University Post
University of Copenhagen
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Controversial Danish university law now 20 years old. The man who crafted it only regrets one thing

Anniversary — The Danish Universities Act — a piece of legislation that set the direction for Denmark’s universities — has been loved and hated. Does the man who crafted it 20 years ago really still regret nothing?

Some have loved it for giving the Danish university world a much-needed shake up. Others accused it of being capitalist and of having brought on both bureaucracy and top-down management into Danish universities.

This week, the latest version of the Danish Universities Act has its anniversary. The legislation was given a real overhaul in 2003. Research from now on should be useful. It was supposed to be worthwhile, and the universities had to be opened up to a wider cross-section of society. The man who crafted the law was Helge Sander, mayor of the town of Herning in Jutland, who had just been appointed Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation by the former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

The plan was that knowledge to a higher degree should be perceived as a product that would strengthen Danish competitiveness. Sander had a slogan — »from idea to Invoice« — and the purpose of research and education results was »to promote growth, welfare and societal development«.

»I haven’t been to university myself,« says Helge Sander. »And when I took the position as minister, I had the experience that the universities were very sealed off from the rest of society«.

The university as a corporation

The biggest change in the then new Danish Universities Act was that the universities’ supreme decision-making body was abolished. The so-called ‘consistory’ or senate, which consisted of employee-elected teaching staff, students as well as technical and administrative staff, was replaced by a Board where half of the members were from outside academia, either from the business community or other institutions.

This part of the law has been the object of a lot of criticism, but Helge Sander is convinced that the universities’ boards are here to stay.

»My experience is that university managements are very satisfied with the fact that those who are to hire the graduates and use the research results from the universities also sit on the boards. If people wanted something else, they could have changed over the course of the last 20 years. But they have not. And it will not be changed. I just don’t think it will,« says the former minister.

But it probably removed some power from the university’s own people?

»You can certainly say that: But this is just like all other boards, regardless of whether it’s the board for a corporation or an institution.«

When you look at the Danish universities today, do you think you have succeeded in the project of opening up the university to the wider section of society?

»Yes. I would give this a big yes.«

You have said previously that you do not regret any part of your work on the Danish Universities Act. Is this still the case?

»Yes. Maybe one thing«.

»Our focus was strongly directed towards research. But when I look at the [master’s, ed.] graduates of today, there are far more of them that go to the private sector than to do PhD, research or go to the public sector. This should be incorporated into all study programme plans to a much higher degree. Here I was clearly not good enough. I didn’t see this at the time, and it was a big, big mistake. So I think they should try to rectify this now.«

Everything comes with a price

As minister, Helge Sander invested heavily in research. When he started as minister, the public research budget was at around DKK 13 billion, and when he left office in 2010, this amount had risen to more than DKK 18 billion. The decisive move came with a globalisation agreement from 2006, which resulted in a huge financial boost to research: More researchers were taken on, there was a larger pool of money for research projects, and there was extra money for strategic research which aims for research results that are used for something specific.

For many, however, the new funding came with a hidden, and higher price tag. The political criticism was wide-ranging. Margrethe Vestager, who at the time was deputy chairman of the centrist Social Liberal Party, said that they have now »removed democracy as a governing principle« and destroyed »a fruitful process in the Danish University environment«. Jesper Langballe of the right-wing Danish People’s Party criticised that research now has become a »sales item« delivered to order.

Many critics in academia believe that the Danish Universities Act’s focus on growth is better aligned with research in technical subjects rather than the humanities. Is this not a problem?

»It may well be. But we also have to look at which subjects attract the highest demand in the wider society«.

But it is precisely this market mindset, where you see research and education as a product, that is still being criticised today.

»Within the humanities, more and more people are getting jobs that are not a natural extension of their education programmes.«

»I admit that the humanities has not been allocated more funding in recent years. So out on South Campus in Copenhagen they will of course have to fight for their preference for humanities research. But what is produced at universities must also be a question of what the rest of society requires. So I just don’t think that humanities people have any grounds for their criticism. It may be a bit rude to say this. But I don’t see any political understanding of their viewpoint.«

It might just be a fundamental disagreement over whether study programmes necessarily have to be regulated according to labour market needs?

»Yes, it probably is.«

Clauses and commas

As a result of the criticism, the Danish Universities Act is now being examined. The Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy (DFiR) will this year assess where universities are heading after the 2003 reforms.

Do you still think that we will have the same Danish Universities Act in 20 years time?

»Yes. The changes that have been made by the seven or eight ministers in the field since I left the post in 2010, and the changes that are being introduced now, are only changes to clauses and commas. They cannot be compared to the fundamental changes we made in 2003. So yes, the Danish Universites Act will also celebrate its 40th anniversary. I certainly think so.«