Sunday, February 10, 2008

Denmark – a spearhead of political research management

A chain of legislation, minimized economy and chains of contractual obligations has provided the government with powerful tools by which to steer the Universities. On the top of it Danish politicians has legislated against freedom of research…
by Jørgen Øllgaard

The University is the foundation stone of democracy. Ideally, it is an institution wholly independent of political and economic interests, whose scholars strive to uncover scientific truths in accordance with their professional and objective convictions. Scholars should be free to voice criticism, to play the Devil’s Advocate, to speak out against those in power without risking their livelihoods.
None of this is the case in Denmark, the only country to have legislated against freedom of research. While the Danish University Law (§ 17, subsection 2) states that the choice of scientific method remains at the hands of the individual scholar, he or she is by no means necessarily sovereign in selecting the research topic, this being the case only where scholars have not been directed to carry out other research or perform contractual tasks. Moreover, research must be carried out within the research-strategic framework of the department. Line managers are thus able to freely dictate the kinds of research work scholars are to undertake. Clearly, this has little to do with freedom.
In practice, little ever surfaces about such dictates, mainly because scholars are reticent about voicing dissent in public for fear of jeopardising career opportunities. Basically, scholars simply tend to adjust after negotiation. Arguments along the lines of staff doing wise to stick to departmental research strategies defined at managerial level are usually quite effective. This is a form of discreet research management, fostered by strategies financially supported by government and implemented partly in the form of so-called ‘public authority tasks’ which universities now are obliged to carry out for government.
The so-called ’merger law’ of 2007 for Danish - the ‘Fusion-university law’ - is a remarkable demonstration of the managerial wishes of government. With an attention to detail quite unprecedented internationally, universities are now regulated harshly and have little freedom to manoeuvre. The legislation should not be seen in isolation from a whole series of initiatives: the merger law, developmental contracts, accrediting procedures and public authority tasks all are part of a chain of contractual obligations combining together to provide government with powerful tools by which to manage the scholarly activities of universities.
Denmark is in that way a European spearhead regarding political research management and a horror-scenario for others – and no doubt that there are research politicians and administrators in other countries that would like to copy the Danish model. In Europe, Danish politicians are those most likely to use university research as an instrument to support national industry and governmental bodies (and regarding the Barcelona & Lisbon objectives, which state that European universities need to improve innovation, business partnerships and so on in order to compete with the US and Asia). It is a small country with a well organized welfare-state, that allows politicians to steer research policy down to the last detail. In that way the Danish system has adapted some of the thinking of the east-communist 5-year-plans. The Danish politicians have the structure and the instruments to control university activities strategically with a hard hand – and do use it.

The 5 characteristics of the Danish system:

1. The universities’ system of government has been established by detailed legislation: Top-down control with supreme power in the hands of appointed managers and no contributory influence for faculty, who no longer have the power to elect department heads.
Seen in an international context, the recent Danish University Act is a remarkable piece of legislation in terms of the number of legal dictates, its facilitation of centralised management and the minimal degree of collegiate influence it accords to faculty. The Act introduced “politicised” executive boards with external majorities and external chairmen, as well as appointed vice-chancellors and faculty and department heads. The board is approved by itself; it appoints vice-chancellors, who appoints deans who appoint heads of department.
In Denmark, power is concentrated solely in the hands of the board and the vice-chancellor. The traditional supreme governing body, the Senate (konsistorium) has been abolished and replaced by what is termed an “Academic Council”, which has no power in any matter of significance. Whether or not economic or strategic priorities are to be put to the Council is purely a matter for the discretion of the vice-chancellor and heads of faculty, but the Council itself has no formal or practical influence. This kind of concentration of power is wholly particular to the Danish system, Academia being firmly established in other countries (apart from certain restrictions in the Netherlands and Canada) by way of ‘collegiate academic contributory influence’ involving genuine instruments of power, ‘collegiate organs’ being accorded decisive authority in decision-making processes.
At the same time, the index reveals that Danish academics have little or no influence on the appointment of department heads (this is also the case in Spain, Portugal and Romania).
(In comparison the Danish conditions are the worst in views of academic freedom and influence, if one uses UNESCO-criteria as Terence Karran's report "Academic Freedom in Europe: A Preliminary Comparative Analysis" (2007, in Higher Education Policy 20: 289–313 [pdf]).

