Universities face more cuts and more political control

The Lars Løkke Rasmussen government is moving to cut funding for universities and the student financing system and increase political control over higher education institutions.

Three steps have recently been published in order to lay the foundation for such reforms.

The government is prolonging the 2% cut in higher education institutional budgets through 2020. This government cut was first brought in for higher education institutions in 2015, reducing the budget by DKK8.7 billion (US$1.3 billion) for 2016-19, as reported by University World News.

The decision to prolong the cuts has drawn a combined criticism from two Danish employers’ organisations – the Confederation of Danish Enterprise and the Confederation of Danish Industry, representing 27,000 companies – and the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions, or LO, representing one million members.

They issued a harsh critique of the government’s plan to cut more than DKK10 billion (US$1.5 billion) from the higher education budgets during 2017-20.

The government has also worked out an ambitious ‘2025 plan’ to redirect public spending and reform tax, hitting the Danish student financing or SU system with a proposal of a DKK4.4 billion (US$664 million) per year cut. This will be effected by converting grants for masters degrees to loans.

In a 17-page report, which uses the term “robust” 17 times, government describes this as making “a stronger Denmark – a more robust SU system”.

But Lars Qvistgaard, head of Akademikerne – the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations – said it amounts to an inverted Robin Hood policy, robbing the poor to help the rich.

“The government is taking resources from the younger generation to give to the established generations as tax reductions,” he said.

In a statement on a survey of 1,000 students, the Danish Society of Engineers, or IDA, suggested that changes in the SU regulations would deter one in two students from studying.

The chair of IDA’s education and research committee, Carsten Eckhart, warned politicians: “If every second engineering and natural science student will not study [towards a masters degree] due to changes in the SU, we [Denmark] will have great problems. A prognosis of the technological alliance Engineer the Future states that in 2025 we will be short of 4,200 natural science graduates and 9,300 engineers.”

Professor Anders Bjarklev, spokesperson for Danske Universiteter or Universities Denmark, said: “The politicians want to have the students fulfilling their degree requirements faster than today. The student progress report is asking students to spend less time on working alongside studying. I am therefore puzzled by the government now proposing a model where more students will prioritise working alongside their studies.”

But Ulla Tornæs, minister of higher education and science, wrote in Politiken, the major Danish newspaper, that the SU system, even after the changes, will still be among the most generous in the world.

“It is important for me that all the young people have the possibility of participating in higher education. With the SU change the government is proposing, the education itself is free,” she said.

“The individual student will have the same amount to live on as today. But the total expense to the SU will be less.”

She said the money saved will be reallocated. The government proposes a ‘competence allocation’ of DKK1 billion (US$150 million) every year from 2019 to higher education, notably to strengthen teaching. “This is to strengthen the competence of Danish people, increase the quality of education and strengthen the research on businesses,” she said.

More government control

Meanwhile, Nextpuzzle, a consultancy firm commissioned by the government to interview stakeholders as part of a broader investigation into universities’ compliance with government policy frameworks, has published its report.

It raises the question of whether there is a need for ministerial approval of members – and notably chairs – of university boards or if a special governmental authority should be responsible for clearance of such candidates.

This would give the government more direct control of day-to-day matters at institutions.

The Nextpuzzle report on "mapping out the experiences with and the perspectives on governance in higher education institutions" is 44 pages long and builds on 38 "qualitative explorative interviews" with chairs and members of university boards, rectors, deans and others at higher education institutions, as well as “respondents with strategic knowledge including experts in the ministry, other higher level officers in the ministries, trade union representatives and other respondents with trans-sectoral experiences”.

It is reported that Nextpuzzle was told by the ministry which 38 people to interview.

The report looks into whether the pre-conditions for university governance are “supporting political objectives”.

It examines seven parameters in how governance today is performed. These are:
  • • The developmental contracts between the ministry and the higher education institutions;
  • • The experience with governance through university boards;
  • • Notably the selection of chairs and external members of these university boards;
  • • Governance through accreditation, quality and cooperation with institutions that employ university graduates;
  • • The experience with the budgetary system (taxameter or per head allocations);
  • • The experience with ministerial monitoring of universities' performance; and
  • • The strategic dialogue between the ministry and the universities and colleges.
Forskerforum, the Danish researchers’ magazine, said Nextpuzzle is proposing that chairs of the boards are now being asked to behave more like "senior government employees", a kind of "heads of boards" reporting to "the owner" (the minister).

The line of command between the minister and the heads of the boards shall be strengthened, so that "the boards to a greater extent take responsibility for the higher education institutions' societal responsibilities including the political objectives [set by the government]".

Forskerforum argues that this is a strange message considering that “we know that university leaders are against ministerial appointments for university board members”.