The battle of the universities future

Intense fighting is going on over the future of the universities, and more often than not politicians and academics are in opposing camps. An international network project with participation from the Danish University of Education aims to make academics and political players talk.

07.11.2006 | toc

By Torben Clausen (

"Flawed methodology", "hypocrisy", "lack of respect". Harsh words are exchanged when politicians and academics butt heads over the future of universities. The quotes are taken from the current Danish discussion about more-or-less voluntary university mergers, but the same conflict has played out in many other European countries, including Norway, Australia, Austria and Great Britain, just to name a few. We are witnessing a major change, as documented by The Economist in a special issue in 2005. In many places, conflict has ensued as political players have forced change on a highly conservative university.

Both parties employ scare tactics. Politicians and the civil servants are accused of having been seduced by new public management notions about performance-related control of research that ignores the fact that research is inherently a risky business. It requires freedom to experiment with things we do not understand, experiments that may or may not lead to a profit – or may even fail altogether. On the other hand we have the research communities. They are accused of being fossilised, dominated by internal feuds and of having lost contact with the real world, which sees little or no benefit from the researchers' efforts.

Painless process in Norway

It is, however, possible for the parties to cease the hostilities and begin to talk: In Norway in 2003, a major quality reform was carried out as a close collaboration between the universities and their Ministry of Education and Research, explains Per Nyborg, the former secretary general of the Norwegian Association of Higher Education Institutions. His experience is just one important input for an ambitious project: the network project Trans-Atlantic Forum on the Future of Universities, which is an attempt to do away with the trench wars by establishing a dialogue between academics and political players. The most recent activity in the Forum was a network meeting held at the Danish University of Education this summer. Participating in this meeting were twenty-seven researchers, university administrators and civil servants from Denmark, Norway, Great Britain, USA and Germany, to name a few countries.

The experience in Norway was that a continuous dialogue and gradual establishment of mutual trust between the Ministry and the universities played a key role in making the reform painless, says Per Nyborg.

"We have always dealt on the assumption that the ministry would play nice and not go off in some direction on their own."

This is in stark contrast to what has happened in other countries, where politicians often engage university management or the faculty head on, as in the recent conflict over university mergers in Denmark or the reform of the university structure in Austria a few years back.

"It is my impression that Denmark is experiencing some turmoil now because the ministry has its own well-defined plan for the development of the university sector. The Danish government has rolled out the system they think is right instead of developing this system in collaboration with the universities."

In Norway, universities and university colleges did their part to help the process along by putting a lid on their internal issues and collaborate instead. This enabled the university sector to set the agenda for the talks with the ministry and to assume the responsibility to renew the sector.


So how do you make researchers, university administrators and civil servants engage in dialogue? At the forum meeting in Copenhagen the organisers started by asking the three groups to independently formulate their own views on the universities' strategic strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and potential problems. Subsequently the groups presented their findings to the other groups, in an attempt to identify the potential for facilitation of changes.

This was an eye-opener for people from both camps, explains Davydd Greenwood from Cornell University in the United States. The academics were surprised to hear some of the senior policy officials talk about how bad it is for policymakers to try to coerce and steer universities, because the academics' assumption was that this, exercising power, is what policymakers want to do. At the same time, the senior officials were surprised to hear how extraordinarily self-critical the academics were of their own behaviour and organizational processes.

"People don't expect to make these discoveries and, through them, they begin to find common ground and start to strategize ways that they can work together. The future of higher education policy is not about homogenization of views or mobilization of opposition. It's about acting together to preserve something we all value," says Davydd Greenwood.

Autistic academics

Davydd Greenwood is not afraid to share the blame for the current conflicts between academics and politicians equally in both camps. On the one hand, he is highly suspicious of the current market-orientation and individualisation of universities, which is a result of the so-called neo-liberal trend. The market-orientation means that students should consider themselves consumers of teaching, that researchers become sub-contractors in delivering knowledge to the private and public sectors, and that universities must increasingly fund their activities by selling knowledge and obtaining patents. The students become personally responsible for their own learning, researchers must find funding for their own research projects, and are individually rewarded, both in terms of positions and pay. The number of tenured positions decline, with fixed-term employment becoming more and more widespread, and academics are being evaluated based on their production in a very 'factory-like' way, Davydd Greenwood explains.

On the other hand, Davydd Greenwood also points a finger at his own colleagues in the universities. It is somewhat ironic that academics also have this view of their own position as highly individual. This insistence on the individualistic means that they fail to recognise the larger consequences, both for the universities where they are employed, and for their own future career trajectories.

"One of my colleagues says that academics often behave in an 'autistic' way, because they don't really think about the consequences of their own actions even when their actions are going to lead them into extremely difficult situations in a few years time."

This reveals itself when academics demand financing from society without acknowledging that, in return, society has a right to hold them accountable to how they use these resources.

"Academics is a highly individualistic competitive activity, and academic people are poor at thinking about themselves in a larger organisational environment. Then, as the neo-liberal way of running the universities increases, these same academics are actually encouraged to behave in even more individualistic and more entrepreneurial was. The more they are encouraged to go in that direction, the less likely they are to cooperate and solve organizational problems together."

