Susan Wright

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Chapter 9

‘Humboldt’ Humbug! Contemporary mobilizations of ‘Humboldt’ as a discourse to support the corporatization and marketization of universities and to disparage alternatives

Susan Wright

In debates about the future of universities, ‘Humboldt’ is a key-word, a site of contestation, which is deployed by some to disparage the past and by others to decry a marketized future. Each side links ‘Humboldt’ to ‘freedom’, but in different ways. ‘Pro-marketeers’, to use the Danish catchphrase, are ‘setting universities free’ from the government interference of the Humboldtian past, to become ‘free agents’ in a knowledge economy. Pro-marketeers project the knowledge economy as an inevitable and fast-approaching future, and envisage universities as negotiating the demands that come at them from all sides for the precious raw materials of that economy—research and graduates. They caricature the discarded past as ‘Humboldt’, referring to the universities’ collegial rule and critical knowledge pursued for its own sake. But these characteristics, protected by a range of freedoms—freedom from external interests, freedom to teach, freedom to learn, freedom of expression, research freedom, academic freedom—are what academic activists hold dear as the means to sustain the core intellectual and social values of a university. In recent books, geared to generate public debate in Denmark, academics have tried to rework the characteristics attributed to ‘Humboldt’, but why have they not succeeded in reasserting these characteristics in their own right as an alternative image of the future university?

In the struggles over university reform in Denmark from 2003 to the present, this contest over ‘Humboldt’ has been far from evenly matched. I will explore how it has played out in policy texts, notably those from the OECD, on which the Danish Government has drawn heavily; in international agreements over academic freedom, to which academic activists refer; and in the polemic genre of books and newspaper articles that activists have authored in order to generate public discussion. These issues have been discussed in interviews with policymakers and academics, which were conducted as part of a research project on the university reforms.1 Finally the chapter draws on participant observations at an event that acted out this contest over ‘Humboldt’, ‘freedom’, and divergent visions of the future university. Inspired by Stuart Hall’s analysis of a political strategy he calls the ‘double shuffle’, I will argue that those advancing a vision of the university modelled on the corporate world and acting in global markets can only do so if they simultaneously deploy an image of what they call the traditional or ‘Humboldt’ university. This is a ploy to reassure academics and students that academic values will survive and to channel their energies into the reforms. With each new step, as the market discourse becomes more established and assured, the supporting discourse—the ‘Humboldtian’ vision—becomes increasingly caricatured and bowdlerized. The continual dance between the market and the ‘Humboldt’ visions of the university creates pushes forward the agenda for university reform.

Why have recent attempts failed to de-couple ‘Humboldt’ from this subordinate position in the dance? Appealing to international declarations to which Danish ministers and university leaders are signatories, Danish academic organizations and activists have succeeded in getting some legal modifications, but have failed to unsettle the dominant discourse, let alone reassert ‘Humboldtian’ values as a valid alternative. I would argue that those promoting university corporatization and marketization are giving a liberal twist to the meanings of ‘freedom’ and ‘autonomy’, but without spelling out how these key-words code their implicit world-view. The academic opposition are not reading this code: they assume that these key-words still stand for the values they hold dear. The two parties talk past each other, and the academic opposition does not expose or contest the growing hegemony of the liberal market world-view. As a result, proponents of corporatization and marketization can disparage the academic opposition for peddling a high-minded vision of a golden age that never existed, or was never golden, and for making grandiose statements about what should happen in future, which stand no chance of being put into practice—mere humbug!

The double shuffle

Beginning in the late 1990s, Denmark has been an avid supporter of the OECD’s argument that its members should prepare for the inevitable future of a global knowledge economy. The ability of OECD members to maintain their competitive edge as the richest countries in the world depends on the speed with which they generate new knowledge and technology, and translate them into innovative products with high added value. This means that governments have to ensure their education systems, and especially their universities, produce the knowledge, technologies, and graduates on which their country’s prosperity depends.2 According to this argument, the rest of manufacturing can be relocated to cheaper locations in the global south.

The OECD has produced reports, checklists for action, and guidance on best practice so governments can reform universities to meet the needs of the knowledge economy.3 Through a sequence of scenarios about the future university,4 it is possible to trace a series of moves from an initial ‘market’ model of the university (akin to new public management, with the state playing a role in moderating the market and assuring quality), via the ‘entrepreneurial university’ and commercial ‘edutainment’, to a future scenario called HE Inc., where universities shed their traditional academic values, government funding, and social agendas (for example, commitments to equity). In HE Inc., the state is absent, each university seeks out its own niche in world competition and rankings, and there are no brakes on free trade.

Each of these progressively more market-oriented models is accompanied by one or more moderate versions. In the first of these reports, the ‘instrumental or market’ model is paired with one called variously ‘Humboldt’, ‘critical intellectual’, or ‘the independent and unconstrained advancement of knowledge’.5 Close analysis of this report shows that no attempt is made to reconcile the ‘market’ and ‘Humboldt’ models.6 The ‘market’ model is always described first. The ‘Humboldt’ model always starts with negative contrasts to the ‘instrumental or market’ model, promoting the latter to the status of a norm:

The starting point [for the Humboldt model] is neither economic or social utility, nor the student as consumer, nor the institution as service provider; it is, rather, the academic community’s mission of knowledge creating and disseminating.7

