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DENMARK: Academics feel the noose

The study placing academic freedom in Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK at the bottom of 23 European Union countries has further fuelled a fiery debate that had already been ablaze since the introduction of a new university law in 2003. Research Minister Hellge Sander called the results ‘ridiculous’ but Danish academics see it as yet another confirmation that their freedom to undertake research is in jeopardy.

The study by Terence Karran of the Centre for Educational Research and Development of the University of Lincoln was published in Higher Education Policy and reached Danish academia when it was discussed in the Danish daily Information in early December. It didn't take Sander a day to formulate a response to the paper.

"I can see that we are positioned at the bottom of an artificial list together with the UK, Sweden and some other of the finest university countries, while seven formerly communist dictatorships are at the top. So I'm not too worried about the position we take," he wrote.

With that the Danish minister not only ignored Finland's top position on the list, he also flaunted his limited knowledge of academic reforms in fellow EU countries of the former Eastern Bloc. Their academics – often for lack of sensible alternatives – were the first to be called to power after the changes in 1989 and 1990 and subsequently, so radically detailed academic freedom in new constitutions that to this day continue to impede the possibilities of higher education reform by current, more politicised leaders.

Referring to the fact that the study largely focuses on how academic freedom is guaranteed legally or constitutionally, the minister wrote:

"That's ridiculous. The study tells nothing about real freedom, but only stipulates to what extent countries have found it necessary to spell out this freedom in legislation."

But this is precisely the current bone of contention among Danish academics and students. The two groups have argued that the Danish University Law of 2003 only pays lip service to academic freedom while giving the government and industry indirect but nonetheless significantly increased control over what is researched, by whom it is researched and how freely research can be criticised.

The law reformed administration of universities so their leadership is no longer elected and their governing boards have majority representation and a chair appointed from outside the university. On the whole, more funds were made available for research although a large part has now to be applied for in open competition. An important subsequent change that affects academic freedom was the 2006 move to merge sector research institutions, whose function is largely advisory, with universities.

One prominent critic of the reforms is Tom Fenchel, chair of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters: "All of these changes subtly but significantly affect academic freedom," Fenchel says. "They lead to a degradation of traditional democratic structures in academic institutions."

"Funds can now to a much greater extent be channelled through projects defined by the university management and indeed the government. The latter in particular will favour current issues which may lead to short term strategies."

Critics have also argued that the rights of academics to speak up should be better defended because of the specifics of Danish employment laws and the small size of the country. Unlike most other European nations, Denmark has employment laws that make it quite easy to fire staff, including researchers.

The country is famed for its 'flexicurity' system but this system doesn't do much to encourage critics within a working environment to speak up. Fenchel, for one, believes that the freedom to speak up is one of these core academic values that must be defended.

"Danish researchers often have nowhere else to go if they don't want to move abroad. An American scientist can find employment at a competing university if he has been made redundant for too openly speaking his mind. For many in Denmark, their own research institute is the only one in their field in the country. Criticism is a key ingredient of academic culture, but the corporate style management of universities seems to lead towards a growing tendency to perceive criticism as hostile instead of constructive."

The biggest problem here, however, seems to have been the inadvertent consequences of merging sector research institutions with universities. Within the world of university research, peer review and open peer criticism are the cornerstones of quality assurance. Sector research institutions typically inform the government and public debate about current issues.

Their staff are not expected to criticise the research results of colleagues publicly.
"In principle there is nothing wrong with either structure," says Fenchel. "They both serve important purposes. But merging university research with consultancy research is risky and that is precisely what has happened in Denmark.

"Today, for example, it is no longer the Institute for Environmental Research that comes with a recommendation that can subsequently be shot at in a public debate. The University of Aarhus has swallowed up the institute and so it is the university that comes with the recommendation. And all the other experts in the country work at that university too. They cannot criticise the study results any longer because they would be stepping out of line."

The Danish university reforms will be reviewed in 2009.

Download Terence Karran's study

See a report on the Higher Education Policy journal website
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