The first female president of the European University Association has vowed to use her term of office to smash the glass ceiling for women working in higher education.
Maria Helena Nazaré, former rector of the University of Aveiro and the first female rector in Portugal, was elected by a narrow margin at the EUA 2011 conference in Denmark this month. She beat Lauritz Holm-Nielsen, rector of Aarhus University, to the post. She will guide the direction of the EUA, now a decade old, for the next three years.
Speaking after her election, Nazaré told Times Higher Education that she took the responsibility of being the first woman to head the association very seriously, as Europe has few female university leaders despite a roughly equal number of male and female graduates.
"When people [ask] how do you feel being the first female, my standard answer is, 'I don’t know because I’ve never been a man,' " she said. "But people have trusted me [with the role] and I intend to use this to improve the gender situation in the European higher education sector.
"We are wasting talent – if we have 50/50 [split] at the entrance level for university, how come the leadership is so much less?"
She described the problem as "very complex."
"It's cultural, it's societal, it's economic – we need to have policies from the government, and we need to have university policies to foster the possibility for women to have children and at the same time to achieve excellence."
On her wider impressions about the changes needed in European higher education, Nazaré said that she did not want to start a "revolution," but instead ensure that European universities work better to share knowledge and services.
"It's not a matter of competition, it's a matter of choosing our targets and it's a matter of cooperation. We cannot all of us be good at everything. That’s something I’ve learned from my own university – we have to specialize and we have to cooperate," she said.
"We have to share knowledge. Knowledge is a beautiful thing – you can’t consume it, it does not grow less because you use it. On the contrary, you can increase it by sharing it."
Nazaré, a physicist by training, said she had rather an idealistic view of the role of the university – something that was important to articulate at a time when many governments are taking an increasingly utilitarian approach to higher education. "I see universities as responsible for educating citizens. It sounds very romantic, but somebody has got to say it," she said. "We have to improve living conditions and we have to transform our knowledge into money, that’s all important, but we also have this responsibility to educate citizens and uphold the values of participation in society."
Benchmarks of Success
Professor Nazaré said there was room for improvement at the EUA, although she emphasized its success in developing from an "almost nonexistent" entity to the lobby group for more than 800 European institutions in just a decade. She would set herself benchmarks of success, she said, although she declined to reveal what the targets were.
Ensuring that universities become better employers was one area she identified as needing improvement if women were to be assisted in pursuing academic careers.
"In Europe we have a problem with demographics. We have to help young people to stabilize their family lives sooner than they are doing now. That is a problem for all of us in universities.”
Professor Nazaré also said EUA members needed to work together to convince national governments that investment in higher education was necessary during the recession. Unlike most EU countries – and despite an economic crisis – Portugal has continued to invest in universities to promote recovery, she said.
“The way to minimize the impact [of the recession] is to help universities to focus more, to have initiatives that promote synergy and the sharing of resources. It’s a difficult time and we have to do better, but not with less. I don’t think we can afford to have less but we certainly can improve – we can do better with the same.”