The ‘market’ and the ‘Humboldt’ models are associated, respectively, with managerial and collegial governance. After claiming, airily, that these two forms of management can be reconciled, but without saying how, the report concentrates on implementing the ‘market’ model.8 Scorned, ‘Humboldt’ becomes an increasingly shadowy presence, losing detailed features, but never allowed to disappear completely: it hovers as a faint glimmer of hope in the background. In the second OECD document, where six scenarios are offered, what was previously called ‘Humboldt’ has become ‘tradition’ and a caricature of ‘universities as they are today’: catering for an elite and regulated by government with ‘little opportunity for profit-generating activities’.9 This account emphasizes shortcomings, omits strengths, and invites dismissal. In the third document, four scenarios are offered.10 Now ‘Humboldt’ and ‘tradition’ have gone completely and the most moderate scenario is called ‘New Public Management’, where universities use their autonomy to reconcile the demands of government and the markets. In sum, over this sequence of documents, the ‘market’ model steps progressively in the direction of global free trade, with market imperatives steering universities and little or no role for government, let alone collegial rule. But the market model is not alone. As Stuart Hall makes clear, in the double shuffle bold political moves towards a market state or a free market can only be made by a matching step that simultaneously reassures and carries along those who seek signs of hope that traditional values will not be extinguished.11 Thus the most extreme market model is always accompanied by a more moderate scenario, which also sows confusion, obscures the long-term objective, and impedes the emergence of a coherent opposition. The moderate scenario is not only subordinate to and dependent upon the dominant one, but to keep in step it must progressively transform by adopting more and more features of the advancing market model. As the double shuffle progressed through the OECD documents, the free market model finally split from new public management. This is a surprising separation, as new public management is usually associated with the concepts and technologies by which neo-liberal logic first impinged on institutions and professional practices. New public management now took on the mantle of tradition, to which it was previously opposed. It adopted the reassuringly subordinate position, appealing to the vestiges of university values. What started as ‘Humboldt’ becomes briefly ‘Tradition’, equated with ‘universities as they are now’—a temporal fixity which disqualifies them as serious scenarios for the future—and finally the subordinate, reassuring position is taken by new public management. By this time, ‘Humboldt’ and ‘tradition’ are no longer even ridiculed on the sidelines: they have disappeared as an unviable alternative, no longer keeping up with the dance or even worth caring about—‘Bah, humbug!’

‘Freedom’ in the market discourse

This double mode of address, for pro-marketeers and ‘traditional’ academics alike, hinges on the use of key-words, notably autonomy and freedom, in the sense that they are ‘keys’ to a contest over how universities should be envisaged and organized. University autonomy and freedom have accumulated a range of associations, some connected to the market model and others to ‘Humboldt’. In Walter Bryce Gallie’s and Raymond Williams’s terms, key-words are continually contested, and they never have a complete or final meaning.12 The rival meanings of a single key-word are at their clearest in the clusters of other words with which they are associated. In the present case, two ‘semantic clusters’ around ‘freedom’ pull in opposite directions—towards the market discourse and ‘Humboldt’ alike—but as long as the differences between them are not made clear, the market discourse avoids being exposed and effectively contested: on the contrary, as will be shown, it manages to mobilize the positive charge associated with Humboldtian ‘freedom’ and transfer it to its very different, even contrary idea. And so the double shuffle progresses.

When the Danish minister for research announced that, with the 2003 Universities Act, he was ‘setting universities free’, this did not signal that universities would be more independent and less constrained by government. On the contrary, it heralded what Nikolas Rose calls ‘government through freedom’.13 This liberal, political rationality envisages the space to be governed as divested of direct state control and constituted of free subjects, whether they are individuals or institutions. The art of government is to deploy technologies and strategies that shape the sense of a moral, responsible, accountable subject, who then uses its own creativity, capacities, and sense of freedom to produce the ends of government. As Rose puts it, subjects are obliged to be free in particular ways.14

The first step in setting universities free was to change their legal status to ‘self-owning institutions’, which the Danish ministry translated (inaccurately) into English as ‘institutional autonomy’. In some of our interviews, academics assumed that this meant universities would no longer be state institutions, would be free of heavy state interference, and have a status akin to the UK’s publicly funded independent corporations. In fact, theirs is a very ambiguous status: universities are still come under the state, but they now have separate capital (særeje) and their own audited accounts within the state’s consolidated accounts. Their land and buildings are, in the main, still owned by the state, and the state largely controls their liquidity, yet they are responsible for their own solvency. The ‘self-owning’ university is ‘set free’ to chart its own course as a largely publicly funded agent or resource in the global knowledge economy. Government, industry, and other stakeholders in ‘surrounding society’ can all make demands on universities for the research and teaching that meets their needs. It is up to the ‘self-owning’ university to decide which demands to accept. When, soon after the Act was passed, the minister of education visited the Danish University of Education to argue that his political priorities should feature strongly in the institution’s research agenda, ForskerForum, the magazine of the researchers’ trades unions, expressed shock and outrage. But the minister was acting according to the new logic of the ‘free’ university: he was ‘free’ to make demands, and the university was supposedly ‘free’ to determine its own response.15

While ‘Humboldt’ is often associated with the state protecting its universities from political and economic demands from society at large, one interviewee (a former ministry official) explained that their previous position in the machinery of state afforded universities little protection and incurred considerable and detailed bureaucratic intervention. Nevertheless, the 2003 Universities Act made clear that universities no longer existed in a state-protected space, for it stated clearly that universities were now responsible for protecting their own research freedoms and scientific ethics. That particular paragraph does not specify who ‘the university’ is, but a later paragraph states that the new governing board, with a majority of appointed, external members, is the highest authority and must safeguard the university’s interests.16

