Universities feel stabbed in the back by minister

Over the Christmas period Morten Østergaard, Denmark’s minister for science, innovation and higher education, told a leading newspaper there were far too many courses at universities and the number would be significantly cut. There have also been challenges to the university funding system. Universities have now struck back.

Since 1990 there has been a four-fold increase in the number of bachelor degrees offered by Danish universities.

Østergaard said in an interview with Berlingske Tidende: “When we have almost 1,500 higher education programmes including masters degrees, we pose the young with an almost impossible selection situation and employers who will hire the candidates have an over-complex task to evaluate and fine-tune the differences between the education candidates we have today.

“That has led us to conclude that we today have too many degree programmes at Danish universities than there is a need for [in the workforce], and we will therefore increase focus on how to develop courses of a higher quality.”

Østergaard responded to a critique of the Productivity Commission which, in a report published in December, concluded: “There is a severe mismatch between universities’ production of candidates with a higher education degree and the need for such qualifications in the workforce: the growth is concentrated on academic areas, where the productivity is lowest," the Commission concluded.

No minister of education likes to be reprimanded by the ministry of finance, which is coordinating the work of the Productivity Commission.

The Productivity Commission questioned in particular the budgetary principle regarding the per capita allocation to Danish universities. Universities are rewarded for each graduate they produce – the ‘taxameter principle’ – under a system that has been functioning for 32 years.

The commission argued that focusing exclusively on the number of graduates produced encouraged universities to establish degrees that were in demand among students, but were not necessary in the workforce.

It also questioned whether universities, in awarding degrees, were loosening exam criteria for students who were not up to standard, so as not to lose out on taxameter allocations.

Strong reactions

Reactions to the minister’s interview have been strong.

Several rectors have defended the present budgetary system, stating that planning education for a workforce six years ahead in time is a high-risk activity.

Professor Jens Oddershede, chair of the Danish Rectors' Conference, said in an interview with Berlingske Tidende: “If you make the budgetary allocations dependent upon students getting work after graduation, the income of universities becomes difficult to predict.

“The economic trends in society with regard to demand for highly qualified personnel can change quickly, and universities risk losing money. The proposal will hence lead to deficiencies in university funding and consequently to lower quality education.”

Oddershede then wrote an op-ed article in the newspaper stating that the Productivity Commission was attacking universities with its proposals for the future, which might not at all clarify or remedy the situation that the commission had diagnosed.

He elaborated on what he told University World News in December: “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.”

Oddershede has been supported by Ralf Hemmingsen, rector of Copenhagen University, and Lykke Friis, the pro-rector, who said it would be impossible to manage university funding under conditions proposed by the Productivity Commission.

They also slated the minister’s arguments as Von Hörensagen – based on rumours – and asked him to realise that Copenhagen University was frequently honoured as being the best among the Nordic countries in international university rankings.

In a column in Berlingske Tidende, Oddershede also wrote that Danish universities had loyally fulfilled the requests of several education ministers to establish study places for young people, and that the current minister was “dishonest” when arguing that universities were doing that because of the taxameter budgetary model only.

“We have done what we have been asked to do, and the critique is hence unjust," Oddershede wrote. “If the minister thinks that many programmes have been established when there is no need for them, this is an implicit critique of the government’s own accreditation committee, which has recognised all of our programmes,” Oddershede argued.

The debate is continuing.

Last week Flemming Besenbacher, a physics professor who chairs Denmark’s large private Carlsberg Foundation, said in an interview with the newspaper Politiken that having so many different higher education programmes in Denmark was “both stupid and ridiculous”.

He called for more elite studies in Denmark. “Do not ask what is best for your university,” was Besenbacher’s advice to Danish rectors: “Ask what is best for Denmark.”

He also suggested that the number of universities ought to be reduced from eight to three.

Danish universities again hit back.

In a press release Oddershede said that it was simply not true that universities had established many courses in order to attract more money. From 2007-13, 41 new degree courses were established and only one of them was in the humanities, he said.

Last Sunday he appeared on the front page of Berlingske Tidende under the headline “Politicians are pushing too hard to regulate and control Danish universities, conveying mistrust”.

In a three-page special in the Sunday magazine he summed up his experiences as chair of the Danish Rectors' Conference for eight years – he leaves next week: “We [Danish universities] are up against the wall and fed up of regulations, analyses and reporting requirements.

“What if we now have a break for a year or two, and see how it goes?” he asked.

Morten Østergaard, however, said: “Receiving billions [of Danish kroner] in public support, universities have to accept great attention from politicians.”

The Quality Commission, established by Østergaard last autumn, is going to deliver its first report this April. With the heated debate on the budgetary model ongoing, it is expected that the commission will discuss and probably propose changes to the taxameter budget model.