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Check-up — The 2003 Danish University Act strengthened universities' ties to society. But according to a thorough investigation, the legislation adversely affected the freedom of research, and it damaged the management and running of the universities.
A partial success.
This is how the conclusions are summed up by the authors of a new major report 20 years after the controversial Danish University Act was made law.
The success is due to the fact that universities have opened up to society and the outside world.
Internally at universities, however, the legislation has been less successful. There are several problematic issues. There is a shortfall in democratic culture at universities. Freedom of research is under pressure. And the universities’ autonomy and financial resilience are being challenged. These are the conclusions from the report which was authored by the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy (DFiR).
»The Danish University Act has, over the past 20 years, led to more pressure on academic staff, and it is necessary that the study’s conclusions are taken seriously. And I really hope that the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) will take the results seriously,« says Ingrid Kryhlmand, who is vice-chair of the staff-management collaboration committee HSU at UCPH.
The Danish University Act was considered ambitious when it was adopted in 2003. It was to open up the universities towards the outside world, and let research be of greater benefit to society.
At the same time, the legislation would give universities a greater degree of freedom. The universities were turned into self-governing institutions, run by a board that had the responsibility of appointing a rector and for providing guidelines for the university’s daily management.
Even though DFiR’s study now demonstrates that the Danish University Act has harmed universities internally, it does not conclude that it is necessary to reform the law. The report recommends instead that universities »find local solutions in collaboration with employees and the outside world.«
Director of lobby group Universities Denmark Jesper Langergaard agrees.
He takes the conclusions of the study seriously, he says, and hopes that politicians do likewise with the conclusions and criticism.
»The universities have been peppered by a salvo of reforms and new regulations over the past years, and this has led to the most unnecessary use of resources on the part of universities,« he says.
The report ‘Twenty years with
the University Act’
The report was prepared by DFiR, which is an independent body set up by the Danish government in collaboration with the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters.
It is based on two questionnaires among all assistant professors, associate professors, professors and heads of department at the country’s eight universities.
The questionnaire was sent out at the end of December 2022 and closed at the beginning of February 2023.
The response rate is almost 35 per cent, and the responses are distributed relatively representatively across universities, main academic areas and positions.
The DFiR study concentrates on the major reforms over the past 20 years in Danish universities, including the study progress reform, the dimensioning (resizing) reform and the relocation requirements.
According to the study, the reforms have had consequences: According to the survey, 59 per cent of department heads believe that the government’s interference is ‘harmful’ or ‘very harmful’.
DFiR recommends that a commission be set up to safeguard the universities’ financial resilience and strengthen their autonomy. It specifically recommends that a national research and innovation strategy is developed, including proposals for a long-term and sustainable financial structure for universities which makes them less vulnerable to short-term political considerations.
Jesper Langergaard finds it important that there is a political focus on ensuring autonomy, and that universities can focus on their core tasks. But he calls on the Danish parliament to prioritise collaborating in solving the universities’ challenges together.
»The universities should be presented, in the future, with the problems that politicians find. In this way, we will have the opportunity to articulate them and together find solutions that are long-term, and which do not harm universities.«
The study showed that many researchers want more involvement in decisions over the universities’ research profile, budget, and organisation.
It is not only the desire for more involvement, however, that is the concern of a large part of the research staff at the universities in Denmark.
The report also showed that 50 per cent of researchers are concerned with being threatened, or have been subjected to reprimands when they have commented on management decisions. The reprisals include dismissal, rejection of promotions, or increased workload.
This number is »way too high,« and is a »wake up call, requiring attention,« says Jesper Grodal. He is a professor of mathematics and is on the Board of the University of Copenhagen representing academic staff. He has in recent years worked to ensure that researchers are involved in managing the university.
31 to 37 per cent of researchers believe that there is a lack of recognition, decision-making authority, and administrative support on councils, boards and committees. And this to a degree that limits their participation and involvement.
