Late last month Danish Minister of Higher Education and Science, Sofie Carsten Nielsen, announced that the number of students admitted to degrees with poor job prospects would be slashed by 4,000 within three years – prompting heated public debate.
On 24 September, in a long opinion article in Politiken, Nielsen wrote that no student should end up “unusable. Higher education has to relate more to the needs of the workforce.”
Simultaneously, the ministry published detailed instructions on the “increased use of dimensioning in higher education”, and a long list of studies with low prospects for graduate employment whose student intakes would be limited from 2015.
“Today 15,000 students are admitted each year to higher education [degrees] that have bad job prospects,” said a ministry press release. “Within three years the number will be reduced to 11,000. That means 1,300 fewer places each year for the next three years.”
“That is equal to 6% of the total admittance of 65,000 new students who were admitted in the summer of 2014.”
The model for increased use of quotas is based on the percentage of graduates registered as unemployed in their second year after graduation, from 2002 to 2011. The model describes the maximum number of admissions, based on the average intake to that course of study from 2009 to 2013.
Nielsen gave a clear message in the opinion article: “Last summer a record of 65,000 [students] were accepted for higher education in Denmark. Higher education institutions have demonstrated great capacity over the last years. This is a great success.”
But there was a downside. “Many studies are admitting a much larger number of students compared to available jobs in the workforce. Hence many will upon graduation meet a closed door in the workforce.”
Nielsen told the story of new graduate Leon Bentowski, who after completing a degree in the humanities had no prospect for work. Among his friends, many had been without work for more than a year, and none with a degree in the humanities had found a job.
“It hurts reading about this. Nobody has properly addressed this issue and followed up with actions before,” Nielsen said. “But I am now taking action.”
This did not mean that fewer students would be admitted. “The objective is that more students will take a degree where there are good work prospects, and that fewer will be unemployed after graduation.”
Courses in fields with 2% to 5% above average graduate unemployment figures would have intakes reduced by 10%; those with 5% to 7.5% above average graduate joblessness would be cut by 20%; and those with 7.5% to 10% above average graduate unemployment would be slashed by 30%.
Politiken wrote in its own commentary: “Government is axing the humanities. Over the next three years, institutions have to reduce the number of new study places by 2,363 at the universities alone. Courses in language, arts subjects and media and communication are all among those that have to reduce intake by 30%.”
It quoted Ralf Hemmingsen, rector of Copenhagen University, as saying that while there had to be an alignment between student intake and the situation in the workforce, the degree of ministerial interference was surprising.
“Instead of using a scalpel for the operation, she is using a sledgehammer. It is frustrating that we are not allowed to use our own model.”
“And if the minister thinks that this is not a reduction, she could have opened the way for a greater intake in, for instance, the study of medicine, where we have many qualified applicants and great demand for those graduating. Is the minister ready for that?” he asked.
The chair of the Quality Commission, which has presented recommendations in two reports and is expected to publish a final report this month, said the commission’s analysis was that there was an imbalance of 10,000 student places.
Some studies had increased their intakes by more than 50% in recent years, even though joblessness had increased significantly.
The Danish Confederation of Professional Associations, which represents 325,000 members, also agreed with the minister – but would have preferred the admissions issue to be solved in cooperation with universities.
Mette Fjord Sørensen, research and political head of the Danish Chamber of Commerce, said it was supporting the minister and would have not objected to even stronger medicine. The chamber, for instance, would like to have seen a budgetary model that rewarded institutions for graduates getting work – a kind of ‘employment-taxameter’.
The government’s intervention was not just advice to students. “It is also an exercise in cutting the budget that will please the Ministry of Finance,” wrote Forskerforum.
The places to be cut in 2017 amounted to a budgetary reduction of DKK535 million (US$90 million). “This will mean reduction of staff members in academic fields that are reduced, and increased teaching load for those teachers that stay behind.”
Mega-reforms to HE proposed by quality commission
Quality Commission – ‘Crying wolf’ on lack of reform?
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters