You’ve overstepped the mark, dear minister!

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Universities Denmark, the National Union of Students in Denmark, the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs, Djøf (the union for lawyers and economists, ed.) and the National Union of Commercial and Clerical Employees (State), are all highly critical of the bill for “better frameworks for management at the universities" that has been put forward by the Minister for Higher Education and Science, Søren Pind. All of the above consultation parties state that if the bill becomes law, it will represent a break with the tradition for politically independent boards – and with it freedom of research at the Danish Universities.

2017.04.07 | Lotte Bilberg

Minister for Higher Education and Science Søren Pind from the Liberal Party. Photo: Lars Svankjær.

At the end of February, Minister for Higher Education and Science Søren Pind from the Liberal Party sent a bill to consultation. The bill would alter the University Act and mean, among other things, that the minister must ultimately approve whoever ended up sitting at the head of the university boards at the eight Danish universities. When the deadline for the consultation response passed on Friday of last week, a pile of consultation responses lay ready on the minister's desk from the organisations that represent management, students and employees at the universities. The consultation responses from the above-named consultation parties are practically identical in their strong criticism of substantial parts of the bill.

Main point of criticism

The greatest criticism concerns the minister's proposal for a completely different form of direct political control of the universities than is the case today. In addition, the minister is criticised for the significant reduction of student and employee influence over important decisions that would be the case if the bill is adopted.

 

Break with politically independent universities 

When it comes to increased political influence over who can chair the university boards, the Minister for Higher Education and Science specifically proposes that representatives from the ministry must be represented in both the committee which is tasked with recommending external candidates and in the committee which has the task of actually appointing a candidate from among the nominees. And also that a candidate for the position of chair of the university board must, according to the bill, ultimately be approved by the current government minister for higher education and science.    

The consultation response from Universities Denmark, which is signed by both the head of Universities Denmark Anders Overgaard Bjarklev and Nils Strandberg Pedersen, who is chair of the board of directors of the Rectors' Conference under Universities Denmark, is unequivocal in its opposition to this part of the bill:

"It is the universities' unambiguous recommendation that it should not be possible to question the independence of the universities, which is based on a centuries of Danish and European tradition and has been codified in the Magna Charta Univeristatium in 1988, which e.g. the Bologna Declaration of 1999 refers to, and which Denmark is a co-signatory of," write the management of Universities Denmark. Further they write: 

"It is crucial to underline that the public interest, which the university boards must safeguard, should alone be governed via the applicable legislation and not through political selection of board members or board chairmen. The bill goes against these fundamental principles and is a break with the political independence of the university boards and freedom of research. The ministry becoming deeply involved in the nomination and appointment process in the way that is presented in this bill is a critical breach of the arm's length principle.”

De facto minister appointment

The National Union of Students in Denmark are also critical of the way in which the minister and the ministry become so close to the universities. In general terms, the union find it very problematic that it prepares the ground for “a significant political interference in the appointment of the external members of the university boards, including in particular the chairs of the boards”. 

"The appointment model breaks with the arm's length principle and questions the universities’ independence. Particularly with respect to the chairs, where the proposed model comes close to a de facto minister appointment. The ministry's representatives in both the recommendation and appointment committees will have a great possibility of forcing through the current minister's preferred candidate with reference to the minister's right of veto," writes the National Union of Students in Denmark in its consultation response.

Weakening of Danish universities' reputation

Three trade unions – the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs, Djøf and the National Union of Commercial and Clerical Employees – represent a large number of the employees at the universities. All three are fully in line with the students.

In its consultation response, the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs points out that the bill is a significant break with politically independent boards and thereby also with freedom of research. Furthermore, the union argues that the minister's and the ministry’s interference in the appointment of chairmen of the university boards is a "serious weakening" of the Danish universities' reputation and thus the universities' ability to attract international research funding and international researchers at the highest level. 

Djøf writes in its response to the minister that "the existing proposal for the appointment of external members of the board is de facto a break with the arm's length principal between the political system and the universities, which is a prerequisite for ensuring the individual university's activities in accordance with the objects clause (in the University Act, ed.)”.

This is entirely in line with the consultation response from the National Union of Commercial and Clerical Employees:

"The proposed model, in accordance with which a representative of the Ministry of Higher Education and Science must sit on the nomination body, following which the minister must appoint the chair of the appointment body, would not in the opinion of the National Union of Commercial and Clerical Employees ensure the necessary independence in accordance with the arm's length principle (…) The same viewpoint applies for that matter as regards the proposal that the minister must approve the candidate nominated to the position of chairman of the board." 

Highly criticisable

There is also strong criticism among the consultation parties of another part of the ministry’s bill which deals with employee and student influence on the selection of external members of the university boards. This is not so surprising when it comes to the organisations that represent employees and students, as the bill will reduce both employee and student influence considerably in relation to their influence today. But the criticism also stems from the chairmen and rectors, who write the following in their consultation responses:

"It is the universities' clear position that the nomination body should reflect the universities' composition. It is therefore highly criticisable that the proposed bill alone allows for either an employee representative or a representative for the students in the nomination body. Those closest to everyday life at the university thus risk being excluded. The proposal violates the University Act’s provisions on co-determination and co-inclusion, which were further clarified by a broad political majority in the revision of the University Act in 2011." 

Difficult to recruit

In addition to the criticism of the weakening of the influence of the internal members, in their consultation response the rectors and chairmen point out that if the bill is adopted it may become problematic to recruit "the best qualified” external members to the university boards:

"The universities are dependent on being able to recruit the very best people from among a broad range of the institution's stakeholders. It is doubtful that these people will spend their time as part of the senior management team, if the boards' political independence can be called into question." 

Also some praise for the Minister for Higher Education and Science
However, the consultation response does not only consist of negative criticism. The above-mentioned consultation parties also praise parts of the bill, and here the agreement between the different parties in their responses to the minister is also striking.

At present, the Ministry of Higher Education and Science enters into three-year development contracts with the university sector. These contracts contain identical targets for all eight universities. The Minister for Higher Education and Science receives praise for proposing to allow the development contracts to replace the strategic framework contracts, which must contain different, specific targets for each of the universities. The praise is e.g. because the strategic framework contracts would be a far better management tool for both the ministry and the universities, not least if these are four-year framework contracts.

The minister's proposal for a formalised dialogue between minister, ministry and universities is also positively received. However, several of the consultation parties urge that it should not only be the chairmen of the boards who hold meetings with the minister at least a couple of times a year, such as the bill proposes.

What is the problem, Søren Pind?
Despite the fact that parts of the bill also receive some praise, the rectors and chairs of the university boards state that they cannot see the purpose of the Minister for Higher Education and Science's bill. As they write in the consultation response from Universities Denmark: 

"It must (…) be noted that the universities are unable to clearly identify the problem which the bill must seek to resolve. The Minister for Higher Education and Science's specific deliberations are thus not clarified with the bill or the process leading up to it."    

Translated by Peter Lambourne

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Revised 17.11.2017