Whereas the liberal strand of the reforms aimed to govern the university through the exercise of its own ‘free’ agency, in a second, more dirigiste strand, ‘self-owning’ universities were part of a strengthening the centralized political steering of the whole public sector in Denmark. It has been argued that new forms of government emerge from assemblages of different rationalities and technologies that are rarely coherent or consistent.17 The ministry of finance, which led public sector reform, explained in a report that Denmark was shifting from a bureaucratic state to what they called ‘aim and frame steering’ with the aim of gaining tighter political control of institutions’ activities and making them respond more quickly to changes in policy.18 Henceforth the ministers would only focus on the political aims of public services, and the budgetary and legal frameworks for their achievement. In what Pollitt et al. call a process of ‘agentification’, state institutions were made into ‘free agencies’, which were then contracted to deliver these services.19 Ministers were to use contracts, performance indicators, and payment by results to ensure that agencies carried through the political agenda. Universities’ ‘self-owning’ status enabled them to enter into contracts with the education minister (as well as other stakeholders). The universities’ fulfilment of their contractual commitments to the minister would then be checked annually by the state auditor. Yeatman (1997), in writing about the contractual state, argues that the concept of ‘freedom’ used here is not that of classic liberalism. In classic liberalism, a contract is made between formally equal parties, both of whom can exercise the freedom to choose who to enter into a contract with, on what terms, and when to leave. By contrast, the 2003 Universities Act obliges Danish universities to enter into a contract with the minister; in practice the ministry sets the parameters for the contract and the university is only able to negotiate the details. And the university is not free to terminate the contract.20

Policymakers used ‘freedom’ in a third way when they said that universities (qua their leaders) were given ‘freedom to manage’. The 2003 Universities Act established a system for appointing rectors, deans, and heads of deparment (where previously they and university senates, faculty boards, and departmental boards were all elected by university staff and students). In many universities, contracts between the leaders progressively outsourced the minister’s agenda at all levels of the organization. Leaders’ contracts expected them inter alia to increase external funding and knowledge transfer to industry (the government’s catchphrase for the reform was ‘From Idea to Invoice’); raise the throughput of students and their employability in industry; and increase publications to gain ‘world-class’ status in international rankings. The idea was that once universities had a rector who could act as an interlocutor with government and industry, and who had a hierarchy of leaders accountable only to him, these leaders would use their capacity for strategic management and their expanding scope of action to deliver this agenda. At which point government could entrust universities with increased funds to drive Denmark’s competitiveness in the global knowledge economy—indeed the restoration of political trust in the universities was a dominant theme when Parliament debated the 2003 Act.21 Government entrusted leaders with freedom to manage their organizations as they wished, as long as their university performed as required.

In a fourth use of ‘freedom’, in language reminiscent of colonialism, government suggested that, as universities learned how to run themselves as ‘free’ institutions, proved themselves capable of strategic leadership, and prioritized their activities and resources to meet the country’s needs in the global knowledge economy, then they might incrementally win further ‘degrees of freedom’ from government control. To Anna Yeatman, the shift from classic liberalism to neo-liberalism involves changing the status of those who were previously dependants of patrimonial governance, be it the family’s or the state’s.22 These sometime dependants have to learn to think of themselves and manage themselves as autonomous units of social action if they are to acquire the capacity to act as freely contracting beings.23 This was very much the language of the Danish government. However, the ‘degrees of freedom’ were very small and came very slowly, as exemplified by the minister’s statement on 22 April 2009 that he would give universities a greater degree of freedom by reducing the level of detail in the contracts to a few goals, and by giving leaders greater freedom to choose how to fulfil them.24 Some chairs of the new governing boards, with experience of directing major Danish firms and institutions, grew impatient with this paternalistic approach and complained that government had retained control of too many areas of decision-making, and made so many detailed interventions that it impeded their ability to do their job.25 To the government, the intensity of state intervention and control was not a contradiction, but a matter of degree: if universities were steered into acting responsibly, efficiently, and strategically, eventually these newly liberated subjects would learn how to use their freedom within a framework of less visible systems of government control.

Academic discourses about ‘freedom’

Academics refer to freedoms that have very different histories and meanings to the ideas of freedom in the government discourse. In their campaigns to protect their freedoms, academics have referred to international agreements, especially those to which the Danish authorities are signatory.26 These agreements focus on concepts of academic freedom, collegiality, and institutional autonomy associated with ‘Humboldt’. But Danish academics often do not frame the issues in quite these terms, and do not draw on the full range and strength of these concepts.

In 2008 one of the academic unions, Dansk Magisterforening, submitted a formal complaint to UNESCO against the Danish government for not complying with its international standards of academic freedom. UNESCO’s 1997 Recommendation on the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel defines academic freedom as

the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies.27

The term ‘academic freedom’ is rarely used in Denmark. Instead, academics refer to forskningsfrihed (‘research freedom’), which usually refers to freedom to choose a research topic and an appropriate method. Other aspects of academic freedom, such as the connection between research and teaching through the lecturers’ control over the curriculum with the freedom to decide what to teach and how, and students’ educational freedom (the German concepts of Lehrfreiheit and Lernfreiheit),28 are absent from these formulations, as is the British provision for academics to choose who should join their community as staff and students.29

The definition of ‘research freedom’ was tightly constrained in the 2003 Universities Act, and, after a long campaign by academics, was slightly revised in 2011. A clause qualifies the general statement that the university and the individual academic have research freedom by saying that academics’ research must fall ‘within the bounds of the university’s research strategy’ and they ‘are free to perform independent research when not performing work assigned by management’. However, these tasks must not ‘require the entirety of their working hours over longer periods of time, which would in essence deprive them of their freedom of research’.30 While an improvement on the previously even more draconian wording, research freedom still remains a residual category that is only defined by what it is not.

