Ministry pushes for university governance changes

The Ministry of Education and Research is facing opposition from universities in its attempts to rush through changes in governance of universities, including a plan to appoint rectors and ensure that university boards are chaired by external members.

The ministry surprised the higher education institutions in June by sending out a white paper for comment with a proposal to make all rectors appointed rather than being elected to the post and to encourage university boards to appoint an external chairperson. The intention was to open up the leadership or steering structure if 50% of the board members supported it, as against a two thirds majority vote needed currently.

The paper was sent out in late June with a deadline of 15 August, which led to protestations from higher education institutions, since the month of July is a holiday in Norway.

Universities asked for a one month extension of the deadline, arguing that the ministry’s own regulations stipulate a three-month period for commenting on such policy changes. But the ministry refused to extend it, “due to the time needed for the legislation process in order to have a new law in place as of January 1, 2016”.

The white paper also proposes that the ministry should appoint all external members of higher education institution boards, unlike the current arrangement in which councils appoint these members.

Also, the ministry wants the final say on payment for members of the academic boards, which today is decided by the boards themselves, creating a huge variation across higher education institutions.

Both the University of Oslo, or UiO, and the University of Bergen, or UiB, held extraordinary board meetings last week as the new university year started.

The board of the University of Oslo unanimously voted for a statement where the current model for the selection of rector (elected or appointed) is kept unchanged. If the model is changed, UiO is proposing that a two-thirds majority vote by the board also shall be kept in the new legislation “in order to secure democracy and stability”.

“Such an important change in steering structure [of universities] should not be taken unless there is a broad and uniform support among the board members,” the board said.

The University of Bergen did not reach unanimous consensus since one of the external members voted for the ministry’s proposal. The majority approved a proposal allowing for an elected rector but with an external member chairing the academic board.

The University of Oslo is critical of the way the ministry is presenting the argument for “professional leadership at higher education institutions”.

“UiO regrets that the ministry, when discussing arguments for or against elected/appointed leadership, does not make a balanced pro et contra analysis,” it said in a statement. “In the white paper many negative aspects of elected leadership are listed without an equal discussion on how an appointed rector [also might involve negative aspects]. The argument in the paper is weakened by canvassing the belief that you can create better leadership by substituting one leadership model with another”.

The note to the board at UiO refers to leadership models at different leading universities in the world and in particular to Alan Bryman’s analysis of effective leadership in higher education, saying that “most success criteria for academic leadership is dependent upon the leader having good legitimacy of academic staff and a solid understanding of academic autonomy and development. The steering model proposed by the ministry will lead to the academic influence over the activities undertaken being seriously weakened”.

Intense discussion on leadership structure

The discussion on leadership structure has been intense at Norwegian universities over recent years, as reported by University World News.

A strong argument against appointed leaders at universities was made by Dr Arve T Thorsen, board member representing the Norwegian Civil Service Union, or NTL, at UiO, who told University World News: "We know what kind of predators we can get if our leaders shall be selected through non-democratic processes. We are talking about a new race, people who would never be elected, but who are appointed because they are good with numbers but not with people.”

Professor Kristian Gundersen, a representative of the academic board of the University of Oslo, wrote in Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten: “In contrast with legislation for Norwegian companies, the new [university] legislation proposal does not contain a mechanism to secure a minimum representation of staff members on the university boards.

“Up to 2003 the scientific staff had the majority on the universities' academic boards. Parliament now ought to demand a broadened discussion before supporting a little-thought-through proposal that is presented below the table and without proper discussion.”

This year, at the start of autumn term at Norwegian higher education institutions, there is an extraordinarily high level of political activity, with politicians addressing the students at the ceremonies opening the new academic year, because higher education is unusually high on the agenda for the local elections due in September with reforms and mergers in the spotlight.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg greeted the students at the University of Bergen and the University College of Ålesund – to be merged with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, or NTNU – and Minister of Education and Research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen participated in ceremonies at UiO, NTNU and the University of Nordland in Bodø.