This will not work in the long run, says Davydd Greenwood. Academics need to negotiate with society at large about what they should be accountable for and the conditions under which they should be held accountable. If they don't enter into that discussion, they will be judged by whatever criteria someone else sets.

The public good

To Davydd Greenwood, there is one very good argument against the neo-liberalistic trend in the universities, which is that the universities are meant to work for the public good. The public good is characterised by being more complex than the simple matter of supply and demand where production depends on someone being willing to pay for it. The public good is produced regardless of willingness to pay, and is made freely available to all. Ergo the neo-liberal market-orientation, aimed as it is to ensure that universities produce something of value for society, but tries to do so by making knowledge production yet another commodity, will turn out to be the medicine that kills the patient.

The third way between academic autism and neo-liberal market-orientation is that the universities of their own volition find ways to position themselves in relation to the issues that the rest of society is concerned with. In the words of Davydd Greenwood and co-coordinator Morten Levin from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology: "[W]e believe that public universities must find a way to integrate ourselves into everyday public life and to link up selectively to national private sector and public policy priorities while remaining independent enough to play our 'public' role as social 'experiment stations,' sources of independent critique and creativity, and places that support thinking 'outside of box' of the sort that both creates innovations and makes democracy work both socially and economically."

To make this happen would probably require that many researchers, university managers and political players not only think, but also act in unison. As the two say: "We have no doubt that, by and large, public universities are failing to do this."

Therefore, this summer's meeting in Copenhagen was merely a pilot for what the organisers hope can grow into a much larger process with many more participants from many countries. One of the huge challenges is to bring in the organisations that currently formulate the neo-liberal vision for the universities. Organisations such as the OECD and the EU-secretariat in charge of coordination of the Bologna-process declined the invitation from Davydd Greenwood and his colleagues to participate in the meeting. This is problematic, because these particular institutions play a key role in formulating the rules and recommendations that are transforming the university sector. At the same time, these organisations enjoy great respect from the political establishment.

"I guess they wouldn't see it as worth their time to listen to a bunch of people complain about what's going on", Davydd Greenwood says ironically. "They seem very sure that they have the right answers in terms of quality assurance and accountability. They are very caught up in a neo-liberal accountability model."

Even if you are convinced of the superiority of your own model, you might benefit from talking to the actual people involved. That could potentially mean that expressions like "flawed methodology", "hypocrisy" and "lack of respect" could be kept out of the debate when politicians and university people butt heads.

Face to face

The confrontation between academics and politicians has gone on for ages. Alan Scott from Innsbuck University has spoken of a recurring pattern from time to time and place to place.  The major arguments against the stubborn academics are:

  • Universities have fossilised
  • Academics live in isolation from the outside world, hidden behind physical and mental walls.
  • Academics are unable to separate genuine discussions about quality in research and teaching from the social prejudices that prevail between research communities.
  • Academics are so moored in their scholarly traditions that they reject innovations from the outside.

The opposing arguments against the blind neo-liberalists are:

  • The neo-libs prefer to control through total quality management, audits and a host of other New Public Management-derived methods that are all characterised by distrust, which is catastrophic for the organisational culture and which worsens the problems they meant to solve.
  • They use new methods of management that encourage authoritarian and monological management, and which undermines pluralism.
  • They audit performance, but fail to recognise the actual productivity. The cost of establishing performance-benchmarking may lead to unforeseen and undesirable behavioural changes. When authorities in Great Britain began to evaluate hospitals according to how long a patient had to wait before seeing a doctor, hospitals took to hiring 'hello nurses', whose sole task was to greet patients when they arrived.

Adapted from Alan Scott: 'Knowledge Production, Management and the Academic Role', School of Political Science & Sociology, University of Innsbruck and own research.

About Davydd J. Greenwood

Portrait of Davydd GreenwoodDavydd J. Greenwood is the Goldwin Smith Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Institute for European Studies at Cornell University where he has served as a faculty member since 1970. He is the principal investigator in the Trans-Atlantic Forum on the Future of Universities. Visit his homepage.

About Per Nyborg

Portrait of Per NyborgPer Nyborg was the Secretary General of the Norwegian Council of Universities/Norwegian Council for Higher Education from 1991 to 2001. He is also the former head of the secretariat of the European Union Bologna Follow-up Group. From 1991 to 2003 he was a member of the Council of Europe's Committee for Higher Education and Research and served as chair from 2001 to 2003. Visit his homepage.



The sources

Read more about Davydd Greenwood and Per Nyborg

Google Davydd Greenwood

Google Per Nyborg


"The future of higher education policy is not about homogenization of views or mobilization of opposition. It's about acting together to preserve something we all value."

- Davydd Greenwood


Visit the TAFFU project at Cornell University homepage.

Visit the Research Unit on the Transformation of Universities at the Danish University of Education.

The author

Contact info for Torben Clausen

22:News, 48:Tema: Videregående uddannelser, 53:Tema: Uddannelsespolitik
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