Meanwhile, it is still not clear who the university is and how protection of the university’s and the individual’s research freedom is to be achieved. When, after the 2003 Universities Act, Copenhagen University’s new governing board was devising the university’s statutes, the Praksisudvalget (committee on academic practice) submitted wording for the clause on research freedom:

Research freedom involves freedom to choose a research topic, to pose questions, to decide which materials and which methods to use to find an answer, and freedom to present hypotheses, results and lines of reasoning publicly. The university will ensure that strategic research frameworks that are laid down in the development contract for the university’s activities do not unduly restrict the research freedom of the individual employee. The university shall ensure that research assignments are organised and allocated so that each individual scientific employee as far as possible can themselves choose research topics. Finally the university shall ensure scientific openness in research environments so that diversity and mutual criticism can be freely developed.31

The Governing Board refused to include this statement on the grounds it was too ‘comprehensive’ for their ‘minimalist’ statutes. Instead, they asked the rector to return this wording to the committee, for them to include it in their terms of reference and publicize it broadly among the university population. This committee does not have powers of enforcement.

The UNESCO Recommendation draws a direct connection between academic freedom and collegiality and democracy. After defining academic freedom (quoted above) it goes on to say that ‘personnel can [only] effectively do justice to this principle if the environment in which they operate is conducive, which requires a democratic atmosphere’.32 This point is expanded in a section on ‘Self-governance and collegiality’, where it is stated that academics ‘should have the right and opportunity … to take part in the governing bodies’, ‘to elect a majority of representatives to academic bodies’, and ‘to criticise the functioning of institutions, including their own’.33 It states that collegiality means shared responsibility and the participation of all in decision-making ‘regarding the administration and determination of policies of higher education, curricula, research, extension work, the allocation of resources and other related activities’.34 This concept of self-governance as participation in decision-making stands in stark contrast to the Danish government’s expectation that individual actors, whether people or institutions, can be steered to exercise their own freedom and manage themselves to achieve the government’s aims.

Academics have made numerous statements regretting the loss of ‘democracy’, meaning the election of leaders and boards at all levels of the university, and ForskerForum has campaigned on the issue, turning Karran’s international survey of the features of university management and governance associated with academic freedom into a ‘freedom index’ chart, in which Denmark scored zero.35 In 2008 a petition signed by 6,502 people (40 per cent of all Danish university academic staff) was delivered to Parliament demanding a new law that would protect freedom of research, freedom of expression, and the inclusion of academics in decision-making processes.

Following criticism from an international evaluation of the 2003 Universities Act, it was revised in 2011 to give university governing boards responsibility for ensuring that there is ‘co-decision making and involvement of employees and students in important decisions’.36 Yet it is unclear how the university’s enstrenget ledelse (‘unified management’), with each leader being accountable and having a ‘duty of loyalty’ to the leader above them, can be made compatible with staff and students having a real say in decisions. Exponents of the dominant discourse dismiss calls for real collegial involvement as a throwback to the dysfunctional university democracy of the past, even though two leading academics have argued that the old system had weaknesses and they are not calling for its return.37

With very few exceptions, academic arguments in favour of collegial rule say it is necessary for the exercise of research freedom, conceived of as an individual right. This misses a much wider point made in international statements that collegial rule is a prerequisite for academic freedom, which, as a public responsibility, is to benefit society. Signed in 1988 by rectors of European universities (including six of Denmark’s eight universities) to mark the nine-hundreth anniversary of Europe’s oldest university, the University of Bologna, the Magna Charta Universitatum describes the university as ‘an autonomous institution at the heart of societies’. It continues, ‘to meet the needs of the world around it, its research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power’, and both government and universities must ‘ensure respect for this fundamental requirement’.38 The Council of Europe’s Recommendation 1762 on ‘Academic freedom and university autonomy’, similarly ties academic freedom closely to institutional autonomy in the sense of protecting the university from the intrusion of economic and political interests.39 Both argue for these conditions not as a right for individuals but on the grounds that they are crucial for universities to fulfil their role in society. The Magna Charta depicts this role in terms of sustaining the humanist traditions of democratic society. The Council of Europe criticizes demands for universities to respond to the short-term needs of the market, and argues that the role of universities is to contribute to the definition and solution of current social and economic problems, whilst analysing them in a distanced, long-term, and critical perspective:

The social and cultural responsibility of universities means more than mere responsiveness to immediate demands of societies and the needs of the market, however important it may be to take these demands and needs seriously into account. It calls for a partnership in the definition of knowledge for society and implies that universities should continue to take a longer-term view and contribute to solving the fundamental issues of society as well as to finding remedies to immediate problems.40

