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How about a long-term university policy agreement?

The other week, we submitted our input to the government’s research and innovation policy bill for next year. Two of the points we highlighted were the necessity of increased basic funds and long-term funding of the research infrastructure.

As usual, the input from the different players involved reads much like a wish list, essentially requesting more funding. If you don’t ask, you don’t get, and the research bill is expected to include additional resources for the higher education sector. Otherwise, there’s very little point in writing a bill.

But the big question that no one is asking is how do you create a stable, transparent long-term higher education policy? Or put another way: what are the vital and most fundamental issues that need to be managed and resolved in order to create a successful, sustainable higher education sector that works long-term, and can meet society’s many needs for higher education and research?

Looking back, the major reform of 1977 for instance, when many new universities came into being, was preceded by a far-reaching inquiry that went on for many years and produced a variety of reports along the way. And even earlier than that, from the mid-1950s, a universities inquiry strove to produce “an all-round and unconditional assessment of the duties and needs of universities and colleges in modern society”. It is worth noting that the focus was both on what the higher education sector should do, and on what needs universities and colleges have.

The dynamics here mean that higher education is not only viewed as a provider of societal benefit, but also as a sector that needs to have certain conditions met to be able to operate – and these needs ought reasonably to be politically guaranteed.

Another question is whether the higher education sector is the kind of area that should have long-term political majorities in place for the fundamental issues, on which shorter-term research bills can draw. Other fields such as defence and energy are also areas that should require broader consensus, where politicians strive to tackle and resolve specific issues that extend beyond a parliamentary mandate period.

There are many issues of this kind that could be brought to the fore. One important question is how (political) control can be exercised in a system that simultaneously guarantees institutional autonomy for the universities. Another is how the wide variety of types of university and college today can be given space for their particular speciality, as well as the conditions they need to contribute to society in different ways. A third is how national missions can make an impression in the kind of diverse university landscape we have today, and how important national initiatives on, say, infrastructure, can be made possible.

There is also, and perhaps always, a need to express the freedom of education and research, and to problematise how freedom for the institutions, researchers/teachers and students can be combined with ambitions for societal relevance and labour market interests.

While every research bill does tend to include discussions of more fundamental issues, it has been some time since the state united to formulate both the duties and the needs of universities and colleges, in the way it did in 1955.