DENMARK: Academics sign up to protest

Danish academics are collecting signatures to convince Science Minister Helge Sander that opposition to the current education law is, in their words, "no sectarian craving from a dissatisfied minority...but has a broad basis of support among Danish students and researchers".

The law, opposition against which was discussed in an earlier issue of University World News, reorganised the management of universities so that a board majority, including the chair, now comes from outside the academic community. The petitioners believe that this has undermined the independence (and as a result the academic freedom) of universities.

Although more funds were made available for research, the lion's share now needs to be publicly competed for and is earmarked for priority areas set by the authorities. Through the new law, the protesters argue, two stakeholders in research who tend to pursue shorter-term goals than the academic community have acquired excessive control over the direction of research.

Launched in May, the petition now counts 5,000 signatures, a number that Claus Emmeche, an associate professor at Copenhagen University and one of the people behind the initiative, is very happy with.

"Our intention was to demonstrate that opposition was not just concentrated around a small group of dissenters," Emmeche says. "So yes, of course we knew we would receive support, but the number of signatures far exceeds my original expectations."

Around half the signatories are academic staff and, in a country that only counts 7,500 such professionals, this means that one-third have signed the petition.

Whichever way you look at it however, 35% is still a minority. The big question is, of course, what the silent majority think.

In May, the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs filed an official complaint to Unesco and its president Ingrid Stage has no doubt it would have received complaints if there had not been broad support among the academic community.

"In fact, I have not received a single negative response from our community," Stage says. "In fact, in the eight years that I have been in this position, I have never received such overwhelming support for any of the causes we have fought for."

Meantime, Minister Sander largely keeps out of the debate. In his sporadic comments over the last months, he has clung to the argument that 2009 would be the year of evaluation, implying the current debate is premature, and that he does not meet this kind of criticism in his daily contact with the academic community.

"But the problem is that we need more than an evaluation," Stage argues. "We need thorough changes to the law to secure the fundamental principles of international agreements such as Unesco's Recommendation on the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel and the Council of Europe's Recommendation on Academic Freedom and University Autonomy."

Emmeche agrees: "An evaluation will see a panel of experts doing the rounds and recommend small changes to the current setup. But the current setup is fundamentally wrong and needs to be changed from the ground up."

Both critics stress that their opposition is not merely academic resistance against change.

"Throughout the campaign, we have made it very clear that we do not want to return to the era where professors enjoyed absolute hegemony," Emmeche says. "We recognise that change was needed, but the current changes are hitting well past their target."