DENMARK: Quest for world-class universities

Helge Sander, Danish Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation, has announced that the goal of 1% of GNP for public research will be reached in 2010. The total research budget is proposed at DKK18.4 billion (US$ 3.8 billion), or 1.04% of GNP. This is a 20% increase since 2006. Laboratories will also be modernised at a cost of DKK6 billion over the next six years.

Sander promised to strengthen the taximeter payment for humanities and social sciences with DKK5000 a year (84% to be granted in 2010, 95% in 2011 and 5000 DKK in 2012). He is thereby targeting 50% of the underfunding of the humanities and social sciences, as reported by the McKinsey report recently.

But opposition parties want more tangible results. Kirsten Brosbøl, spokesman on research for the opposition Social Democrats, has proposed appointing a national commission to investigate how universities might reach world-class level.

Brosbøl said focus should be on the relationship between research and higher education. "Research has always received most of the budget increase, but it's time to discuss what is meant by world class universities and how to finance this," she said.

She is dissatisfied that the DKK13 million McKinsey report did not tackle the issue of the quality of higher education, even if this were Parliament's intention when requesting the analysis. The proposed national commission would qualify the definition of world-class higher education and the costs needed for realising this goal.

Compared with other European countries and even neighbouring states, Denmark is in a favourable position to continue higher education reform processes. The government, most of parliament and industry are actively calling for improvements.

The rather complex budgetary system giving the ministry detailed control has also come under fire. Universities claim greater autonomy would be the solution.

Denmark separates the budget for higher education from that of research. The taximeter system links allocations directly to the number of students passing their examinations. In 2008, when other governmental institutions received a 2% budget cut, universities received an incentive grant for students who passed their examinations within the normal time requirements for the degrees.

Universities argue the taximeter payments and the separated funding for research do not provide enough flexibility for effective use of budgets. In a recent letter to government, Universities Denmark stated, "International research indicates the world's top-ranking universities have large degrees of freedom and that increased autonomy, with sufficient funding, are conditions required to develop strong and competitive universities.

"Globalisation demands the ability to act quickly and make long-term plans. Old-fashioned regulation-controlled management does not allow flexibility and encourages short-term solutions".

A more favourable situation has prevailed since 2006 when an agreement was reached between the major political parties and the government to establish a funding scheme for globalisation measures until 2012. This is re-negotiated annually.

The total globalisation funds for 2006-2012 might now exceed DKK39 billion (0.5% of GNP. this has given the higher education sector new energy and laid the foundations for attaining world-class status for the country's universities.

A majority in favour of the proposed budget was reached in parliament last week. An evaluation of the effect of the improved taximeter for humanities and the social sciences will be undertaken in 2012.