Experts seek controversial change to university boards

The expert committee appointed by Royal Decree to propose changes to higher education legislation in Norway has controversially recommended that the chair of university boards should be an external appointment recruited and chosen by the Ministry of Education and Research, while the higher education institution should decide whether to have an appointed or elected rector.

Chair of the expert committee, Helga Aune, said: “The rector is going to be the top executive of the institution, representing a unified leadership like it is in the business sector,” she said, referring to the role of a CEO.

The chair of the board, on the other hand, shall participate in deciding strategy, and inspire and hold the executive to account.

“This function is better served with a unified leadership model as we propose, in contrast to having the rector as chair of the board inspiring and holding himself to account,” she told University of Oslo news magazine Uniforum.

Other proposals on university governance include that:

  • • The board should comprise 11 members, with four externally appointed, two of them selected by the ministry and two by the institution. While four would be selected by votes by staff members from research or teaching positions, one would be selected by administrative or technical staff and two by the students.

  • • In elections to the board, votes by academic staff and administrative/technical staff should be weighted equally, whereas today the votes of administrative staff are weighted 5%-25%, the academic staff 51%-71%, and the students’ vote 15%-30%.

  • • Instructions from the ministry should be in written form.

  • • Academic boards should have more autonomy.

  • • Institutions should reduce the use of temporary positions and post-doc positions must be limited to one period.

The eleven-member expert committee, appointed by a Royal Decree in June 2018 with an extensive mandate to propose changes in Norwegian higher education legislation and headed by lawyer Helga Aune, delivered its report to the Minister of Research and Higher Education Henrik Asheim on 13 February.

The expert committee has been investigating all aspects of Norwegian higher education and student welfare and has arranged 15 two-day meetings, hearing 30 experts give presentations on different aspects related to the mandate. Several conferences were arranged and the members have participated in a long list of meetings. The expert group has been served by a ministerial staff of eight people, some of them working full-time for the investigation.

The end result is a 468-page document that will be sent for consultation by all interested parties before being sent to parliament.

Unique in Scandinavia

In addition to the 39 chapters, the report has two appendices. One of them is a comparative review of governance structure within higher education institutions in Denmark, Finland and Sweden, which shows that Norway is now the only country in Scandinavia that does not have an external member as chair of the academic board.

The second appendix is a legal examination of issues involved when introducing compulsory filming of all oral examinations held at universities and university colleges and an evaluation of consequences for students, examiners and the higher education institutions undertaken by the law company Deloitte Legal in 2019.

The proposal concerning the chair of the university boards is a modified version of a 2005 reform that created a huge national protest. At the time the Ryssdal committee had proposed making universities self-governing organisations led by a board with a chairman appointed by the ministry, where the board was the unit that made final decisions, rather than the ministry, as 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.

Today’s committee was split on its most controversial proposal, with a minority wanting institutions to decide for themselves whether they wanted an external member as chair of the board.

Aune last week defended the proposals at a presentation of the suggested reforms at the University of Oslo.

She said: “We realise that this is a weakening of the power of the rector, but we also see that this will strengthen the autonomy of the institution.”

She said the institution would also be strengthened by being able to appoint two out of the four external members and pointed out that businesses do not think they have a weakened chief executive when the board is chaired by an external member.

Rector’s autonomy ‘weakened’

But Pro-Rector at the University of Bergen Professor Margareth Hagen said: “In the new model the role of the rector as an autonomous academic leader would be weakened. A more director-type role for the elected rector will perhaps look attractive for some, but the academic, collegial leadership will be weakened and the rector will be removed from the academic board.

“With the rector as an executive director it will become more difficult to defend that the rector shall be elected since the demand for qualifications will lean towards an administrative more than an academic leadership role.”

Professor Ivar Bleiklie, a higher education expert at the University of Bergen, told University World News that the proposal demonstrates that “the ideological belief that universities ought to be managed like business enterprises is persistent and possibly growing stronger. However, still 11 out of 19 higher education institutions, among them three out of four leading research universities, have decided to keep and defend the traditional model”.

He said this showed that the belief that universities are specific organisations that are best served by the traditional model, where the rector is elected and leads the board, is resilient.

“Defenders of this idea may take heart from the fact that it still has a strong position throughout the higher education system, particularly within the most prestigious academic institutions in Norway.”