University independence at risk

Self-owned and managed, universities have long made their own decisions on how best to conduct research and educate Denmark's brightest minds. But if the government follows the recommendations of a new report, they may soon have far greater control over university management. At risk is the international reputation of Danish research and education

Universities are among the most important institutions in a democratic state. They reflect on the challenges societies face and develop solutions and knowledge that keep us informed and educated. And, by supplying industry with graduates and expertise, they support the economy and create jobs and welfare.

But Danish universities now stand on the cusp of reforms that threaten their independence. The university sector warns that if the government follows recommendations to dominate university boards with politically appointed members, their research could be seen as lacking objectivity, which would damage their credibility.

Proponents of the reforms argue that they will better ensure that universities satisfy their obligations to greater society. But there is little evidence to suggest, however, that universities are failing to do so, meaning the reforms present real risks, with few benefits.

More government influence
In April, the government launched a review of university management, to ensure that universities continue to produce high quality education that is relevant for society.

“Over a third of students, in a number of fields, remain unemployed two years after graduation,” education minister Ulla Tørnæs stated in a press release in April.

“This benefits neither the individual nor society. Further education institutions have gone through a significant development over the past 10 to 15 years, both in terms of organisation, size and management. So we want to see whether the framework for their management supports high quality education for work.”

Consultancy Nextpuzzle was commissioned to carry out the research, and in September presented its recommendations. It found that members of university boards often felt decoupled from the daily management of universities. This limited their ability to make decisions that helped universities satisfy their obligations.

The boards of Denmark’s eight universities are responsible for managing resources and hiring its leadership. They consist of 11 members: two board members represent the academic staff, one board member represents the support staff, while two board members represent the students. The remaining six are drawn from outside the university, and are selected by the five board members that are employed at the university.

Nextpuzzle found that while this model was working, it still faced a number of challenges in ensuring that the courses offered by universities were high quality and relevant. And while Nextpuzzle found that boards are adequately equipped to enact the political goals of the Education Ministry, it could be improved through closer cooperation between the ministry and board. They call for the ministry to be involved in selecting university boards through a selection committee, or for the minster to approve proposed candidates.

According to Weekendavisen, the Permanent Secretary of the Education Ministry, Agnete Gersing, set out their proposed changes in a closed meeting with university leadership in October. They proposed establishing a permanent selection board that would choose candidates to serve as university board chairman. The chairman would then select candidates for the six external board members, which would then have to be approved by the education minister.

READ MORE: Students the burden of the future

Less independence
Until now, university-appointed board members were in the majority. But under the proposed model the government will have control over appointing a majority of board members.

It is a move that has been strongly criticised by the education sector. Anders Bjarklev, Vice chancellor of DTU and chairman of Universities Denmark argues that the education ministry already enjoys high levels of control over higher education – everything from salaries to the size of courses. The minister can even fire an entire university board if they are not doing their job properly.

“If we get management boards that are handpicked by the minister, it’s possible that a professor here and there would self-censure to avoid trouble,” Bjarklev told Weekendavisen, adding that the current model is advantageous because researchers cannot fear reprisal from the government due to their research.

“The universities we cooperate with in Europe and globally, all have as a standard premise that they are politically independent. Otherwise you’re not allowed to partake. It’s a problem if it becomes questionable whether the knowledge is based on science or on the opinion of the current minister.”

An oversimplified report
Jonas Krog Lind, a PhD student at the University of Copenhagen with a specialisation in university governance, argues that it’s too early to tell what the effect of the proposed changes will be.

“The final result will depend on the criteria the selection boards are given. But we don’t currently know what the final practice will be. It may not necessarily lead to greater political influence, we can only speculate at this time,” he said.

The effect will depend on whether the new boards will see their role as representing the interests of society or the university, he adds. The current law emphasises that university boards should serve the interest of universities and not the preferences of the government or even society at large.

He points out that while some research shows that universities perform better when they are given greater autonomy, the experience in Switzerland – where the state has a lot of control over universities that perform very well – is the opposite. This indicates that there are no single model for great performance.

However, he believes the Nextpuzzle report bases its conclusions on thin evidence, and without taking into consideration a wide range of factors that affect the ability for universities to satisfy their societal responsibilities.

“The ministry should consider a more holistic approach to the governance of universities. For instance, could the same goals – of improving quality of education and employability of candidates – be reached by the taximeter reform, which the ministry is working on separately at the same time? Treating funding of education and the steering model for the universities as separate issues is probably not a good strategy.”

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A long time coming
According to Lind, Danish universities have traditionally sought to follow the Humboldt university model, which values freedom of research and collegial governance of the university. Prussian philosopher and scientist Alexander von Humboldt thought it was important for universities to remain completely independent from the state, whose job he saw as guaranteeing an open framework for research and education.

In recent years, however, universities have come to be viewed as a state instrument. Rather than as independent institutions that exist simply to produce knew knowledge, Lind says universities now function as tools to achieve a number of goals, including creating jobs and economic growth.

“Many of the reforms we’ve seen in recent years have been about moving to a market-focused model, which is built on a desire to create and enhance competition.”

But while universities have lobbied against reforms that threaten their independence, they have slowly succumbed to political pressure to ensure that public investments are maximised.

Chair of the University of Copenhagen management board, Nils Strandberg Pedersen, is worried that if politicians start appointing members it will send the wrong signal foreign universities.

“It creates a hint of political interference, which will create a similar political control as we know from Turkey and old Eastern Europe,” Pedersen told Berlingske.

Aarhus University rector, Brian Bech Nielsen, is also critical of the proposal.

“Politicians ought to control the framework while giving university leaders the necessary freedom to lead universities within the given framework. The problem is not solved through politically appointed board members,” he told Berlingske.

More, not less, freedom
Despite meetings with university management, MP and education spokesman from the governing Liberal Party, Jakob Engel-Schmidt, said that the government has yet to make a final decision on how to proceed with enacting the recommendations from Nextpuzzle.

Nonetheless, the Social Liberal Party (Radikale) has attacked the government’s tentative suggestions. MP Sofie Carsten Nielsen – who was education minister under the former Social Democrat government – argues that following Nextpuzzle’s recommendations would result in needless government authority over universities.

“What problem is being solved when the minister selects board members? Does she imagine that universities will change course in tact with the political policies being addressed in Parliament, and that it should be possible for politicians to use universities to promote their own agendas? Perhaps not directly, but the opportunity will now be there. It is the board that hires the Rector, and the Rector of course has a huge influence on the university’s priorities and daily management,” Nielsen wrote in an op-ed for Weekendavisen, adding that she is concerned that the reforms will open a direct line of communication between the Ministry and researchers, which threatens the independence of researchers who might feel at risk of reprisal.

Nielsen concedes that university managements face challenges in ensuring that universities live up to their responsibilities. She outlines challenges in selecting the most competent board, producing the best Master’s graduates when the pressure on universities is the quantity not quality of graduates, and ensuring research funding is most effectively spent.

She believes, however, that giving them more room for manoeuvre, not limiting their autonomy, is more likely to improve their performance. M


By Sophie Stenner Frahm

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