2. Contract policy: Universities are legally obliged to enter into contract with the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Technology as regards establishing strategic objectives, success criteria, research priorities, study programmes, etc.
Denmark is clearly out on its own insofar as universities now are obliged by law to enter into ‘achievement contracts’ with government allowing state powers to directly impose upon universities strategic objectives, success criteria, research policies, study programmes, teaching courses and so on. This kind of politicisation has no parallel in the UK, Sweden or Norway (again, for some countries this is left unspecified).

3. After a fusion of Universities there are now 8 Universities altogether. In the same manoeuvre Government research institutes were merged with the universities as per January 1 2007, committing the universities to carry out ‘commissioned research’ tasks. The Minister is furthermore empowered to impose upon universities particular assignments such as the preparation of scientific reports or monitoring tasks concerning e.g. environment issues, food standards, etc.
Governmental bodies can impose upon universities government research tasks, so-called “public authority tasks”/commissioned research for government ministries and related institutions. Moreover, the Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation can direct universities to carry out commissions for government ministries in cases of ‘particular public importance’, for example relating to the environment, food, agriculture and fisheries and so on.
Danish universities have become ‘fusion universities’, forced to fusion with former Commissioned Research-bodies and so operate in fields sometimes ‘politicised’. The assimilation of government research to universities will likely result in the dismantling of free research principles, universities being directly or indirectly obliged to perform commissioned research for public authorities. Even if these kinds of ‘special assignments’ may be confined to a limited number of research units, this obviously does little to alter the fact that university faculty will have be called upon to carry them out, a fact which cannot but negatively affect free research. Traditionally, such work does not fall under the auspices of the independent university - Danish universities are losing their independence of government and the political system, leaving their definition as universities entirely in jeopardy.

4. Restricted freedom of research (choice) for the individual: The Academics has no freedom of choosing subject, but has freedom of ‘theory and method’. This limitation is sophisticated as academics can be directed by department heads to perform certain research activities, and therefore not be able to choose research field by themselves.
It is also limited in another way, as where the head has not instructed such imposition, the researcher choice are limited to “freely conduct scientific research within the bounds of the research-strategic framework laid out by the University”, the latter being specified in the Achievement Contract drawn up with the Ministry. This means that if a university has not mentioned a researchers specific field in its strategic framework, the head of department can prohibit activity in alternative fields.
(To be fair, the public has no knowledge of conflicts on the limitations until now; no researcher dares to make it public as whistleblowing will make your position to the head and leadership impossible. When you for instance hear about conflicts as a journalist, the involved researcher don’t want you to write about it).

5. All the other initiatives are supported by a large redistribution of research money. The governmental plan is to ‘invite to competition’, which in liberal terms means that there has to be more sound competition between institutions and researchers - and in political terms means that the politicians can delegate the research money, where they want them to go. The basic grants for the universities have (roughly) been frozen at the same level for years. The pools for free research without specific conditions or terms (under the Free Research Council) has declined. In the same time pools for strategic research or innovation has increased more than 50 percent the last 5 years. Collaboration with private partners or industry is rewarded. This means the politicians have selected specific research themes in science, medicine or technology. And this means that the researchers have to run for the money in specific fields – which is a sophisticated way of disciplining the scientific world.

Behind these moves lies a concerted strategy to turn Danish universities into national instruments of business and government.
It is a big mistake to minimalize these drastic reforms to a result of the evil hand of an ultra-rightwinged government (of Anders Fogh Rasmussen). What is paradoxical is that the most vociferous protests have come from executive board chairmen (typically former captains of industry). They were seemingly appointed under the impression that they were to be operating with certain degrees of freedom, whereas in actual fact the politicians have simply increased the political-administrative control. Protests from rank-and-file academics are few and far between: critics, who are typically anonymous, claim they have been “bullied into silence” (which make journalism on the subject very difficult, I can tell from personal experience).
In parliamentary terms what is interesting is that on all these drastic reform measures there is wide consensus in the Parliament (Folketinget), only the smaller leftwing parties having remained sceptical. The Social Democrats aggrees, they are busy trying to employ a soft-line, Blair-like profile. For the Social Democrats, research policy has always been about technology policy, technical innovation and creation of new (industrial) jobs as prime motors of economic growth. And they are highly cognisant of the fact that a high-profile ‘support academic freedom’ platform is hardly going to bring in the votes from the broad population.

(See international comparison:

Jørgen Øllgaard ( is a sociologist and journalist. He is editor of FORSKERforum (, the monthly magazine for employees at Danish Universities.

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