Productivity Commission calls for overhaul of education

A major investigation by Denmark’s high-level Productivity Commission has proposed an overhaul of higher education funding, the introduction of tuition fees for students, quality improvements and degrees of greater relevance to the labour market. Universities are prepared to constructively debate the recommendations but want a “more thorough analysis”.

In early 2012 Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt appointed a Productivity Commission with nine members from Danish companies and universities, chaired by Professor Peter Birch Sørensen and with secretariat facilities including experts and support personnel.

It had an extensive mandate to examine why Danish productivity had been in decline since 1995, and to propose recommendations that could reverse this trend, looking at productivity in both the private and the public sector.

Last week the commission published Education and Innovation, its fourth report and most extensive, with 57 concrete recommendations – some with far-reaching consequences should they be implemented.

The recommendations are based on a comprehensive comparative analysis of data, which describes the state of affairs in the Danish higher education and innovation system in a way not seen in one publication before.

Denmark spends DKK8 billion (US$1.5 billion) or 8% of GNP on education, the report stated, characterising Danish education as too expensive and of poor quality.

The commission stated in a press release: “Denmark is top of the world regarding public money spent on education, but we do not get value for money today that can secure high production capacity.”

At the launch last Tuesday, Birch Sørensen said higher education institutions did not prepare students well enough for today’s labour market. What was needed was more weight on quality in higher education and degrees with more relevance.

More weight would therefore need to be placed on quality measures in education.

Professor Jens Oddershede, chair of the Danish Rectors’ Conference, told University World News: “Danish universities are ready to, in a constructive way, enter a debate about those proposals the commission has been wrestling with.

“We just ask for one thing – that decisions on eventual changes shall be based on more thorough analyses than those used by the commission in their report.”

The report

The 198-page Education and Innovation grapples with the basic question of how to ensure that the education system delivers results from a productivity point of view.

The current ‘taxameter system’ funding universities according to number of graduates produced should be overhauled, it stated.

The student financing system – recently earmarked for extensive legislation changes by Minister for Science, Innovation and Higher Education Morten Østergaard but not yet endorsed by the parliament after the largest student demonstrations since the 1960s, as reported by University World News – came in for heavy criticism from the commission.

“Students in Denmark have free education and without comparison the most favourable student financing system in the world. The grant part of the student support is double that of Norway, and three times as high as for Swedish students, even if these two countries also range on top in international competition having a favourable student financing system”.

The ‘medicine’ needed was for students to choose higher education studies that would better contribute to Danish productivity, rather than select “studies by the heart”, the report said.

The strongest ‘medicine’ advocated is reduced financial support, the introduction of tuition fees and access restrictions to more of the study programmes that are attractive to students.

The commission went to the heart of Østergaard’s main policy goal for Danish higher education, stated repeatedly: 60% of youth cohorts should have a post-secondary education and 25% should obtain a masters degree within a decade.

This, it said, “is one of the most ambitious policy goals for higher education in the OECD".

“The objective of education policies today is that more people shall have a degree. The cost of this is reduced quality,” the commission report argued. “It is now time to change track.”

Pupils and students would need to have the competencies and qualifications that were in demand in the labour market, and to ensure this for coming generations, teachers would have to have “high level competence themselves”, Birch Sørensen said in the press release.

What next?

Jacob Fuglsang, education editor of the major Danish newspaper Politiken, wondered whether the report would be shelved, as so many others have previously been. But he thought not.

“From bottom to top of the Danish education system people now can prepare for changing winds with a force that will compare hurricane Bodil as a moderate breeze,” he wrote. Bodil struck Denmark in early December, causing flooding and great destruction.

However on receiving the report, Østergaard rejected the proposal to introduce tuition fees for Danish students.

He said the report contained a worrying diagnosis, particularly of the higher education system, and that its recommendations and analysis would be closely examined.

In particular he would look over the proposal to overhaul the present per capita budgetary system, which financially rewards universities per graduate they produce – which the commission claimed was counterproductive to value for money.

Østergaard was referring to a Quality Commission he appointed last autumn with the mandate to examine whether universities graduate students that the labour market and society were looking for.

The Quality Commission has already been attacked in many op-ed articles in Danish newspapers, as seeking universities to become like ‘sausage factories’.

The Quality Commission will need to make extensive use of data collected by the Productivity Commission, which has produced a plethora of groundbreaking comparisons between Denmark and other countries, demonstrating again and again that Denmark does not get value for money regarding spending on education.

The impact of the Danish Productivity Commission on Nordic education policies may be considerable. On 9 December Birch Sørensen was keynote speaker at a meeting at Norway’s Ministry of Finance.