Protests against student loan cuts intensify

When Denmark’s Minister of Education Morten Østergaard returned from paternity leave last Monday, he was met by students protesting outside his office and claims on a student union Facebook page that making cuts to student loans was “like wetting your pants to get warm in a snowstorm”.

Protests are mounting over ongoing governmental work on reforms that could slash DKK2 billion (US$360 million) from the student loan system by cutting support for the sixth year of study, which can currently be granted even if no exam is taken.

There are articles in the Danish press daily, arguing over the student loan system (SU) issue. Political parties are issuing statements, and an opinion poll showed that most Danes are against the cuts.

The Danish Student Union has announced an “SU Campaign Kick Off” on 16 February, and has asked students from across the country to attend, in order to plan further protests.

The Danish Chamber of Commerce issued a statement on “13 ways to cut the SU”. It proposed sharpening requirements for exams, not accepting the sixth year as a ‘delay year’, removing the option to claim a student loan for more than one degree and introducing an age ceiling of 30 years for eligibility for a student loan.

The chamber also proposed that student loans not be available for the summer months, as well as proposing the removal of so-called ‘café money’ – loans for students living at home – and the introduction of a bonus for students starting higher education immediately after completing school.

There was a reference to the work of the think-thank Kraka, which calculated that students on average spend 2.4 years on ‘sabbatical’ before embarking on higher education and that students on average take 1.5 to two years longer than required to complete degrees.

Senior analyst Mie Dalskov Pihl of the economic council of the labour union, the think-tank AE, said that 10,800 students – 8% of the total in bachelor or masters degrees – received student loans for longer than the five-year requirement, and that the AE therefore supported the planned cuts.

A professor of economics at Copenhagen University, Peter Birch Sørensen, told the newspaper Information that the existing student loan system was in fact an “inverse Robin Hood-distribution”, because it was primarily children in well-off families who were benefiting.

Jakob Ruggard, the president of the Danish Student Union, immediately refuted the statistics, stating that Denmark today is number four among countries where most students complete their education.

“If the government removes the sixth year, we are at great risk of moving backwards on this list, because more students will not be able to complete their degrees – and that is a great cost both for society and for the individual student,” he argued.

Writing in Berlingske Tidende, Danish rectors presented a model that would reward students who complete their degrees on time but would not exclude those who do not.

The following day, students at Aarhus University protested outside the rector’s office. “The rector is demonstrating his own ignorance,” the student union said.

Getting student loan system reforms through parliament will require political handicraft by the minister, because the current government coalition was founded on statements against cuts to the student loan system.

However, the austerity agreement on the 2013 government budget and beyond is creating increasing demands for fresh money, especially since the cross-political agreement for 2006-12 in the so-called Globalisation Fund – which channelled 0.5% of gross national product, a total of DKK42 billion extra, for higher education and research – has not been renewed.

An indication of the budget squeeze is the months-long campaign of Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt claiming a DKK1 billion discount to the Danish fee for the European Union (EU) budget.

EU Budget Commissioner Janusz Lewandowski, afraid of the implications for other EU member states, described the Danish claim as an “atomic bomb” for budget negotiations that have just started in Brussels, and rejected the discount.

The major newspaper Politiken asked: “Will the government take the risk of a reform that will move large groups of the electorate into opposition parties and bring thousands of students onto the streets demonstrating over the next weeks?”

The proposal for comprehensive university reform is expected at the end of March.