Even though the study’s conclusions make for »disheartening reading«, they »come as no surprise« to Ingrid Kryhlmand, vice-chair of the the staff-management collaboration committee (HSU) and representative for the HK trade union at UCPH.
DFiR believes that the universities’ challenges call for »agile and competent management« and that this can best be achieved with a unified management structure.
Ingrid Kryhlmand will have none of it:
»There is a superficial staff involvement in the academic councils and on the collaboration committee. But it is ultimately management that is making the decisions. And it is done without involving academic staff or technical and administrative staff.«
This trend is also reflected in the report, which shows that 63 per cent of researchers believe that the administration’s influence on decision-making processes is restricting researchers’ involvement.
Ingrid Kryhlmand therefore recommends that university staff should be given entry into the closed management fora. »It should no longer just be about consultation processes. Employees need co-determination.«
»It’s strange to run a university as if it was a margarine factory. You have to listen to those who are actually working in the machine room. And this is mostly the academic staff.«
She believes that this is an overlooked but important point that comes out of the study.
»Without the academic staff there is no university. It is their brains, that are what we live off. They are currently downgraded to employees without influence. But they are the key to everything, the universities would not exist without the researchers.«
The study also shows that freedom of research is under pressure. This applies, in particular, to the 24 per cent of researchers who work on controversial research topics. Among these, 71 per cent fear either being threatened with, or being subject to, reprisals.
Director of Universities Denmark Jesper Langergaard says that it »needs to be completely ruled out that researchers can feel threatened.«
He believes however, that it is positive that the study showed that it is only a few researchers who actually avoid controversial topics. Even though sometimes – on the part of politicians – there has been an »inappropriate criticism« of what researchers should concern themselves with.
Ingrid Kryhlmand points out that employment security and recruitment challenges should be put on the agenda by UCPH management in the future.
»The academic staff of the future will also have a private life, and if they cannot get one, they will opt out of a university career. Then we don’t have far to go before we no longer have a university«.
She believes that the fear of rebuke at university takes place »very subtly.«
»If you, as an academic for example, are striving for a professorship, you don’t want to make a fuss. Neither to the head of department, the deans, or the rector. And so you refrain from criticizing management decisions, because you don’t want to risk your career.«
Employee security should be safeguarded through better employment conditions, according to Ingrid Kryhlmand. She thinks, specifically, that academic staff need to be offered permanent positions that, as a rule, are considered lifetime positions.
It is to a large degree the responsibility of the university boards and the university managements to strengthen democratic culture and the freedom of research, according to DFiR.
Jesper Grodal has been elected as academic to the UCPH Board representing the ‘Involve Researchers’ list. And he fully agrees with the need for greater involvement:
»It has always been our raison d’être to work for more inclusive management, and it is therefore positive if the report can help things move in this direction.«
He explains that the University of Copenhagen has a number of initiatives in the pipeline to improve managerial routines and strengthen academic co-determination and involvement.
The first initiatives will soon be announced at UCPH.
»And this is hopefully one step towards addressing some of the problems that the survey points out,« he says, and explains that it testifies to the fact that the university has actually listened, and has taken the problems seriously.
More specifically, the University of Copenhagen will set up ‘committees of researchers’ [forskerkollegier, ed.] at all departments, which will be composed of the faculty’s academic staff. Jesper Grodal states that the committees will be involved in permanent appointments and other major strategic decisions. And a permanent position academic staff member will, in the future, be chairman of the Academy Council.
»This will ensure that there is a greater degree of involvement by the department’s academic staff in research-strategy decisions, particularly regarding appointments. Because it is the department’s researchers who are the best equipped to set the direction for the research.«
Minister for Higher Education and Science Christina Egelund (M) has still not had time to delve into the report’s conclusions. In a press release issued by the ministry however, the minister says:
»To the extent that academic freedom and democratic culture are under pressure, it is, of course, not something that we can just let pass without noticing.«