DENMARK: Quest for world-class universities

Denmark's goal of 1% of GNP spending on public research will be achieved
next year, according to Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation Helge Sander.

Sander has promised to strengthen the taximeter payment for humanities and social sciences with DKK5,000 a year in 2012 and said laboratories would also be modernised at a cost of DKK6 billion over the next six years. As the present budget proposal for 2010 covers 80% of this, he is thereby targeting 50% of the underfunding of the humanities and social sciences, as proposed by a McKinsey report recently.

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

Brosbøl said the 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 its higher education reforms. The government, most of parliament and industry are calling for improvements and they monitor the government's actions closely.

But the complex budgetary system giving the ministry detailed control has also come under fire with universities claiming greater autonomy would be the solution. Denmark separates the budget for higher education from that of research while the taximeter system links allocations directly to the number of students passing their examinations.

In 2008, when other government 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 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 so-called "globalisation funds" is re-negotiated annually, involving many stakeholders.

The total globalisation funds for 2006-2012 might exceed DKK39 billion (0.5% of GNP), which has given higher education new energy and laid the foundations for attaining world- class status for universities.

At the annual meeting of the Liberal Party, Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen launched an ambitious goal to have at least one Danish university among the top 10 in Europe by 2020, as measured by the THE ranking. At present, Copenhagen is 15th in Europe on the list while Aarhus is 20th.