University governance debate rages on

Structural reform of Norwegian higher education has led to heated debates regarding the governance and leadership of universities, and whether rectors should be selected by the Ministry of Education and Research or elected by the staff and students at the institutions.

A high-profile professor of public law, Jan Fridthjof Bernt, who is emeritus professor and former rector of the University of Bergen, is adding fuel to the fire by arguing on his blog page that the system of electing rectors is outdated and in need of modernisation.

New higher education landscape

In a status report on higher education in 2017, the Prime Minister’s Office has devoted a whole chapter to “The new institutional landscape”, going into detail on how the so-called “structural reform for merging of higher education institutions has reduced the number of higher education institutions in the public sector from 33 at the beginning of 2015 to 21 in early 2017, and from 21 to 17 private institutions.”

In the autumn of 2016, Minister of Education and Research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen announced that the reforms had been implemented but would continue with further mergers, though not to the same degree as over the previous two years. He said the reforms at the merged ‘multi-campus’ institutions would continue, notably through “re-organisation, academic consolidation, development of the course structure and strategies for further quality development”.

The structural reform has encountered multiple challenges with regard to the governance and leadership of universities.

Debates have raged on the selection or election of the head of the governance board, whether the head of the board should be an external representative from outside the institution or not, on the procedure for selecting or electing the university rector and the other members of the governing board, and on the extent of the external representation on the board.

Strengthening governing boards

In the 2017 higher education status report, the ministry gives an in-depth analysis of how four of the greater mergers of higher education institutions, at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the University College of Southeast Norway, the University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway, and Nord University in Bodø, have university campuses at 29 different localities, altogether 80,589 students and 13,121 full-time equivalent staff members.

In total the governing boards of the four merged institutions have 52 members (11,17,11,13 respectively) and three have an external chair of the governing board, appointed by the ministry, and a rector appointed by the board as managing director of the institution, while one has an elected rector who is chair of the university governing board, and a chief of administration appointed by the board.

Are the mergers creating better pre-conditions for improving the quality of higher education and a more effective and clear institutional profile? What is happening to university democracy and the way the representatives to the governing boards are selected?

Low participation

In parallel with the mergers, there has been a critical development with regard to participation in the election processes for representatives to the governing bodies of universities. At the University of Tromsø, one of the institutions that has experienced several mergers, only 6.5% of those eligible voted and of these, 34% voted blank. Of the staff 15% voted, but of the student population only 3.8% voted.

In the 2017 election of rectors at the University of Oslo and the University of Bergen, the participation rate was 17.4% and 17.5% respectively. In Oslo the participation rate in 2009 was 24.5% on average across the three groups eligible – the scientific staff, the technical and administrative staff, and the students. There was a decline in the participation rate of scientific staff from 61% in 2009 to 43.7% in 2017.

Reportedly, it has been difficult to find candidates who will compete to become rector, and at several institutions there has been only one candidate for the rector position after the mergers.

Intervention by influential law professor

The current government of Norway intensified the merger processes when it took charge four years ago, and is now hoping to get re-elected in the autumn.

At the core of heated discussions has been the issue of the rectorship: whether the rector should be a managing director, appointed by the board, or a working chair of the board, elected at a general election at the institution where the votes of the scientific staff weigh considerably more than the votes of the technical and administrative staff, and notably more than the students’ voice.

Now an intervention in the debate by Professor Emeritus Bernt is creating new headlines in university news publications.

“The idea of a university governing body as a democratic decision-making body is outdated. The boards are now responsible for implementing the institutions’ contract with society. This is an administrative task. The board no longer has a meaningful function as an academic body,” he argued on his blog page.

“It is not reasonable that important strategic decisions about institutional prioritisation and distribution of resources should be made by a plurality vote with the composition that the boards have today,” he wrote.

“The boards commonly become arenas for struggle between competing professional interests, where the smaller academic fields as a rule end up at the back of the queue for resources. It is strange that we have managed to get so many good university boards, with the selection methods we use today.

“What we need now is a total overhaul of the governing structure at our higher education institutions, and not a limited debate on whether we need an elected or appointed rector,” Bernt wrote.

Opposing views

Professor Ivar Bleiklie of the University of Bergen, who is an expert on university reforms, told University World News: “It is interesting to see how two types of reforms – the structure reform and the model with an appointed rector – can reinforce each other.

“There are many interesting observations and I am without doubt in agreement with Jan Fridthjof [Bernt] that the preconditions for governing universities have changed. But I am less certain that the model [of governance] from industry is the only salvation.

“If we concentrate on academically strong research universities, they are characterised by the staff having considerable influence. This does not exclude a strong influence also from society at large, and there are many ways of doing this, which is underlined by the plurality of governance and management models internationally.”

The leader of the National Union of Students in Norway or NSO, Marianne K Andenæs, says her organisation believes that the university law should not favour one model of leadership management.

“It has to be up to the governing board to decide which model should be selected because the higher education institutions are very different, both in size and profile, and we do not think that a national model should be decided upon that will be ideal for all,” she said.

Rector of the University of Oslo, Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, who as of 1 August 2017 is to become the rector of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, told University World News: “As rector and head of the board for over eight years, I do not recognise the way Jan Fridthjof Bernt is describing how a university board is functioning.

“Seen from the inside, I regard the board of the University of Oslo as a well-functioning body that takes an overall and strategic responsibility for the development of the university.

“The members of the board consistently have an overall perspective on the running of the institution, and the representatives from the academic staff, the technical and administrative staff and the students are aware of their responsibility for the university as a whole. The same is true for the external representatives.

“I do not experience our board as an arena for fights between special interest groups,” he said. “It is very seldom that the board at the University of Oslo divides into two blocks, with the university representatives on one side and the external members on the other.

“Bernt is asking for a ‘total overhaul’ of the organisational model, at all levels. At the University of Oslo we recently conducted a review of our entire organisational structure, as a follow-up on the report of our international Strategic Advisory Board,” Ottersen said.

One outcome of this review was the introduction of a search committee for candidates to the rector position. The advisory board also emphasised that the autonomy of the university had to be strengthened. “If the ministry were to appoint additional board members, at the expense of the strong academic representation on the board, this would amount to an unwelcome weakening of our autonomy,” said Ottersen.

“With the present composition of the governing board, the University of Oslo is fully capable of handling the demanding challenges we are facing in a wide range of tasks, from buildings and IT infrastructure to the setting of priorities in research and education,” he added.

Same discussion in Sweden

University World News asked for the opinion of former rector of Stockholm University, Professor Kåre Bremer, who in 2015 chaired a major investigation into the leadership and governance of Swedish universities, as reported by University World News.

Bremer said: “Without knowledge of the Norwegian legislation, I ascertain that the description in Norway to a great degree is like the mapping out of the situation of the leadership and governance at Swedish universities, which is found in the leadership White Paper introduction.

“The challenges of today are demanding a stronger leadership and governance than the pure collegial representation can provide,” he said.