Ministry backs down on greater control of universities

Minister of Higher Education and Science Søren Pind has dropped the ministry’s controversial proposal to select the heads of the governing boards of universities after an agreement in parliament with the Danish People’s Party and the Social Democratic Party.

The proposal faced opposition on a united front from Danish universities and professional organisations, who characterised the intervention as a break with the tradition of keeping an “arm’s length distance between the universities and the ministry”.

In a debate article in the newspaper Altinget, 17 representatives of professional organisations and student unions wrote: “Ending the arm’s-length principle will turn universities into political footballs – the new governance model is a break with many years of consensus that co-determination and democracy are valuable for our institutions”.

Lecturer Jørgen Bang from the University of Southern Denmark or SDU, and an SDU governing board member, described the proposal as “grotesque legalisation”.

In the researchers’ magazine Forskerforum, he argued: “The proposal for new legislation does not say why a new selection mechanism is needed, and there has been no debate about this need. Everything is pointing in the direction that the proposal was made by the top echelon of the ministry. If it is realised, it will probably not lead to the minister or ‘society’ getting more control because the minister has a lot of other matters to attend to. But the head of the ministry is getting more governing tools.”

A letter of protest against the ruling, sent to the minister by the current heads of the eight Danish universities, has also had a great impact. In addition, there has been strong resistance from the Social Democratic Party in opposition.

Minister listened to comments

The present legal text, formulated following the minister’s decision, addresses several of the comments from the consultation, notably the establishment of a committee at each university to select the external members of the board, who are then not going to be selected by the ministry, as is the case in Sweden and Norway.

Also, students will be represented on this committee, which was not the case in the first proposal sent out from the ministry for comments.

Minister Pind said in a press release that it had been important for him to listen to the comments from the consultation and take into account the discussions he had with the higher education sector. He said that they now will endorse an agreement that secures the autonomy of the universities and counterbalances the detailed governance by the ministry.

At the same time he has strengthened the dialogue between the ministry and the universities by having two annual meetings with the heads of the governing boards.

The minister will also change the current detailed yearly ‘development contract’ and introduce a more flexible and less detailed ‘strategic framework contract’, focusing on the central strategic objectives of each university, taking into consideration the challenges each university faces.

Mette Reissmann, education spokesperson of the Social Democratic Party, said that this will lead to a stronger university sector.

Forskerforum said that this was a significant defeat for the ministry’s chief official, Agnete Gersing, who over several years, together with her predecessors, has tried to strengthen ministerial control over universities.