Don’t throw ‘unemployment monkey’ at us – Universities

In an interview with the newspaper Berlingske Tidende, Danish Minister of Education Morten Østergaard called for a ‘cultural revolution’ at universities. He wants all graduates – even graduates in the Eskimo language – to be prepared for work in the private sector.

Feeling stabbed in the back after years of adapting to extensive university reforms, Professor Jens Oddershede, chair of the Danish Rectors’ Conference, told Forskerforum: “The minister should not throw the ‘unemployment monkey’ at us.”

Minister Østergaard said. “Today half of the graduates from universities find employment in the public sector. In future those candidates should be better equipped with the qualifications in demand in the private sector.

“Up to 2020, there will be a need for 170,000 work positions in the private sector but only 10,000 in the public sector.” Statistics, he added, demonstrated that only 7.7% of those employed in the private sector had a higher education degree “and this is not good enough”.

Universities should to a much larger degree work ‘opportunity windows’ into the curriculum, with students exposed to apprenticeship-like arrangements in firms.

And the minister repeated the call for so-called ‘innovation reform’, with students receiving academic credit for work experience placements during studies.

“If universities do not produce the candidates that the private sector needs, those workplaces will disappear out of Denmark,” Østergaard argued.

He did not list concrete measures that universities should take now, but called for a “thorough self-examination” at universities on how cooperation with the world of work could be better designed than it currently was.

The minister explicitly said that the ‘cultural revolution’ would not be built on further funding to the higher education sector. The OECD had repeatedly shown that Denmark had an expensive education system, allocating 8.7% of gross national product to education – the highest among the OECD’s 34 member countries.

“What is now at stake is to utilise these resources better,” Østergaard said, adding that he had invited rectors and chairs of university boards to a high-level meeting in Kolding from 6-7 June, to give a further presentation on the ‘cultural revolution’ needed.

Reactions intense

Reactions in the Danish press to the minister’s clear message were intense, with people throwing statistics at one another.

Erik Jylling, head of the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations, which represents 220,000 degree-holders, said there was an acute need to orient the mindset of graduates towards the private sector.

“When the government has as an ambition that more than 25% of the youth cohort shall take a longer higher education [masters degrees], it is necessary for the government also to secure work for them,” Jylling argued.

Professor Jens Oddershede of the Danish Rectors' Conference issued a press release stating that statistics had “clearly demonstrated” that there were already more graduates employed in the private than the public sector.

In 2010 there were 124,058 tertiary-educated staff in the private sector, against 111,127 in the public sector. “Since 2000 there has been a strong demand for private employment for graduates in all fields, notably for candidates in the social sciences.

“The trend that more graduates are employed in private firms has been known for a long time. The minister should therefore contribute to fighting those myths circulating, that graduates from universities are more designed for work in the public sphere”, Oddershede told Forskerforum:

“The minister is throwing the ‘unemployment monkey’ onto universities – when the real problems are due to the recession in the labour market. It is not fair to make universities the scapegoat, since the unemployment is a result of politics, policies, recession etc.” Many institutions had to share responsibility, not only universities.

Ingrid Stage, chair of the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs, wrote in Information: “Our numbers and the figures from Danish Statistics show that in 1978 only 1% of graduates in the humanities got work in the private sector, while this percentage in 2009 was 42%. These candidates already are in high demand also in private firms.”