DENMARK: New premier to expand higher education

Denmark's new government has set ambitious targets for increased access to university education but has yet to outline how it will fulfil its election pledge to end DKK1 billion (US$180 million) underfunding to higher education.

It also appears to have shelved proposals by coalition partners to force masters graduates who work outside the country for more than five years to pay back the cost of their degree, as reported by University World News last week.

Established after two weeks of negotiations, the new Danish coalition government, labeled the 'S-R-SF' government after the initials of the Social Democratic Party, the Social Liberal Party and the Socialist People's Party, is expected to offer more state support for higher education and take a less xenophobic approach towards foreign students.

The parties worked out a 76-page government foundation document, A United Denmark.

Changes in higher education will include the creation of 10,000 new student places by 2020; a target of 60% of the age cohort taking higher education of three years duration; a new long-term target of 25% of young people taking a longer higher education; greater autonomy for universities; better quality in research; increased internationalisation; and strengthening of professional colleges (teacher training, physiotherapy and so on).

The 23-minister cabinet, with nine women, is the youngest and probably best educated government in Europe today. Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the prime minister, has a masters from the Europa College in Bruges, Belgium, and Morten Østergaard (pictured), the new minister of research, innovation and higher education, has a masters in political science from Aarhus University.

The government's agenda, outlined in its foundation document, is to launch a more 'open' Denmark with a better balance in the integration and immigration policy, a green policy based on sustainable energy use, stronger investment in education, secure employment and growth, and strengthened links to Europe. Several ministers demonstrated their values by going to the opening of parliament by bicycle.

The former ministry of science has been revamped as the Ministry of Research, Innovation and Higher Education. Its minister's role within the government is being strengthened by Østergaard's place on two important internal governmental committees, one for coordination and further development of the foundation document and one for economic policy.

Parts of the higher education system previously under other ministries, such as architectural education, and professional shorter-term degrees such as teacher training, nursing and physiotherapy, have been transferred to Østergaard's portfolio.

Løkke Rasmussen, the former prime minister, called the general election because parliament would not endorse a DKK85 billion deficit in the 2012 budget, in which science and higher education were at least DKK1 billion underfunded in 2012 with an even greater shortfall in 2013.

The new government's task in finding the resources to implement its policies and recasting the 2012 budget is a difficult one. Commentators have claimed that the ministries are now staffed with senior officers in favour of market liberalisation policies in higher education promoted by previous governments over 10 years, and that it will not be easy to change the mindset overnight.

Some of the most significant shifts in policy affect integration and immigration policies. Arrangements introduced this year, which the European Union said violated the Schengen agreement, will be abolished and the Danish immigration family reunion system changed.

The foundation documents says nothing about the election issue of requiring masters graduates who work outside Denmark for more than five years to pay back the costs of their course, so that proposal is not being put to parliament.

Related links
DENMARK: Masters graduates overseas face study bill
DENMARK: Linking immigration to university rankings