Rarely do Danish academics argue in the same vein as these international documents that academic democracy and university autonomy are crucial for universities to fulfil their responsibilities to society. One exception is Lucy Smith who, in a festschrift for a previous rector of Aarhus University, argues that universities are granted autonomy in order for its members to exercise academic freedom, and that this ‘critical function’ of disinterested scholarship and the unfettered and honest debate of critical issues is not a right but a responsibility.41 Members of the academic community are granted academic freedom by society not as a right but as a duty, as for example when making research findings known even if they are unpopular or contrary to the wishes or policies of government. She argues against a contemporary ‘subtle shift toward caution’.42 Fulfilling this responsibility towards society, she argues, is ‘central to the idea of what a university is’ and is more important than ever when it may be threatened ‘in universities that are market-driven or cooperating too closely with industry’.43

In sum, these international recommendations focus on ‘freedom’, but in contrast to the semantic cluster identified here in the government’s and OECD’s discourse, these recommendations associate ‘freedom’ with a quite different range of words—research, teaching, dissemination, debate, critique, ethics, social responsibility, autonomy, democracy. The Danish academics’ emphasis on the general constitutional right to individual ‘freedom of speech’, instead of focusing on the collective responsibility to protect the university’s ‘research freedom’, and their substitutions of ‘research freedom’ for ‘academic freedom’ and of ‘individual right’ for ‘social responsibility’, render the semantic cluster in Danish academic discourse a weaker version of the international one set out above. Nor does it make such a coherent argument that these freedoms are needed to fulfil the university’s responsibilities to society. It is rare for it to be argued that each individual needs to be defended in order to protect the research freedom of the university, and, concomitantly, that the university’s research freedom needs to protected in order for its members to fulfil their duty to society of providing impartial research and participating in public debate. Both international and Danish academic discourses, however, associate ‘freedom’ with creating the conditions for a critical space for research, teaching, and public communication, based on a disinterested and long-term perspective, which is in stark contrast to the government’s vision of freedom as steering others’ ‘free’ agency to achieve its own short-term plans for how to compete in the global knowledge economy.

Head-to-head in debate books

Both partners in the double shuffle prize the word ‘freedom’, but what are academics’ views on what is happening to a key-word that they hold dear, as it is deployed to new purposes and to serve a new organizational and governmental logic? Do they see how their discourses of ‘freedom’ have been recruited to play a supporting role in the double shuffle, and any attempt to assert them as valuable in their own right is dismissed as ‘Humboldtian’? Have they managed to decouple ‘Humboldt’ from this dance, and reassert their meanings of ‘freedom’? Have they contested the government’s shifts in the meaning of ‘freedom’, and the formation around it of a semantic cluster as well as a discourse that in OECD circles has become hegemonic? An important site for this contest over the concept of ‘freedom’ as central to different visions of the future university is the publication of ‘debate books’, or polemics, geared to public discussion. Between 2007 and 2010, one was published by the then minister, and others by those trying to rework and reassert some version of the ‘traditional’ values of the university.44 Death of the University by Mogens Ove Madsen, a social economist from Aalborg University and then-chair of the Danish Association of Lawyers and Economists’ university section, argues explicitly for rehabilitating universities in the spirit of Humboldt.45 He addresses the book to the public and the academic trades unions’ umbrella organization, which had supported the government’s university reforms.46 His definition of a Humboldt-style university is as follows:

A university ‘in a Humboldtian sense’ is understood as an autonomous, economically independent institution with collegial self-management, where individual academic freedom drives free research and work for the scientific unit, and where there is research-based teaching, and not least, it is a home base for the right to publish freely.47

Arguing that the Humboldtian university is ‘in free fall’, Madsen relates how ‘every single part of the Humboldtian definition is being eroded’ by changes to research, teaching, collegial self-management, and personnel management.48 These developments, he argues, and the government’s new steering model, are eroding research freedoms, the possibility of producing impartial research, and public trust in research results.49 As a result, ‘The university, instead of having a value in itself, is increasingly assuming an instrumental value for industrial interests in the surrounding society’.50 While these are very strong arguments, from the point of view of the analysis advanced here there are two weaknesses. First, the book does not question why and how the government uses the word ‘freedom’: it is as if ‘freedom’ is self-explanatory and belongs to the Humboldt model. This means that the book does not expose or contest its shifting meaning. Second, Death of the University argues for the university to be revived in the spirit of Humboldt, but it does not explain why that is relevant for the contemporary context, or the kind of world a university based on a Humboldtian concept of freedom would set out to create.

A second debate book, also referring to death—Hjernedød. Til forsvar for det borgerlige universitet (‘Brain death. In defence of the “Borgerlig” university’)is by Sune Auken, a lecturer in Danish literature, public intellectual, and active member of the Dansk Magisterforening academic union.51 Auken draws on the same cluster of concepts around the key-word ‘freedom’ as Madsen, but he labels them mainstream (borgerlig) rather than Humboldtian. He is trying to present research freedom not as a tradition or as even as an individual right, but as a current and future necessity for society. Auken tries to awaken ordinary citizens (borgere) to the need to defend the conventional (borgerlig) university against the impact of the policies of the right-wing (borgerlig) government and reassert the university’s trans-political role in informing and critiquing mainstream (borgerlig) society.52 Current policies narrow research and education to industrial needs, whereas ordinary people look for new knowledge on a wide range of topics. Universities need the conditions of research freedom ‘to follow truth without being hemmed in by other constraints than those the research process itself imposes’.53

He distinguishes research freedom from freedom of expression because the former requires economic resources. Society invests these resources because it needs the possibility to search after truth, to question truths put forward by special interests, and to generate knowledge that interests citizens rather than politicians—and which, unpredictably, might be useful in 15 or 100 years’ time. He then goes on to detail how the government’s changes to the funding and steering of universities constrain research freedom. He concludes that this top-heavy steering by the politicians and university managers makes them deaf to the objections of university staff and students. As a result, the minister ‘believes that his absurd system of “measuring” universities’ activities actually measures universities’ performance’ and that they ‘are on the way to becoming world-class’.54 In contrast, the title’s pun conveys Auken’s view that the measures are an ‘absurd stupidity’ that will leave the universities brain dead.

