DENMARK: Business demands drive degrees shake-up

Danish higher education minister Charlotte Sahl-Madsen (pictured) is trying to make universities more responsive to the demands of business. She is also tackling the 'thesis swamp' that traps many Danish graduates so that they fail to complete their masters on time.

Sahl-Madsen plans to encourage students to choose courses better suited to a job in the private sector and to limit the numbers taking degrees that are less in demand by employers.

In Denmark, the majority of first degree candidates complete their studies in time, but the proportion falls below 50% at masters level.

Sahl-Madsen characterises the slow completion and high dropout rates at masters level as the Specialesumpen (thesis swamp). Among other steps she proposes:

* More business-oriented and professional first degrees.
* The development of strategically prioritised areas.
* Greater involvement of business in higher education programmes.
* Better transfer from business education to higher degree training.
* New one-year masters degrees.
* Honours degree for exceptionally gifted students.
* Centres of excellence in research offering élite courses.

A report outlining her plans was presented to the government-appointed 31-member think-thank Growth Forum last month, at a meeting attended by Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen and four other ministers.

"In Denmark, there has been a tradition of prioritising the academic content in higher education," the report says. "But general and broad competencies like creativity, problem solving and global understanding are also of importance for the preparation for work, regardless of academic disciplines."

In areas such as technology and natural sciences, there is high unmet demand for university candidates, while in others, such as social sciences, there are not enough study places to meet student demand or the economy. A better match of the supply of university education to the demand of businesses should therefore be developed, the report says.

The slow completion rate is a bigger problem in Denmark than for other countries, since more than 90% of Danish students who complete a first degree continue with a masters - there is practically no demand for people with only a first degree.

By comparison, the rate of students proceeding from a first degree is 62% in Finland, 25% in the UK, 20% in Australia and 18% in the United States.

Sahl-Madsen is working on several mechanisms to make the system more responsive to the labour market, and much of this will be left over to ACE Denmark, the Danish accreditation system that was established in 2007.

More precise descriptions of relevance criteria when accrediting higher education will be drawn up, and institutions will be evaluated on whether they are monitoring success in the labour market nationally and internationally for the proposed degree programme.

Programmes that have had problems securing their graduates jobs will be put on a special accreditation list, to be monitored more closely. Sahl-Madsen wants to increase schemes for practical work in companies as a part of study programmes. Universities will have to devise qualification frameworks and collaborate more closely.

A national customer forum is to be established to stage a conference every two years on university education and the demand for graduates in the workforce. It will be empowered to propose new educational programmes where there is a proven national demand.

The minister has already negotiated with Danish higher education institutions to increase the number of places on programmes with particularly good job prospects from the autumn of 2011.

Professor Johan Roos, President of Copenhagen Business School, said: "It is a good initiative the minister has taken and it is important for business schools and universities and for the business community and society. It is important to build academic knowledge, managerial skills and entrepreneurial talents that can impact upon organisations and businesses."

But the proposal for a one-year masters has provoked much opposition. Magnus Pedersen, chairman of the Danish national council of students (DSF), told the newspaper Politiken: "If the purpose is to create growth one needs longer-time degrees and not shorter ones, since those with higher degrees have a higher productivity."

"It is a shot in the foot," Pedersen said. "Students are made test-cases for politicians' ideas. Maybe one should take a break and check whether there is a labour market at all."Th

Universities Denmark, the national rector's conference, has not yet published a response, but it is expected to be negative.


The purpose of government is the exercise of power. The purpose of commerce and industry is to make a profit. The purpose of the university is to discover the truth.

These three roles must never be confused because that will weaken them all. Surely business is strong enough in Denmark to allow the universities to continue with their very important work of making a civilised country? Why must the search for truth be put to one side? Is Danish business incapable of looking after itself?

Denmark has given us Soren Kierkegaard and Neils Bhor. It has also given us wind farms, Lego, and the finest cheese.

Does industry and commerce really need the assistance of the likes of Kierkegaard and Bohr? I suggest that governments all over the world understand industry and commerce, and do not understand universities. This weakness leads them to think that universities ought to assist business, whereas the truth is that business ought to be assisting the universities.

Giles Pickford, Wollongong, Australia

Universities' role in the economy is to provide the knowledge society needs to build understanding required to solve socioeconomic and ecological problems early enough. In Denmark as in many other developed countries, the universities are stagnating, and not keeping up with a growing population and a rapidly and radically changing and increasingly complex economy and world.

Realising there are no generally accepted theories that explain the creative processes behind ingenuity, society needs universities that are open to society and new ideas, can develop new disciplines, and can use new combinations of social and natural science and new ways of organising research.

Minister Charlotte Sahl-Madsen's initiative should therefore prompt a wider intense discussion about the universities' role in the economy. The initiative for such a discussion should come from the universities - but will it?

Kell Petersen