Government strengthens grip on universities again

Søren Pind, the Danish minister of higher education and science, has surprised everybody by endorsing an extensive new legislative proposal on the governance of higher education institutions, giving the government the final choice on the appointment of heads of university boards.

The work was initiated by previous minister Ulla Tørnæs, who was replaced last November, and prepared by the permanent secretary in the ministry, Agnete Gersing, and her staff.

Forskerforum, the Danish researcher's magazine, characterised the move as a “bomb from Søren Pind”.

“The normally liberal Søren Pind has surprisingly endorsed his ministry department head Agnete Gersing's proposal of more governance control over the universities. Universities are going to be more effectively run by methods of new public management is the essence of the proposal, notably by the head of the boards being more closely vetted by the ministry than today, before they are elected,” Forskerforum reported.

The legislative proposal with the title, Better Leadership at the Universities, was sent out to all higher education institutions for consultation on 24 February.

The package sent out with the proposal includes: a survey done by the ministry on the governance of universities, university colleges and professional colleges; a study on the governance structure at universities in Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, commissioned by the ministry from the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education; plus the highly controversial mapping out of the university governance structure in Denmark compiled by the think-tank Nextpuzzle from September 2016, as reported by University World News.

The day before the ministerial proposal was released, Forskerforum printed a story stating that university leaders in Denmark had sent a letter to the ministry in December protesting against the new model, and asked whether Pind would introduce a “Turkish” model, where the government selects the university rectors.

More governmental control

At the crux of the new legislation is the composition and selection of members of the university boards, notably the selection of external members and the way the head of these boards is selected.

The proposal would make the board responsible for ensuring that research and education at the institution are of the highest quality.

The universities would be responsible for the process leading up to the proposal of the board members, but the final decision on who should be head of the board would be taken by the minister.

The proposal also qualifies the present developmental contract between the ministry and each higher education institution, specifying the format of the objectives in more detail and the consequences when these objectives are not met.

“Universities play a decisive role for Denmark,” the ministry stated in a press release. “Good education and research of the highest quality is hence important for a society undergoing strong development and growth.”

Universities and colleges receive approximately DKK17 billion (US$2.4 billion) annually from the government, and employ 33,000 staff members.

The overall framework of governance at universities is functioning well, but there is potential for improvement. The legislative proposal makes the boards of the institutions more transparent and further develops the procedure for appointing the external members of the board and strengthening the dialogue between higher education institutions and the ministry. Hence the minister is planning to meet with the head of the board twice a year, the ministry said.

Lars Qvistgaard, president of Akademikerne – the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations – an umbrella organisation with 313,000 members, told University World News that the ministry’s proposal is breaking with the principle of the ministry keeping at arm’s length from the higher education institutions.

Akademikerne believes that the universities have the competence to compose and appoint their own boards.

Qvistgaard said: “If the ministry thinks that there is a problem with self-supplying and hence wants a professionalisation of the work, this could be obtained through a codex or eventually combined with an instrument for self-evaluation like those regulations that boards in the financial sectors have.

“This would have been a less radical move and more in accordance with the autonomy of universities.”

Reforms comparison

The study by the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education, Steering Approaches in Higher Education, is an interesting documentation of how university reforms are now coming into effect in the five countries studied – Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and the UK – and it includes several case studies.

The focus is upon the relationship between universities and the state. The report concludes that in all countries there is a more pronounced emphasis on performance, and that evaluation procedures are multi-faceted.

With regard to institutional boards, there is a move towards increased utilisation of the skills of external members, but there is significant variation in how the chairs of boards are either appointed or selected.

In four of the countries, the dialogue between the state and universities has become more strategic, with England being the exception, moving towards a clear market and deregulation approach.

Impact upon Nordic discussions

All Nordic countries are experiencing extensive university reforms, including changes in governance.

In Norway, there is ongoing discussion on whether the rector should be appointed by the university board or elected by university staff – which has been made optional under the legislation – while the ministry appoints the head of the board where this is an external member (although an elected rector can also be head of the board).

In Sweden, the governance structure is on the table in conjunction with the implementation of the new 10-year strategic plan for research – where the discussions have centred on the role of industry in the selection of university board members.

In Finland, the 2010 decoupling of universities from the state and several university mergers are reforms that are still working their way into a changed governance structure.

Denmark has led the way with higher education reforms, implementing university mergers at an earlier stage than other Nordic countries, and setting up external representation and an external chair of the board before the other countries.

Minister Pind’s move – which is as much the decision of Gersing – towards greater ministerial influence over the university boards might have a renewed impact upon the so-called 'new public management' discussions at Nordic universities.

When University World News asked Minister Pind if this was a step backwards for democratisation in higher education, he said: “Our universities have a high degree of autonomy and are politically independent. The fundamental principles of professional self-governance and arm's length will be maintained with this hearing draft.”

He said the idea is that the minister shall approve – not select – a chairperson for the board, and only after a selection process at the individual universities.

“My hope is that the new model will allow for less detailed legislation on the universities’ day-to day-matters by installing better cooperation and dialogue from the top.

“From an international perspective, the draft [proposal] clearly contains less state involvement than is the case in the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway in relation to the selection of external board members and chairpersons.”

Jacob Fuglsang, education editor at Politiken, a major Danish newspaper, told University World News that the discussion regarding political control over universities has been fluctuating back and forth for a long time.

“The proposed legal change in reality is an agenda set by the ministries of finance and education and science. Pind has as minister made the proposal less invasive in the degree of governance of the universities compared to what the ministries wanted,” he said.

He said there have for many years been problems with Danish universities – as demonstrated by the Penkowa scandal involving scientific fraud allegations at Copenhagen University, and economic troubles faced by several universities – and the current proposal was seen as a compromise by universities. They had expected worse.