In search of a new form of university governance

In Norway there is a growing resistance to university reforms and the present approach to governance is being dubbed 'New Public Management'. The term is not used consistently by everybody discussing it, but it is increasingly becoming synonymous with almost everything that critics do not like in universities.

'New Public Management' borrows ideas from the private sector and applies them in the public sector and is seen as not bringing freedom or autonomy to the academics, but rather is a new kind of central control. For instance, in Norway the government is now piloting an “annual developmental contract” based on the Danish model, with extensive use of quantitative parameters.

Resistance to these ideas has traditionally been strongest at Norwegian universities compared to the other Scandinavian countries. For instance, a proposal to decouple the universities from the state in 2005 – as was implemented in Finland in 2010 – met with more than 5,000 protest articles in the Norwegian media and was scrapped by the ministry. But now Sweden has officially decided to scrap ‘New Public Management’ in public administration.

What is 'New Public Management'?

In the reform work at Nordic universities New Public Management has come to include the following:
  • • Merging of universities, as large units are perceived to be more effective;
  • • Strengthening governmental control of the university boards by having external representatives on the board, and government-appointed chairs of boards;
  • • Bringing in values from private companies and reducing the influence of academics and students;
  • • Rectors appointed instead of elected (in addition to the chair of board);
  • • Decoupling the universities from the government as a legal entity outside the governmental structure but still mainly funded by the government;
  • • Attracting talents from abroad, both staff and students;
  • • Increasing recruitment of young researchers by temporary contracts, with insecure tenure prospects and weaker pension and other welfare rights;
  • • Increasing the proportion of institutional funding based on performance indicators;
  • • Increased reporting and auditing of the results obtained;
  • • Top professors with excellent publication lists are recruited to centres of excellence often with high salaries and the waiving of teaching obligations;
  • • Ranking of universities.
Under attack

Professor Erik Arnold, founder and chairman of the think-tank Technopolis Group and adjunct professor of research policy at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm – who recently participated in an expert group evaluating the Research Council of Norway at a conference on the future research and innovation policy for Norway – urged Norway not to let itself be contaminated by what he called the ”English illness”, describing the United Kingdom research allocation system – the Research Excellence Framework – as "hell on Earth" and dating its invention back to developments in the Thatcher era.

He told Universitetsavisa, a publication of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology: "In the UK most of the basic allocation of funding to universities is allocated according to performance.

“This is leading to universities’ top leadership placing enormous pressure upon their scientists. The consequence is that scientists do not dare to take risks and the system is pushing science away from cross-sectoral research in favour of research you feel is safe and that will give results relatively soon.

“This makes it difficult for young researchers and the whole thinking-pattern around research is changed.”

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, rector of the University of Oslo, and recently proposed by the university board at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm to be appointed as the new vice-chancellor, agreed that the term ‘New Public Management’ is not used consistently, but regardless warned that the philosophy behind it “negates the very nature of creative thinking and scientific progress”.

He told University World News that history has shown us that breakthroughs occur when creative minds are allowed to pursue their own ideas.

“Science is not science unless there is a willingness to take risks, and New Public Management is in essence risk-averse. No research council, no government can predict or procure breakthroughs through earmarked funding. Unbridled curiosity, channelled through free, researcher-initiated projects, is the main driving force for research that changes society,” he said.

“In the university sector, indicators and incentives should be used with care, and they should not be allowed to multiply and interfere with academic freedom and institutional autonomy. An unrestrained use of indicators and incentives easily favours incremental research rather than research characterised by high risk and high gain.”

The latter point was underlined by Herdis Hølleland, project leader at the Young Academy of Norway, who argues that the debate today on quality indicators for research is too narrow and dominated by mechanics. In Khrono, the research magazine for Oslo and Akershus University College, it said that discussions about research have been dominated by one word: quality.

“These discussions are not taking into consideration the human dimension in research. What is now needed is new thinking about young researchers’ career paths,” the Khrono article said.

Contrast with neighbouring countries

The university governance regime in Norway contrasts with that in Finland, where in both the two foundation universities and the 12 independent universities under public law the national government is not allowed to interfere in the selection of the university board members. In both cases, the board elects the chairperson of the board without outside influence.

This was carefully considered in the constitutional committee of parliament when the new law was discussed. The constitutional committee explicitly said that the institutional autonomy of universities was guaranteed in the constitution and therefore all board members should be elected or appointed without any government (or political) involvement or interference. Although in reality there has been government control to a degree, exerted via resource allocation.

Meanwhile in Sweden, New Public Management has been pushed aside. In February last year Minister for Public Administration in the Ministry of Finance Ardalan Shekarabi gave the Swedish Agency for Public Management a mandate to work out a new proposal for public governance and leadership systems in public administration.

The mandate included a reduction of reporting and documentation, better inclusion of staff members’ competence and experience, and development of governance to become more “holistic and effective”, based on “confidence governance”.

The mandate was officially endorsed by Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven stating that: “The time for New Public Management now is ended.”

Based on the Swedish intervention, three high-profile academics and public servants – Bård Kuvaas, Tron Kleivane and Bård Mossin Olesen – wrote in the major newspaper Dagens Næringsliv: “If Sweden can, why not Norway”?

They said that in Sweden New Public Management had been “scrapped as an overarching model for public governance because it only allegedly leads to better governance, while it clearly has perverted impact upon the objective of better productivity and effectiveness”.

Possible alternatives

Jouke de Vries, professor of governance and public policy at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, who has researched New Public Management, told University World News that he had noted some years ago that New Public Management was in serious trouble. Having started in the Thatcher-Reagan era, it has now become obsolete, he said. “However, it is still not clear what the new paradigm will be.”

He said originally there was a lot of support for New Public Management to change the old bureaucratic system of the universities. But now, as an international development related to the process of globalisation, the problems in Scandinavian countries are appearing all over the world.

He suggested that a more holistic governance approach based on ‘confidence governance’, or the ‘public value’ approach in public administration might offer an alternative, where management objectives are reached through trust and legitimacy rather than through measurements and control.

In Holland there is a movement, Science in Transition, dealing with the same problems.

“As complaints about the work pressure at universities are growing, the need for new management ideas is rising.”