Both books operate within the narrow Danish framing of research freedom, not the international recommendations’ wider concept of academic freedom. Madsen treats research freedom as an individual right, and while neither treat it as a collective right to be exercised as a social duty, Auken, rarely for Denmark, argues that it is a social investment and a ‘necessity from society’s point of view’.55 Both books advance similarly angry critiques of government control, but neither explore how and why the system they find so constraining and destructive can be called by the government ‘making universities free’.

It is difficult to assess what impact these books had on the public or politicians—apart from a marked lack of reaction from the latter. One sign of this is the Sander’s anthology.56 He included contributions from the leading politician (Jesper Langballe) who argued for the values of the ‘Humboldt’ university, and from one of his leading academic opponents (Peter Harder), but in the introduction, Sander ignored them completely, and instead used the space to rehearse his claims to have put in place the foundations for universities to play their crucial role in the global knowledge economy, with ‘knowledge as Denmark’s trade good number 1’ and universities as ‘the pivotal point in the meeting with the global’.57 Even though he avoids the motto of the reforms, ‘from idea to invoice’, which provoked widespread academic resistance, he presents his policies using a string of other catch phrases: ‘freedom along with responsibility’, stronger collaboration with ‘globalised research’, and students’ transition ‘from book to employment’. His interest is in pushing the university in the direction of the global knowledge economy without making any concession to his critics or any appeal to Humboldtian values: the key-word ‘freedom’ is the only hinge between the two discourses, and he neither spells out what he means by it nor engages with his critics’ ways of conceiving of freedom. As with all effective symbols, ‘freedom’ is attractive to diverse audiences as long as it eludes definition, leaving everyone to read their own meaning into it.

It was very rare for Sander when minister to actually meet his critics in public and for there to be a confrontation between his idea of freedom in the government-steered market model of the university and academics’ concepts of research freedom. One occasion was the annual political meeting of the prestigious Royal Danish Academy of Science and Letters in 2007 on the theme ‘Freedom of Research and Freedom of Expression at University’. Six leading professors prepared a report, and the minister was invited to reply to their criticisms. In their report, they set out the following freedoms: the freedom to pose questions, even against orthodoxies even when there are strong interests and feelings attached to the authorities’ established thinking; the freedom to choose research topics, and decide on the material to be collected and the methods to be used; the freedom to present hypotheses, results, and reasoning in public; and the right to criticize one’s own organization and others in the organization.58 The first two refer to the narrow Danish meaning of ‘research freedom’ and the second two to the constitutional right of ‘freedom of expression’: all are framed as individual rights. The report gave numerous anonymous examples of how researchers felt their freedoms were being curtailed by strong leaders, university strategies, and the move to competitive research funding and ‘internationalization’ (the demand to publish in English rather than for a Danish audience). Instead, they wanted a legal framework and the organizational and working conditions that would give researchers ‘real freedom of action’, arguing that many social developments start from free researchers’ unconstrained and partly unsystematic pursuit of ideas, and only an environment of constructive criticism stops society from fossilizing.59 Like the other debate books, this reiterated the narrow Danish discourse about individual freedom of expression and freedom to choose the topic and method of research; it did not use the wider concept of academic freedom found in international recommendations, nor did it argue that academic freedom exists to be exercised, not primarily as an individual right that sometimes has social by-products, but as a collectively protected duty to society.

At the meeting, which I attended, the president of the Royal Academy addressed the minister, setting out the points in the report and asserting the academics’ own ideas of freedom: of an individual right to pursue knowledge independently wherever it led, but in an atmosphere of respect for one another’s ideas. The president, like the report, did not engage with the minister’s ideas of freedom. The minister denied any reduction in freedom, and responded with a rare, unscripted speech, fired by anger bordering on disdain. He advanced many of the arguments later published in his book. Freedom of expression and research freedom, which he treated as quality controls, are commitments in law and should be protected.

One speaker after another made strenuous efforts to assert their ideas of freedom. They criticized the government for saying the policy was increasing research freedom, whereas in their experience it was being curtailed. They warned of the enormous level of dissatisfaction—later evidenced by the petition to Parliament, which the minister also ignored. What they did not do in their report and in their questions to the minister was explore what he meant by freedom. They did not expose the different meanings of ‘freedom’, so could not confront him with the incompatibility between their idea of research freedom and his idea of government-steered freedom, or contest the government’s shift in the meaning of freedom. It was as if they heard, or ‘misrecognised’ the government’s use of ‘freedom’ as their own,60 and as a result the minister continued using ‘freedom’ in one way and the academics in another. They batted the word back and forth across the vast polished table in the centre of the hallowed room like a ping-pong ball.


