of having coffee. It seems clear in Lund that scientific excellence fundamentally depends on the quality of the breaks. "We are the biggest physics institute in Sweden", explains physicist Brage, "bigger than numbers two, three and four put together." This brings efficiency benefits, he says. "But it also holds the danger that students fall by the wayside." That's why, he says, the atmosphere is so important. And it isn't left to chance. The physics building in Lund has lots of small rooms instead of large halls, lots of corners with armchairs and sofas. The university doesn't come across as high-class or modern, but rather as old-fashioned and relaxed. The professors regularly drop in to the cafeteria, chat with students. It's all part of a strategy: lecturers and students here are expected to not only work together, but also live together.

Even beginners are involved in research projects, jobs as assistants are widely available, anyone who shows interest receives interest in return. "We want students to feel taken seriously from the very first day", says Brage. As a professor of physics he knows all about causal correlation. And his theory about successful universities goes something like this: Happy students become motivated students. And they in turn become good young researchers. "There's not so much competitive posturing in Lund", says Randall, a biology student from California. "The groups are small, everything is less stressful." This is also due to the teaching system: students here don't take six or seven courses at the same time, but instead generally concentrate on a single subject for several weeks. "You're more deeply immersed in the subject that way", says Randall, "you retain more." Silke is from Jever, she is also completing a Master's degree in biology. What she likes about Lund is the practical relevance, the large selection of courses, the lecturers.

"The people here are very committed to conveying knowledge", she says. Every teacher in Lund must study didactics full-time for at least half a semester, otherwise he or she will not be permanently employed. The second pillar of the University of Lund's recipe for success does have to do with money. Per Eriksson is sitting in the illustrious 19th century main building. Heavy oil paintings of his predecessors adorn the walls. The last one in the line left the university's vice chancellor with something of a luxury problem - Lund has too much money. A review of the university's coffers last year turned up an excess of €45 million and resulted in severe criticism of Eriksson: he simply wasn't managing to spend the money fast enough, to make investments, according to his detractors.

No other higher education institution in Sweden succeeded in acquiring as many third-party funds in 2009 as Lund. The reason for its financial success has to do with the fact that the entire city is one big campus. This means that all its academics know each other. Conducting cross-disciplinary research has been a priority in Lund for several decades, says Eriksson, and that is now paying off. "Many calls for proposals relate to challenges in society that cannot be solved by a single discipline", says the vice chancellor. Just recently, Lund was selected as the site of a €1.5bn large-scale European project on neutron research. It's not just Lund that did well in the CHE ranking; three further Swedish universities made it into the top group. Relative to the size of the population, that's three times as many as in Germany. This is presumably also the result of an expansive education policy: Sweden spends over 6% of its gross domestic product on education.

In the EU, only Denmark spends more. According to the OECD, 41% of a year group complete a degree in Sweden, in Germany it is only 21. There are no course fees, each student receives €280 a month from the state to cover living expenses. If you ask international researchers and students why they came to Lund, it isn't just money, good equipment and the friendly atmosphere that matter, however. This is where the third pillar of the recipe for success comes in: language. In Lund, not only is research and teaching conducted in English; everyday life also takes place in English. Even the woman behind the counter at the bakery speaks English with a posh British accent. There are probably only very few cities where life as a foreigner is as simple as here. On the streets, a wide range of languages is spoken: Swedish, Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, German. Everyone understands English. This was also one of the reasons why the German exchange students sitting in the cafeteria chose to come to Lund. "We wanted to go abroad to improve our English", they say. "Sweden was the obvious choice."

From DIE ZEIT :: 28.10.2010