DENMARK: Sackings create confusion and anger

More than 80 scientific staff in the departments of geology and biology at Copenhagen University were sacked last month with immediate effect. Altogether 110 staff will lose their jobs and another 30 who are expected to accept early retirement will not be replaced.

The staff cuts have generated widespread protests with students occupying university halls. Copenhagen Rector Ralf Hemmingsen met the students and tried to explain reasons for the decision.

But protesters have demanded further explanations from the Science Ministry and the top leadership at the university. Almost 100 staff within the biology and geology departments wrote asking why the university was increasing its spending on other activities yet, at the same time, sacking staff in tenured positions.

The 96 staff demanded to know why Copenhagen was expanding activities for leadership training, launching a 'star programme' for the university's centre of excellence, significantly expanding IT-investments and increasing the number of administrative positions in the natural sciences faculty.

The university has a budget this year of US$1.1 billion but the slashing of 130 jobs is the result of a budget cut of EUR10 million (US$13.8 million). That amounts to 1% of the budget and critics have asked why there is no budget flexibility.

The Science Ministry is distributing 6 billion DKK (US$1.1 billion) for laboratories over the next five years and Copenhagen will receive a significant portion of this sum. Danish spending on research and education will exceed 1% of GNP in 2010 for the first time.

A globalisation agreement reached in Parliament has apportioned huge sums to the nation's universities. Academics have pointed to the increased spending and asked why massive lay-offs are necessary at Copenhagen. They are also alarmed that other universities will follow, given that the Technological University of Denmark has just announced similar job cuts.

Minister of Science Helge Sander said Copenhagen University had received an increase in its 2010 budget. Sander said the "self-government principle of Danish universities" meant decisions about the internal distribution of money was a matter for the university.

A spokesman for the Danish Social Democratic Party, Kirsten Brosbøl, said opposition in Parliament was "tired of the ministry's number juggling": "We have repeatedly asked the ministry to present data that can show the distribution between basic allocations to the universities compared with the funding they have to compete for," Brosbøl said.

"In negotiations over globalisation funds, we requested such information. The McKinsey report [on the Danish taximeter budgetary system] did not clarify this issue, even if this was an explicit part of their mandate."

The natural sciences in Denmark have experienced a steady reduction in student numbers, allegedly because these subjects are 'too difficult' and not of interest for the young. As a result, 70% of students are now studying in the humanities or the social sciences.