The Danish HE System

The Danish HE system is organised as a binary system consisting of eight research universities on the one side and a number of non-research-based HE institutions such as university colleges (‘Professionshojskoler’, offering professionally oriented first cycle degree programmes) and academies of professional HE (‘Erhvervsakademier’, offering professionally oriented first cycle degree programmes) on the other. While the Danish HE system as a whole has undergone profound changes since the turn of the millennium, the remainder of this chapter will focus on the reforms targeting the research oriented university system only.

Danish research policy has historically been characterised by pragmatism, consensus and a strong academic orientation. Up until the turn of the millennium, most ‘modern’ transnational research policy ideas were thus implemented in rather ‘soft’ forms and always counterbalanced with traditional academic values. However, after a change of government in 2001, a sweeping reform process started with the aim to transform Danish universities into key players in the global knowledge economy. As the result of that several new policies have been introduced, making Denmark one of the most reform intensive European countries from a research policy perspective (Aagaard and Mejlgaard, 2012). Increased competition for funding and students, higher degrees of accountability, more comprehensive evaluation activity, strengthened institutional strategic capacity and more focus on responsiveness and social responsibility were seen by the government as some of the essential means to reach this objective. Four elements in this wave of reforms can be seen as constituting the basis of the UNIK initiative.

First, a new University Act from 2003 substantially changed the governance structure of the Danish universities. It introduced governing boards with a majority of external members as the university’s superior authority and abolished the ‘primus inter pares’ model by requiring appointed university leaders at all levels ofthe institutions instead ofelected. The objective was to accentuate the profiles of the individual institutions, to professionalise and empower managerial structures and to increase collaboration between research and innovation activities. The new Act also emphasised that the central management units of the universities should make strategic choices of research areas (Aagaard and Mejlgaard, 2012). In most universities, the new appointed leaders were in place by 2006.

Second, the funding system was changed substantially through various measures and developments. One of the government’s main contentions was that there was too little competition for research funding. In response to this, a number of new research funding councils were established. Generally, the overall changes in the funding system in this period were characterised by three shifts: from stable basic funding towards competitive research funding, from curiosity-driven research towards strategic research and from the funding of many small projects towards fewer and larger projects (Aagaard, 2011). Concerning the latter, Denmark has been a front runner with regard to large scale research excellence initiatives for more than two decades. Since 1993, close to 100 CoE have been funded by the Danish National Research Foundation (DNRF), which recently has received a very positive evaluation (Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation, 2013). More recently, the Danish Council for Strategic Research began funding for so-called Strategic Research Centres and also initiated Strategic Platforms for Innovation and Research (SPIR), funded jointly with the Danish Council for Technology and Innovation. In addition several private foundations have started to fund CoE at universities. Particularly since 2006, these changes were accompanied by a significant increase in total public R&D investments.

Third, while some of the changes in the funding systems were initiated in 2003, they were all considerably strengthened as a result of the comprehensive Danish Globalisation Strategy, presented in 2006 (The Danish Government, 2006a, b). The work on the Globalisation Strategy took its departure when a number of ambitious overall policy objectives were presented in a so-called government platform following the 2005 election (Danish Government 2005c). In this document, the government announced that it planned to draw up an ambitious, holistic and multi-year strategy to make Denmark a leading growth, knowledge and entrepreneurial society. As a follow-up, the government appointed a Globalisation Council with broad representation from relevant sectors of society to assist a minister committee in formulating an ambitious new strategy. The result of this process, the final Globalisation Strategy ‘Denmark in the global economy - Progress, Innovation and Cohesion' (Danish Government 2006a, b), was presented in March 2006. The strategy contains no less than 350 specific initiatives, which together entail extensive reforms of education and research and substantial changes in the framework conditions for growth and innovation in all areas of society.

Concerning research, a central objective of the governmental strategy was that total Danish R&D investments should amount to 3 % of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2010 (with the public funding constituting 1 %). The government also made it very clear that this increase in funding should be linked to fundamental changes of the research funding system. It was accordingly argued that: ‘it is essential to get value for money. Consequently, there is need for a sweeping reform of public sector research. Increased competition will ensure that the funds go to the best researchers and the best research environments’ (The Danish Government, 2006a, b). Along these lines, it was also argued in the Globalisation Strategy that the distribution of basic funding at universities fails to reward high quality and that there is a lack of systematic testing of the quality of the research programmes and their relevance to society. According to the strategy, there was a need to further develop universities in which quality and relevance are the key sustaining principles. As concrete strategic goals it was stated that: ‘Research should be innovative and its quality comparable to world top performers and that Denmark should be a top performer in turning research results into new technologies, processes, goods and services’. Along the same lines, it was stated that Denmark should have top-level universities; universities with strong academic environments that retain and attract talented students and researchers, and which provides the foundation for a dynamic development in society.

Fourth, the new governance system, the changes in the funding system and the Globalisation Strategy created a ‘window of opportunity’ for the next major structural reform (Aagaard et al., 2016). In 2007, the government launched a far-reaching merger process, which reduced the number of universities from 12 to 8 and transferred 12 out of 15 government research institutes (GRIs) to the eight remaining universities. The result was a large concentration of resources within a limited number of institutions. Today the three largest universities, University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University and the Technical University of Denmark, receive close to two thirds of the public research funding. In addition, the reform represented a clear break with the former division of labour between academic research and more applied GRI research (Aagaard, 2011).

Together these waves of reform have amplified the tension between increased competition for project funding and the demand for strengthened central steering of the universities. While the university Act and the mergers aimed to strengthen the universities’ autonomy and their capacity for strategic decision-making at a central level, the increased reliance on external funding targeting individual researchers or research groups have at the same time threatened to undermine the possibilities for the universities to act strategically. During this period, it has been argued repeatedly by many stakeholders as well as by the universities themselves that an increasing proportion of individually oriented grants limits the possibilities of long-term planning for the HE institutions and force them to focus on areas where funding is available rather than on areas where the institutions have high competence. With shrinking institutional funding and more funding allocated under competition, it is argued that the strategic decisions on where and how to spend research funding thus increasingly is taken outside of the institutions. This is displacing the decision-making capacity from university leaders towards the political system and the research councils. According to the critics, the majority of the changes in the funding system which have taken place during the latest decade have thus de facto limited the space for university management in their research priority-setting capacity.

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