Kristoffer Kropp: Danish Universities Face Cutbacks and Intensified Regulation

Kristoffer Kropp: Danish Universities Face Cutbacks and Intensified Regulation [1]
Kristoffer Kropp, University of Copenhagen

Since the national-liberal government started reforming the university system in the 1980’s the Danish university system has to some degree been a research laboratory for NPM (New Public Management) university system reforms. Students and university staff are thus well acquainted with major changes in managerial and financial structure of their institutions. They know that the political discourse about knowledge economy and the importance of education and research, which emanates from the highest levels, generally seems more like hot air.

The fist round of major educational reforms hit the universities in the 1980s in a period of national conservative rule. These changes were responsible for major cut backs in research and educational budgets and for attempts to direct university education and research toward the private sector. To the social sciences educations this meant a very rapid and high growth business and management studies and a relative stagnation of the other major social science disciplines. In the late 1980’s it involved the closing of the two sociological departments in Denmark. Through the 1990s funding for social science research rose, but mostly allocated through various politically and bureaucratically controlled pools and projects that directed research towards specific topics and research areas or as evaluations and development projects within the public sector. In short, one can say that the tools of NPM of the market oriented neo-liberal government were developed in the 1980’s under national conservative governance, but were enlarged and implemented throughout the educational and research sectors in the 1990’s under social democratic rule.

The last ten years, once again under national conservative government, have continued the changes and in the same direction. Regarding higher education, the last ten years, just as in the rest of Europe, have been marked by the Bologna Process. Education has been oriented more toward future employment (employability) and less toward academic ‘Bildung’ and there has been an increasing emphasis on getting the students through their education faster and cheaper. On an organisational level the authority to approve the supervision of education has been relocated from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Invasion in to a newly created institution – ACE Denmark – which should oversee higher education in Denmark through a comprehensive evaluation every five years. Organisational changes have weakened the autonomy of the university in relation to the bureaucratic field and required the expansion of bureaucratic structures at universities in order to fulfil the demands for documentation and evaluation.

When looking at the organisation of the research, the major trends are striking. The first is the increasing centralisation and ‘professionalization’ of the university administration and second the increasing competition for funds and positions. The major changes came in 2003 with the passing of a new university law (Wright and Ørberg 2008), which removed the last bit of democratic influence gained in the early 1970’s over the management of universities. From then on managers at all levels where ‘professionalized’, meaning that new ‘leaders’ where hired and made responsible to (and mainly focused on) managerial levels above and not to staff and students.

But centralisation can not only be found within universities. In the same period Danish universities and governmental research institutions have been forced to merge, leading to large centralised agencies. The latest event in this process of centralisation and race for ‘efficiency’ has been the re-organisation of the independent Danish Research Councils, reducing the amount of research in the independent councils and the tying them more closely to the strategic and applied part of public funding.

In the same period the competition for funds has increased both on an institutional and an individual level. In order to increase the efficiency of the universities, two measures have been taken in the last years. A growing part of public funding to the universities is being allocated through a system much like the Norwegian one (see Karin Widerberg’s post on this side), on the basis of relative productivity measured by the amount and quality of publications, patents, etc. This kind of reform, of course, leads managers to focus on the productivity of individual researchers in order to secure the budget and the relative position of the institution (university, faculty, department or section).  But simultaneously it leads to an increased competition between researchers and may lead to a devaluation of activities other than those leading directly to publications.

To this end the Ministry of Science has put together 62 different specialist working groups to produces ‘accreditation lists’, containing ‘authorised’ journals and publishers divided in to two categories. According to the now former chairman for the working group for sociology and social work, Professor Annic Prieur, this job has been both thankless and almost senseless due to its bureaucratic setup and due to the likely effects both on the allocation of funds between institutions and the relations among researchers (Dansk Sociologi, nr. 4 vol. 20, 2009, p. 99-106).

On top these planned administrative and financial changes the Danish economy has, like the rest of the world, been seriously affected by the financial crisis. To avoid budget deficits the government has made major cutbacks that will also hit research and educational institutions. As a result of the announced budget reductions, which are equally distributed among the Danish universities, the University of Copenhagen (Denmark’s largest research institution at the moment) will have to lay off between 400 and 700 employees or some where between 5 and 10 % of its total employees, according to the president of the university. In the end, how many people the universities will have to fire or how the cut backs will be carried through is still unclear, but that it will effect both teaching and research is certain.

But have these multiple changes, leading to the deterioration of conditions for students and researchers led to any major protests? No, not really. There have, of course, been spontaneous protests and demonstrations arranged by students and unions, but none of these initiatives have had any visible effects. So, interesting enough, despite the strong concentration of ‘cultural capital’ at the universities, no common movement has been mobilised and few alternatives have been formulated. The reasons for this surprising silence from, in other situations, a very outspoken university community, may be the unclear consequences of the changes, but also the fact that the reforms have beneficiaries within academia. Many of the changes within the research institutions have been used to strengthen specific managerial positions and research on politically hot topics. The reforms are, thus, not only administrative changes, but reflect changes in power relations within academia, that can also shape the knowledge that is produced. We must not ignore these changes – neither the academic nor the political – but instead we need to scrutinise and discuss their consequences and formulate possible countermeasures.


Kropp, K. & Blok, A. 2009, “Mode 2 sociologies in Denmark? From crisis to stabilization in times of pressures for policy-relevant research, 1980s-2000s.” In Facing an Unequal World – Challengers for Global Sociology, Vol.III (Taiwan: International Sociological Association and Academia Sinica, 2010)

Wright, S. & Ørberg, J.W. 2008. Autonomy and control: Danish university reform in the context of modern governance. Learning and Teaching, 1, 27-57

[1] For a more comprehensive history of changes in the organization of Danish social science, and especially Danish sociology, please see Kropp and Blok (2009))

Universities in Crisis, 23/06/10