Reform: Danish ‘fusion universities’

Danish universities are waking up to unprecedented levels of political management, gradually worked in by government since 2003.
An international index of academic freedom reveals a quite unique state of alarming. To Academics its alarming – to Management and politicians in other countries it may be a model for imitation ?


Think about university systems subjected to extreme market orientation, part-privatisation, high tuition fees and small public research funding, and you’ll probably have New Zealand and Australia as prime examples. Far from most people’s attention, Denmark, however, has been quietly heading off in the direction of an opposite extreme with major governmental management of university structures, funding, research and education. From 2003 to the present, the Danes have introduced more legislation and centralised management than any other comparable country. At the same time, collegiate academic influence has gone completely by the board. Whereas vice-chancellors and heads of department until 2003 were elected by faculty, today they are appointed by top management.

 Behind these moves lies a concerted strategy to turn Danish universities into national instruments of business and government: “Denmark is a European spearhead as regards political research management. In Europe, Danish politicians are those most likely to use university research as an instrument as regards the 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,” says Karen Siune, director of CFA (the Danish Centre for Studies in Research Policy) in comment to FORSKERforum’s international index of academic freedom, which compares degrees of freedom in a range of countries. See index.


Steering down to the last detail

Siune is active in several European networks and has contributed to a number of international comparative studies. She confirms the data in the index. The main picture revealed is one of a strongly politicised, strongly governed Danish university. Government legislation on university management has given politicians a major say in what goes on in universities. Only in Canada and Spain, and partly in Sweden and Portugal, have similar legislative measures been seen.

 “The figures provide food for thought. Clearly, Danish government has been extremely active as regards university and research policy. The system is legislation and a structure allowing politicians to steer research policy down to the last detail in the pursuance of social and business objectives – much more so than abroad. But there’s no doubt that there are research politicians in Europe who see Denmark as a model to be emulated”,” Siune says.


Much tighter than in England

“The situation in Denmark is confusing, because the politicians have introduced the reform under the label of ‘setting universities free’. But the government’s purpose in reform of the whole public sector is to make the delivery of services more tightly linked to the aims of ministers, and more quickly responsive to changes in policy”, professor Susan Wright explains. She was at Birmingham University until 2003, but moved to Denmark, where she is working on a project “New management, new identities? Danish University-reform in an international perspective”.

 “The new Danish system combines strong centralised controls through development contracts and performance payments. This steering system is much tighter than in England”, she explains. “Danish universities are ‘self owning’ but not independent. English universities are public corporations, established as independent of the state under their own Royal Charter or statute. They have a range of governing systems, but none of them have anything to do with the government or the state. The state’s influence comes through universities’ dependence on funding for teaching and research”.

Fusion universities:
research on demand

Danish government research institutes were merged with universities on January 1 this year, and legislation is now underway to 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.

 Susan Wright explains: “Universities in the UK have many diverse units and centres attached to them, some of which do commissioned research for ministries. These aren’t established by law, but the most respected centres in the UK have to reflect continually on their positioning in order to preserve a degree of distance and independence”.

 Danish universities have become ‘fusion universities’, forced to fusion with former Commisioned Research-bodies and so operate in fields sometimes ‘politicised’. Critics object that the assimilation of government research to universities will 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. According to FORSKERforum’s investigation, the assimilation of public authority tasks would seem to be quite unique (for some contries this is unspecified). According to the harshest critics, Danish universities are losing their independence of government and the political system, leaving their difinition as universities entirely in jeopardy.

 “It’s fair to say that what we’re seeing here is unique, that Danish universities can be directed to perform public assignments. In other countries, government ministries typically have their own research institutes,“ Siune explains. “That said, however, I would hesitate to draw any bombastic kind of conclusion for the time being. It may well have its costs in terms of universities being free to make their own decisions, and time and resources will have to be diverted to public authority tasks. But as far as freedom goes generally I don’t see any great difference between Denmark and other countries, at least not as long as we assume that government isn’t going to be expecting certain results, what we’d call ‘research to order’. How things are going to turn out in controversial areas like environmental monitoring, food standards and that sort of thing, we’ll just have to see.”


