Should universities be run like businesses?

“Get rid of the madness labelled New Public Management. That is an issue that will engage the voters,” Frank Aarebrot*, one of Norway’s best-known academics told Forskerforum, the researchers’ magazine, last Monday.

He was referring to the Labour Party’s search for an issue to fight back from their slide in the polls approaching the general election on Monday 11 September, which has left them neck and neck with the Conservatives.

Aarebrot, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Bergen, who is something of an electoral expert, explained that the Labour Party draws its membership from people in the public sector who are more interested in the issue than the current debate about tax.

He was siding with a new protest movement in Norwegian academia, led by a group of young researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology or NTNU – the institution which has experienced the most intense university merger under the present government.

The researchers are arguing strongly against the New Public Management style of governance of universities and have created their own platform for critical discussion of university reforms – including a website, New University Norway or NUN, and a series of public meetings, dubbed the Protest Pub.

New Public Management is the term adopted for the 1980s reform of public services to ensure they are run more like customer-driven businesses, in some cases with an internal market and private external providers competing for contracts.

On their webpage NUN asks central questions about the role of universities: “What are universities for? What is the purpose of education? What is good research? What is the role of the university in society? What is the value of university democracy? How and by whom should universities be managed?”

NUN says it was formed as a response to the “commodification of higher education at a time when corporate agendas are dominating public universities and intellectual integrity around the world”.

Its organisers were inspired by the protest movements worldwide over recent years, including in Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, as reported by University World News.

“We question the way our universities are increasingly run as businesses and how policy choices are more and more based on financial returns and efficacy rather than guided by scientific and societal needs,” they say.

“While we see this in connection with an incremental weakening of university democracy since the 1990s, the current processes of restructuring and policy change in Norway are pushing these questions increasingly up the agenda.”

At a series of meetings called the Protest Pub, they raised the issue of ‘Postdocalypse’ or the current trend of academics having no academic home because they are forced to take up short term contracts and move from country to country.

At an information meeting on the question of “What is New Public Management?”, Professor Aksel Tjora of NTNU talked of the “McDonaldification” of higher education and research in Norway and the young researchers published a manifesto in the Journal for Contemporary Philosophy on “Fighting Fog – The case of creeping neoliberalism and weakening university democracy in Norway”.

NUN is active on Facebook and Twitter, and is joining forces with similar groups of researchers in Denmark and Sweden, arranging, for instance, the conference “The Purpose of the Future University” in Aarhus in Denmark on 6-8 November this year.

Senior researchers aligned

The same issues are being taken up elsewhere by senior academics. Michael Jones, professor emeritus at NTNU, told University World News he welcomed the interest in NUN and has himself had two letters published in Universitetsavisa, the NTNU online newsletter.

The first on “Celebratory Speeches and Naked Power” argues that mergers are eroding workplace democracy in favour of a neoliberal agenda, and the second entitled “We Claim our University Back”, introducing the Aberdeen manifesto on “Reclaiming our University”.

Like Jones, other academic researchers in Norway are expressing views that align with the NUN agenda of addressing creeping liberalism at universities, the reform issues, the merger of universities, and New Public Management.

Tjora noted that Norway’s universities have not been squeezed financially as much as those in many other European countries. But he called for a substantial critique of the commodification of higher education and research and its “shallow technical and structural strategies”.

“Good academics need to ask questions that they are not requested to ask (by the government, research council, European Union, or other commissioning bodies), and something like a reflective critical creativity is needed to do so.”

In a similar vein, a member of the board of the University of Oslo, Professor Kristian Gundersen, earlier this year refused to endorse a strategic plan for the university which contained a ‘strategic vision’, and accused university leaders of lacking in-depth knowledge of the activities of researchers.

Noralv Veggeland, professor in public policy at the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, told Khrono, the university online newsletter, that “governance by objectives leads to a democratic deficit”.

“Activities at each higher education institution are monitored and counted to measure qualities based on a fragmented result-based scheme. This is a centralised governing tool leading to more people in administrative positions and hence a larger bureaucracy,” he said.

More nuanced discussions needed

Professor Rune Nilsen, chair of the board of the University College of Southeast Norway, told University World News that he welcomed Aarebrot promoting discussion of New Public Management, but says he ignores the importance of leadership at universities when anchored in a clear academic mission and fails to discuss the need for overall strategy and for goals to be set and followed at institutional level and further down the organisation.

He believes the external influence at universities through representation in the governing boards, although not part of New Public Management, is a positive aspect which, with the right people, brings in additional competence. He said the prioritisation of objectives and following up on them is an important leadership responsibility, which both Aarebrot and NUN have not reflected upon.

Conservative or social democratic?

Minister of Education and Research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, talking to Universitetsavisa in 2016, said some of the foremost advocates of New Public Management had been social democrats and their party, the Labour Party, stood behind most of the New Public Management reforms in the 1990s.

He also argued that the criticism of New Public Management was flawed. “There has been a tendency to formulate a very abstract and principled critique of often very concrete measures. Tools that I find are very useful for governance.

“If we cannot measure effects [of policy measures] we need something else. Some countries for instance have tuition fees.”

Influencing policy direction

Hilde Refstie, a research associate at NTNU, who is involved in the NUN initiative, is optimistic that the movement will have an impact upon policy discussions regarding universities in Norway.

She said the commercialisation of universities and the New Public Management doctrine that accompanies it has not come as far in Norway as in many other countries. “We therefore believe that initiatives such as ours hold the potential to influence the direction in which this is moving.”

She said when they started out some years ago it was to push back against structural changes affecting members’ specific departments.

“We protested against the ideological reform agenda of the government that pushed changes without proper analysis or involvement from students and employees.

“As a result of our mobilisation the departments did not merge. More importantly, however, the process made visible to us how such mergers were only a small aspect of the ongoing global, national and university-wide project of centralisation and top down market management.”

She said that two years on, the initiative has grown: public meetings have been well attended, and some members are elected representatives on councils and boards in their universities, are contributing to debates in university papers and other fora, and are included in informal discussions concerning university policy by unions and other actors.

“We are also spreading to several Norwegian universities and have connected with similar initiatives internationally. We see this as a long-term project where we want to build a movement of like-minded individuals among students, staff and the public who are concerned about the future of our universities as sites of learning for the greater public good.

“We are not representing anything new, in fact, we are representing something very old – the free academy,” Eli Smeplass, another member of NUN, said.

* Since this article was first published, Frank Aarebrot, has passed away. Tributes have been paid to him by current Prime Minister Erna Solberg and her predecessor Jens Stoltenberg, now secretary-general of NATO. Solberg described him as an "extremely sharp" analyst, "excellent storyteller" and committed citizen with rare insight.