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Danish university law to be evaluated

The much-criticised Danish university legislation from 2003 is to be evaluated within the coming year. This is according to researcher Maria Toft after meeting the Minister for Higher Education and Science Jesper Petersen.

The Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy (DFiR) will in the course of the coming year finish an assessment of where universities stand, and where they are going 20 years after the so-called ‘University Law’ was amended in 2003. In addition, a study will assess the extent of research theft at universities. This is according to Maria Toft, who was at a meeting with the Minister for Higher Education and Science Jesper Petersen on 29 August.

She is one of the researchers behind a petition which received 2,252 signatures in June. In the petition to Danish politicians, the researchers write that freedom of research at the universities is under pressure, and that major political decisions are needed to improve research and change the culture.

»I am optimistic so far, because there was, actually, dialogue. We have succeeded now in starting a movement among researchers, and we will do this again if nothing happens. We let him know that we will continue to sound off if we don’t see any progress.«

Receptive politicians

The meeting included a discussion from work culture and research theft to bureaucracy of basic research funding. It is not just the meeting with the minister, however, that has the researcher feeling optimistic.

»For a long time researchers who criticized the situation were looked upon as spoiled. But it’s not about spoiled researchers. It’s all about the freedom of research being threatened, and it’s not really about us, but about society.«

I have had four direct, or indirect, threats of dismissal from four different managers since I started this.
PhD fellow Maria Toft

The four researchers were met by what Maria Toft calls a responsive and understanding Minister for Higher Education and Science. Both in terms of the allocation of basic funding, the increasing numbers of short-term project hires, and what they call the academic freedom to ask questions.

»It is my clear impression that this protest has moved the political parties and research spokespersons, so they now want a revision of the university legislation,« she says.

The initiators behind the petition have already set-up meetings in the near future with research spokesman Astrid Carøe from the Socialist People’s Party, the Liberal Party’s Ulla Tørnes, and Ida Auken from the Social Democrats..

Culture of silence and fear

Last week Maria Toft described in a open letter on the University Post what specific challenges she wanted the minister to address. This included her opinion that universities are dominated by a culture of secrecy and fear as a consequence of the centralised management structure.

READ ALSO: On ‘ideas’ — a letter to the Minister for Higher Education and Science

»Many researchers do not dare to speak out or criticise management. They are staying silent, because the hierarchies have become so centralized and powerful,« says PhD fellow Maria Toft.

Maria Toft is not new to research activism. Earlier this year, she put a focus on research theft under the hashtag #Pleasedontstealmywork. She then fought to ensure that senior researchers stopped plagiarising the results of hard-working younger researchers. For Maria Toft, the latest petition to politicians supplements her previous campaign.

»It all fits. You may ask: ‘Why has this not been revealed before?’ It is precisely because of the culture of fear and secrecy and the fear of getting the sack. I have had four direct, or indirect, threats of dismissal from four different managers since I started this,« she says.

READ ALSO: #PleaseDontStealMyWork: New campaign to stop the theft of research

Campaign continues

Even though she has received no promise of specific initiatives that can improve researchers’ working conditions in the near future, Maria Toft is hopeful and patient.

»I know that there will be no specific initiatives ahead of a general election, but in the first instance it is about dialogue, and that we, the researchers, are being listened to. I thanked the minister for setting up an inquiry into research theft. But I also made it clear to him that this is just treating the symptoms. It’s about the culture where this kind of thing is possible,« she says.

READ ALSO: Scientists want commission to investigate research freedom

She says that it is impressive that the petition could get more than 2,000 signatures in one week. According to her, this testifies to the fact that there is a structural problem where researchers are more likely to be on short-term, disadvantaged project appointments, and that independent research is restricted by specific parameters for success.

»It was a big step, and a breakthrough in terms of democracy, that the minister did not just talk to the rectors and the managements, but actually listened to Danish researchers on the ground,« says Maria Toft.