If the OECD’s initial move towards the market model of the university depended on simultaneously referring to the ‘Humboldtian’ or traditional model so as to sow confusion and mobilize popular consent for a project in the interests of industrial capital, by the end of this story, in the encounter between a government minister and leading academics at the Royal Danish Academy of Science and Letters, this dual move, stepping towards a marketized university but simultaneously signalling to those opposed to it—in Hall’s terms, a double shuffle—turned on just one word: freedom. When the minister talked of ‘setting universities free’, giving universities ‘freedom with responsibility’ and ‘freedom to manage’, and promising ‘increased degrees of freedom’, his discourse reflected ideas of state control through freedom; that universities, along with other public institutions, should be given the legal status of a ‘free’ agent, responsible for negotiating their own relations and solvency in an increasingly marketized world. However, the Danish version of governmentality combined that liberal vision with tight ministerial and interventionist political controls exerted through detailed contracts, performance indicators, and funding mechanisms that made clear what performance was required and how the government would judge whether the university (for which read university leaders) had used its freedom in the required responsible way. In this dirigiste form of controlled freedom, universities were to concentrate their research resources and employment-focused teaching on Denmark’s strategic needs in a knowledge economy; other areas of research or a more critical approach to education would be an irresponsible waste of public resources. In this discourse, research freedom was equated with peer review, a form of self-managed quality control that helped ensure value for money.

The meaning of freedom in the government discourse is conveyed by its cluster of associated terms—responsibility, strategy, knowledge, economy, enterprise, contract, performance, accountability—but the academic opposition signally failed to read the code. When government documents referred to freedom, it seems that academics latched onto the word, and believed it meant that the government shared their language. In their terms, research freedom meant the individual right of academics to choose their own research topics and research methods, and they linked freedom in a semantic cluster with research, teaching, debate, critique, ethics, autonomy, and democracy. They were puzzled and frustrated by the government’s strategic funding plans and the minister’s seemingly wilful inability to see how his reforms ‘setting universities free’ were incompatible with their ‘research freedom’. The academic critics were caught out, attracted by the government’s references to freedom—which it then studiously ignored. The academics did not analyse the two meanings of freedom in play, or effectively set out the differences and incompatibilities between them. By failing to expose and challenge the dominant meaning of ‘freedom’, or its appropriateness for a university, academics have been unable to decouple their discourse from its role as a subordinate and supportive partner in the government’s double shuffle.

This decoupling would be a first step in an academic reworking of the ‘Humboldtian’ discourse in order to advance it as an alternative view of the role of universities in society. The discourse of Danish academic critics rarely makes a strong social argument; its focus is on the rights of individuals, and it relies mainly on the right of all Danish citizens to ‘freedom of expression’, in preference to upholding the particular legal right of all academics and the university as a whole to ‘research freedom’. Nor does the Danish academic discourse make full use of international recommendations, which state that preserving ‘academic freedom’ as a critical space distanced from the demands of government and the economy is the academics’ collective responsibility and duty on behalf of society.

By not exposing the government’s meanings of university freedom, not decoupling ‘Humboldt’ from the government’s grasp on its subordinate and supportive role in the double shuffle, and not advancing a strong alternative vision of the role of the ‘freed’ university in and for society, academic critics have failed to halt the Danish government’s momentum towards a university steered through freedom in the service of the knowledge economy. Vociferous academic resistance has been sustained, but has not effectively dislodged the political dominance of the minister’s line on freedom. Among politicians at least, that discourse had become so dominant and so taken for granted as a way to see the world that when there was a change to a Social Democrat-led coalition government, the new minister, in his first interview with the academic press, said his aim was to make universities more free.61 I have not found any letters to the editor or comments questioning what exactly he meant by ‘freedom’.

1 The project, ‘New Management, New Identities? Danish University Reform in an International Perspective’ was funded by the Danish Research Council (2004–9).

2 Danish Government, Progress, Innovation and Cohesion. Strategy for Denmark in the Global Economy, (The Prime Minister’s Office: Copenhagen 2006).

3 OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), Redefining Tertiary Education (Paris: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development 1998); Miriam Henry, Bob Lingard, Fazal Rizvi, and Sandra Taylor, The OECD, Globalisation, and Education Policy (Oxford: Pergamon 2001).

4 OECD 1998; OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), OECD/CERI Experts Meeting on 'University Futures and New Technologies' (Washington: World Bank 2005); (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), Higher Education: Quality, Equity and Efficiency. Meeting of OECD Ministers of Education Athens: Greece.

5 OECD 1998, 10.

6 Susan Wright & Jakob Williams Ørberg, ‘The double shuffle of university reform – the OECD/Denmark policy interface’, in Atle Nyhagen and Tor Halvorsen (eds) Academic identities – academic challenges? American and European experience of the transformation of higher education and research (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholar Press 2012).

7 OECD 1998, 45.

8 Ibid. 83.

9 S. Vincent-Lancrin, ‘Building futures scenarios for universities and higher education: an international approach’, Policy Futures in Education, 2 (2004), 259.

10 OECD 2006.

11 Stuart Hall, ‘New Labour's double-shuffle’, Soundings: a Journal of Politics and Culture, 24 (2003).

12 W. B. Gallie, ‘Essentially contested concepts’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 56 (1956); Raymond Williams, Keywords (London: Fontana Press 1976).

13 Nikolas Rose, ‘Towards a Critical Sociology of Freedom’, Inaugural Lecture Goldsmiths College, London, 5 May 1992.

14 Nikolas Rose, Governing the Soul. The Shaping of the Private Self (London: Routledge 1989).

15 Wright, Susan and Ørberg Jakob Williams 2008 ‘Autonomy and control: Danish university reform in the context of modern governance’ Learning and Teaching: International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences, 1 (2008).

