Universities divided over decoupling from the state

New Minister of Research and Higher Education Iselin Nybø has confirmed that the government is going ahead with work on a feasibility study on university governance, investigating among other models a decoupling of the universities from the state.

But the issue of decoupling is already dividing academics, generating pre-emptive protests from older university leaders, while some younger university leaders say they will hear out the ministry proposals.

The study was initiated by outgoing minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen who handed over to Nybø in January.

The government coalition-platform agreed at Jeløya in January 2018 between the Conservative Party, the Progress Party and the Liberal Party included a reference to looking into the governance or autonomy models of higher education institutions “in order to secure more autonomous institutions”.

This message was met with some positive feedback from younger rectors, Professor Dag Rune Olsen at the University of Bergen and Professor Gunnar Bovim at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), both of whom said they would examine any reforms from the government closely and with an open mind.

Repeat of a hard fight?

The move, however, provoked strong opposition from some older university leaders. They recalled the last effort to decouple Norwegian universities from the state in 2001-05 when the so-called ‘Ryssedal committee’ mandated by the government to propose university governance structures did exactly that: the committee proposed to transfer universities to ‘self- governing’ organisations led by a board with a chairman appointed by the ministry, where the board was the final decision making unit, not the ministry, as the situation is now.

That led to an outcry and mass mobilisation of academics in the streets with torches, more than 5,000 articles in the Norwegian press, numerous events with discussions and a withdrawal of the proposal from the parliament.

Mona Fagerås, a Socialist Left member of parliament, on 14 February asked Nybø why she thought increased competition and market liberation was the right way to strengthen the academic autonomy of universities and university colleges.

Confirming that the governance feasibility study was ongoing, the minister said she could foresee a solution where only those institutions that wanted to introduce a self-governing model should do so. But she would not make any proposals for parliament before the study had made its recommendations.

Stiff resistance

Hans Petter Graver, professor of law and former dean of the faculty of law at the University of Oslo, told Khrono, the web-based newsletter of Oslo Metropolitan University, that the call for greater autonomy of universities was an empty argument.

“The company law model is an organisational model adapted to the market and the organisational preconditions of the market. If one is engaged in academic autonomy today, it is a much greater danger from the market than from the state,” he said.

“Transformation to a market model does not give the universities greater protection against governmental influence.”

Professor of Public Policy Noralv Veggeland of the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, Lillehammer, told University World News the stated aim of giving universities more autonomy was a lie and in reality means universities will “lose academic freedom to market forces” in the form of the “dominant investors in competitive research projects and education".

“Believing in independent and free research and in neutral knowledge formation, the governance by the market should be rejected and state governance should be preferred. Please, let the Norwegian universities be traditionally organised and unchanged.”

Professor Sigmund Grønmo, former rector of the University of Bergen, told University World News: “Norwegian universities are funded by the government. The university’s employees and students can elect the university rector [as board chair] and a majority of the board members, and a special university law secures institutional autonomy and academic freedom for the universities.

“The proposed decoupling of universities from the state, combined with an external board chair and a majority of external board members, will make the universities more dependent on short-term market forces and business interests.

“This privatisation will decrease the universities’ autonomy. Maintaining universities as state institutions is the best way of securing autonomy as well as academic freedom.”

Continuous debate in Sweden

Offering a perspective from experience of such a change, President of the University of Helsinki in Finland, Jukka Kola, told University World News that the Finnish Rectors’ Conference had initiated a decoupling from the state because university leaders felt that state bureaucracy and its regulations were ill-fitted to research and higher education institutions.

Former rector of Stockholm University, Professor Kåre Bremer, said the degree of autonomy of universities in relation to the state is still continuously debated in Sweden.

The 31 universities remain obliged to implement government policy and in fact the government issues an annual letter of instruction (Ordinance) saying where resources will be spent, although this system was diluted in 2011 and may change further under proposals being drawn up by a new state commission led by former rector of Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, Pam Fredman.

Bremer said the parties in power have usually held back from detailed steering but there are some disturbing exceptions, for instance, the current government blocked Dalarna University’s plan to close its Borlänge campus.

Danish dissatisfaction

Professor Jens Oddershede, former rector of the University of Southern Denmark and chairman of the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy, said although he has not seen the details, the Norwegian proposal as mooted appears similar to the governance system Denmark has had since 2005.

This involves a board – with an external majority and a chairman elected by the board from among the external members (not by the government) – that makes decisions in all important matters, including the employment of the rector. This has made Danish universities "self-ruling state institutions".

But are the Danes now satisfied with their university governance system? “Definitely not,” he says. “But nobody really believes it will be rolled back and there is a solid majority for the new governance system in the Danish parliament.”

Variations on autonomy

Ivar Bleiklie, a researcher in comparative higher education at the University of Bergen, said the issue in Norway is more complex than the debate seems to convey. As the TRUE project, drawing on data from 26 universities in eight European countries, concluded last year, there can be a significant difference between formal autonomy and autonomy in practice, and between different aspects of autonomy, be they administrative, political, structural, financial or to do with government intervention.

Norwegian universities have an ‘average’ degree of autonomy compared to England, Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland and Portugal. England is distinguished as a country with high autonomy and Germany and France as countries with low autonomy, the data from the TRUE analysis shows.

“My view is that ‘decoupling universities from the state’ can mean many things and that it is therefore necessary to study the propositions carefully before making a stand in this matter,” he told University World News.