Danish invention: ‘Achievement contracts’

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).

On this issue Siune says: “The Danish government operates with a contract policy which in actual fact is quite feasible in a small country with a homogeneous university structure. It’s quite possible to effectuate and manage a relatively effective legislation. The new fusion universities are basically a manifestation of just that. The politicians have now got larger units to work with, and more leeway for overall management.”

 One aspect of the contract policy concerns government plans to make up to 50% of public research funding subject to competition, as against 30% previously. Moreover, research quality is to be measured according to standards comparable to those in the UK and the Netherlands – “international standards”, to use the words of the government minister.


Top-down control sidetracks academics

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 wice-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).

 Karen Siune points out that: “The survey clearly indicates that the Danish system has done away with faculty influence entirely. Politicians have all along wanted a system of top-down control in which power and all decisive authority lies in the hands of the few. As for the effects on free academia, on research and teaching, on academics’ feelings of devotion and responsibility, creativity, productivity and the working climate in general, we just won’t know for another few years.”


Limited individual freedom of research

Heads of department in Danish universities are empowered by the University Act to impose upon the individual research in a given area, although the researcher maintains freedom of research as long as no such imposition occurs and as long as his or her work lies within the bounds of the university’s overall strategy. This kind of restriction is paralleled only in Poland and Romania (partly also in the Netherlands). In all other countries the individual maintains freedom of research.

 The Danish politicians have revoked individual freedom of research, Siune explains: “In Denmark it’s the university and not the individual researcher that has the freedom of research. To be fair, though, we should point out that the question of imposed research has so far been approached with caution. Academics still have fairly free rein, and we know of no officially instances in which department heads have dictated research activities. The individual is still able to manage his or her own time, and so on. On the other hand, it certainly will be interesting to see whether this changes in any respect during the coming years, whether individual research is actually constrained as a result of more empowered management.”


East European five-year plan

“There’s always a great deal of interest from the other countries whenever I’m abroad. People are surprised by the measure of control and ask: ‘What do they get from it?’ or ‘What are the results?’ But then, of course, I have to reply that we’ve no way of knowing until another five or ten years or so.”, says Siune.

 Only in five years’ time it will become evident whether new empowered management has been beneficial for research production. And in five years, studies will also be able to show whether the new system has had any measurable effect on working methods, creativity, and degrees of freedom, as well as the overall pleasure gained from working. What interests the politicians most, however, is the effect on socio-economic growth. Here, though, the prospects are even more long-term: “We won’t be able to tell for another eight to ten years,” Siune says.

 The Danish system comes across all very East European five-year plan compared to the other countries surveyed?

 “There’s a measure of truth in that, yes”, Siune says. “Now they’re focussing on certain specific areas and in the longer term we’re going to be measuring whether it’s all paid off. Academics are now finding out that they’ve less and less influence. In all fairness, though, it should be said that the Danish system is administered in such a way that the individual researcher very much retains his or her own freedom. Department heads have so far refrained from dictating research themes, so it’s certainly not the case that total control has been introduced in practice. However, the survey does show that the Danish system and the Danish politicians have the prerogative – the structure and the instruments – to control university activities strategically with a hard hand. How widely these instruments will actually be put to use during the coming years by politicians and by executive and department managers is a question that will remain unanswered for a while yet.”


Right-Socialdemocrat alliance

What is paradoxical about all this is that the most vociferous protests have come from executive board chairmen (typically former captains of industry). They have seemingly been under the impression that they were to be operating with certain degrees of freedom, whereas in actual fact the politicians have simply increased their own control. Protests from rank-and-file academics are few and far between: critics, who are typically anonymous, claim they have been “bullied into silence”.

 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. There is broad agreement between Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s liberal-conservative government and the Social Democrats, who 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.



Jørgen Øllgaard ( is a sociologist and journalist. He is editor of FORSKERforum
(, a monthly
magazine for Danish research.


Translation by Martin Aitken



The Danish ‘fusion university’ 2007

1.                   The universities’ system of government has been established by 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.

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.

3.                   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.

4.                   Restricted freedom of research for the individual: Academics can be directed by department heads to perform certain research activities, although where no such imposition exists, they retain their right 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.