16 Folketinget, Act on Universities, Act no 403 of 28 May 2003,, §§ 2 & 10

17 Nikolas Rose, Pat O’Malley & Mariana Valverde, ‘Governmentality’, Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 2 (2006).

18 Wright & Ørberg (2008), 37 ff.

19 Christopher Pollitt, Karen Bathgate, Janice Caulfield, Amanda Smullen & Colin Talbot, ‘Agency Fever? Analysis of an International Policy Fashion’, Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice, 3 (2001).


20 Susan Wright & Jakob Williams Ørberg, ‘Prometheus (on the) Rebound? Freedom and the Danish Steering System’, in Jeroen Huisman (ed.) International Perspectives on the Governance of Higher Education (London: Routledge 2009).

21 Jakob Williams Ørberg, ‘Trust in universities – parliamentary debates on the 2003 university law’, Working Papers on University Reform, No. 2 (Copenhagen: Danish School of Education, University of Århus 2006).

22 Anna Yeatman, ‘Contract, status and personhood’, in Glyn Davis, Barbara Sullivan & Anna Yeatman (eds.), The New Contractualism? (Melbourne: Macmillan Education Australia 1997).


23 Ibid. 46.

24 Kristina Villesen, ‘Sander vil give universiteterne mere frihed’ Information 22 April 2009.

25 ‘Giv universiteterne fri...’, ForskerForum, 202 (2007), 1.

26 For example Peter Harder, ’Kvalitet på universitetet: refom eller tilintetgøresle?’, in Helge Sander (ed.), Fremtidens universiteter (Copenhagen: Gyldendal 2009), 115; and Ingrid Stage, ’On academic freedom and freedom of expression’, Magisterbladet, 11 (2008), 28-9.

27 UNESCO’s report from 1997, § 27, quoted in Stage 2008.

28 The Ministry and the Accreditation Council set parameters for university education and approve each curriculum. For Lehrfreiheit and Lernfreiheit, se H. S. Commager, ’The University and Freedom. ”Lehrfreiheit” and ”Lernfreiheit” ’, Journal of Higher Education, 7 (1963).

29 In 1998 an executive order gave university leaders the authority to decide on appointments from among qualified candidates; and universities set the size of their student intake, but do not decide which students to admit.

30 Folketinget, ’Lov om ændring af universitetsloven, lov om teknologioverførsel m.v. ved

offentlige forskningsinstitutioner og lov om almene boliger m.v.’,, § 14 s 6.

31 Copenhagen University, ‘Minutes of Governing Board Meeting No. 25 held on 18 April 2007’,

32 UNESCO 1997, § 27 quoted in Stage 2008.

33 UNESCO 1997, § 31 quoted in Stage 2008.

34 UNESCO 1997, § 32 quoted in Stage 2008.

35 Terence Karran, ’Academic freedom in Europe: a preliminary comparative analysis’, Higher Education Policy, 20 (2007); Terence Karran, ’Academic freedom: in justification of a universal ideal’, Studies in Higher Education, 34 (2009); ’Frihedsindeks: Ufrie danske universiteter’, ForskerForum, 2006.

36 Folketinget 2011, § 10, 6.

37 Sune Auken, Hjernedød. Til forsvar for det borgerlige universitet (Copenhagen: Informations Forlag 2010), 33–4; Harder 2009, 110.

38 “Magna Charta Universitatum”, 2008,,

39 Council of Europe, “Recommendation 1762”, 2006, ‘Academic freedom and university autonomy’,

40 Council of Europe 2006, art. 8.

41 Lucy Smith, ‘The academic values’, in Carsten Bach-Nielsen (ed.), Dannelse, Uddannelse, Universiteter (Århus: Århus University Press 2001).

42 Ibid. 283.

43 Ibid. 277.

44 Helge Sander (ed.), Fremtidens universiteter (Copenhagen: Gyldendal 2009); Ove Mogens Madsen, Universitetets død (Copenhagen: Frydenlund 2009); Auken 2010; Niels Kærgård, Carl Bache, Mogens Flensted-Jensen, Peter Harder, Søren-Peter Olesen & Wewer, Ulla, Forsknings- og ytringsfriheden på universiteterne. Forskningspolitisk årsmøde 2007 (Copenhagen: The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters 2007); Claus Emmeche & Jan Faye (eds.), Hvad er forskning. Normer, videnskab og samfund (Frederiksberg: Nyt fra Samfundsvidenskaberne 2010),

45 Madsen 2009, 7.

46 Ibid. 69.

47 Ibid. 9.

48 Ibid. 10.

49 Ibid. 12.

50 Ibid. 13.

51 Auken 2010.

52 Ibid. 11.

53 Ibid. 46, original italics.

54 Ibid. 44.

55 Ibid. 47–9.

56 Sander 2009.

57 Ibid. 14 & 26.

58 Kærgård et al. 2007.

59 Ibid. 31.

60 Susan Wright, ‘Processes of social transformation: an anthropology of English higher education policy’, in J. Krejsler, N. Kryger & J Milner (eds.), Pædagogisk Antropologi – et Fag I Tilblivelse (København: Danmarks Pædagogiske Universitets Forlag 2005).


61 Morten Østergaard, ‘5 skarpe til ministeren’ Magisterbaldet,16 October 2011, 8.


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