Denmark’s corporate university management ‘needs democratising’

Running universities like companies has helped them look outwards, but they risk an exodus of young talent from relentless reforms

May 31, 2023
Crews swap boats between races to illustrate Denmark has ‘democracy deficit’
Source: Getty

Moves to make Danish universities more like corporations have helped connect them to society and industry but have hollowed out leadership and left staff feeling distant from decisions, a survey has found.

The Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy, an independent expert body, gathered responses from 3,000 researchers and 100 department heads to understand the effects of the country’s 2003 University Act, two decades on.

The law introduced management boards made up mostly of non-academic members, to help develop research strategies, manage finances and appoint and oversee rectors. Lower down, it filled heads of department vacancies through open recruitment, rather than faculty elections.

“The intentions of the law, of opening up universities to give value to society, has worked,” Anna Haldrup, head of the department of food science at the University of Copenhagen, told Times Higher Education, citing warmer academic attitudes to industry collaboration and public communication in the decades since.

But Professor Haldrup, who led the working group that looked at the law’s impact, said the governance changes had hurt academics’ freedom to research and taken away their voice in decision-making: “That has really suffered.”

The changes also made it much easier for politicians to impose major reforms on the sector. There have been 12 since 2003, which included a move away from big cities, a clampdown on foreign students and a halving of the length of some master’s degrees.

Among the report’s recommendations are that the ministry organise a training programme for external board members to ensure they have “real insight into research”. “Often people come from industry to become the head of a board and they know nothing about the conditions at the universities; they just come in and say ‘this is simply too slow’,” said Professor Haldrup. “They damage a lot because they simply don’t understand the university structure.”

While they were eager to crack the whip, ignorance of academia could also make untrained outsiders toothless when it came to holding rectors to account, she added: “They just do what the rector says.”

To fix the democratic deficit, management must clearly explain how staff can be involved in decisions and be as transparent as possible about how they will be made, the report says. Researchers also deserve a bigger role in the hiring and retention of department heads, the authors write.

Denmark’s triennial university staff satisfaction survey should finally include questions about democratic participation and research freedom, said Professor Haldrup, with findings used to monitor boards’ progress.

The country has also been part of a wider shift towards competitive project funding, which has squeezed the time and space left for self-directed research.

“It makes it impossible to have research freedom,” said Professor Haldrup, adding that 75 per cent of Danish researchers got less than 50,000 Danish kroner (£5,800) a year directly from their department.

Scant time was also the most common reason given by responding researchers and heads of department for the former not participating in university-wide decisions, which was seen as a bigger barrier than diversity of views, resistance to change or language issues.

The authors call for a follow-up commission to explore the wider issue of research funding, which they said should be longer term and include project overheads, costs that must currently be absorbed by strapped local budgets.

Given the constant reforms of the past two decades, Professor Haldrup said, politicians should be wary about making further changes to the law. She suggested board training and that the other recommendations be tried for five years, with updates to the act brought in only if there were no improvements.

Without action, she said, the biggest risk was a generation of young researchers being lured away to the private sector by more attractive salaries and working conditions.

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Reader's comments (5)

Has democracy ever existed?
I keep with Prof Haldrup. It is a major problem namely: the politicians and the industry leader don´t know how ther universities were developing during the last 200 years and the internal logic of research based on academic freedom. The situation may change drastic as first the dionysian ten the apollonian (ref Szentgyörgyi in Science) researchers will draw back and then you may imagine what will follow. I think it is about tight controll ower universities and academia I experienced this under Ceausescu in Roumania it´s really wrong direction.... At the moment in Sweden the situation is somewhat better.
<The country has also been part of a wider shift towards competitive project funding, which has squeezed the time and space left for self-directed research. “It makes it impossible to have research freedom,” said Professor Haldrup, adding that 75 per cent of Danish researchers got less than 50,000 Danish kroner (£5,800) a year directly from their department.> Quite so! Here in the UK at my university we get a paltry 1,000£ per annum for research (e.g., conference fees, accommodation or travel expenses, proof reading support, analytic software, scholarly books, interview transcriptions or whatever). Everything else is dependent on winning grants for this or that. Academia must be the only profession where you have a contractual requirement to perform a task that is a substantive part of your job (about 30-50% of your time), but the employer does not provide you with (sufficient) means for doing that part of the job. Instead, you are supposed to fund that part of your job yourself by finding external sponsors (i.e., wining grants). We are in fact salespeople pitching our ideas to funders and satisfying their demands (and priorities). We are rarely independent thinkers speaking truth to power these days. But this is precisely what the marketisation of academia (with its competitive logic) was supposed to achieve: discipline and control.
Not all aspects of research activity are funded by internal or external funders. Unless you are willing to pay from your own salary, it is not worth it pursuing certain lines of inquiry.
It's not just a Danish research issue, UK universities are now run along corporate managerialism lines, with the suppression of 'academic freedom' one of the first things to be limited, with the long term aim to extinguish it. Our 'corporatist' 5th column has rewritten our statutes in the most undemocratic way, only announcing them when approved by privy council, the UCU is now fighting a rear-guard action to stop the removal of tenure, academic freedom and more, so much for transparent consultation...


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