Elected or recruited leaders?

The Ministry of Education and Culture encourages universities to create for themselves a distinctive profile – and increasingly so in cooperation with universities of applied sciences. In Denmark, a similar reform was sped up by renewing the entire management style of universities.

The Danish university system went through reforms in the 2000s. The first major step took place in 2003 with the approval of the new universities act, which fully transformed the universities’ management structure. The collegial steering model, which allowed students and staff to elect their leaders, was relegated to history.

Instead, universities began to recruit leaders, and outside members came to exert majority power on university boards.

“We saw a big change in the election of leaders,” says Lykke Friis, pro-rector for education at the University of Copenhagen since 2006. “Many students and staff members had trouble adapting.”

Democracy or rapid changes?

Lykke Friis was the University’s first leader to be recruited, rather than elected, to her position. Her previous duties include the post of Danish Minister of Climate and Energy.

“It is now easier to carry out structural reforms and mergers of faculties,” Friis explains. “In addition, cooperation across faculty boundaries has become more flexible in large education and research projects. It was more complex in the old system, where the senate and deans were elected, and the latter wanted – understandably – to look after the interests of their own faculties.”

The Rector of the University of Helsinki, Jukka Kola, draws parallels to the situation in Finland in 2010.

“Our University reform resulted in similar changes, but they weren’t as exhaustive as those in Denmark,” he says.

For example, in Finnish universities the portion of external members need not exceed 40 per cent.

Says Kola: “We are currently discussing leadership election methods at the University of Helsinki. However, many other Finnish universities have already adopted the Danish style of appointing leaders.”

Mergers in the university sector

The second large change in Denmark took place in 2007–2008 and resulted in 12 universities being restructured into eight. Moreover, the number of national research institutes was cut from 13 to three.

According to Friis, this was not reacting to a crisis, but rather anticipating one.

“One of the main goals was to prepare Danish universities for globalisation,” she points out. “The competition for professionals is getting tougher, with China, Brazil and India investing large sums in education and research.”

Friis is disappointed in the detailed regulation that the Danish government and parliament (the Folketing) exert over the education system. She believes that universities find such control frustrating and may interpret it as a no-confidence vote of the universities’ new boards and leaders. The promise of independence made in the 2003 Act has not turned into reality.

As an advisor in Helsinki

Lykke Friis is a member of the International Advisory Board (IAB) of the University of Helsinki, which helps the University consolidate its position in the global education market. IAB convened in Helsinki last week.

“The University of Helsinki is preparing its strategic plan for 2017–2020. IAB’s visit at an early stage of the process is very useful for us,” believes Rector Kola.

The University’s rector and vice-rectors hope to receive advice on the University’s two-tier education system, as well as on ways to boost the University’s research profile and international visibility.