New minister and the hot issues of quality, relevance

Sofie Carsten Nielsen, who took over from Morten Østergaard as Denmark’s Minister for Higher Education and Science this month, has pledged to continue reforms underway – notably improving quality and the quest for greater workforce relevance. These have become hot and sometimes divisive issues across Scandinavia.

But the Social Liberal Party minister might not be able to step up pressure on higher education institutions in the same way as Østergaard did, as he had strong standing within the government as one of three representatives in a budgetary committee coordinating the total governmental budget.

Now Østergaard, the new minister of taxation, is very focused on how higher education can contribute to economic growth.

Nielsen changed the name of the ministry from ‘Research, Innovation and Higher Education’ to ‘Higher Education and Science’ – putting education first and dropping innovation. This might not signal a significant policy change, but it tells us where her heart is.

On education as an agent for personal growth and relevance for society, she said in an interview with Politiken: “With me at the helm, we will continue to focus on how higher education will secure relevant work for graduates.”

Then she added: “But education is also important to form us as human beings, and strengthen us as independent and critical citizens in a democratic society. This is also part of the question of the relevance of education.”

On 7 February, a few days after being appointed minister, Nielsen flew to the United States, visiting Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford and Berkeley. She was looking at how these universities might be role models for Danish institutions.

On returning, she commented that in addition to having significantly more resources, the teaching of the students was a much more serious undertaking at the elite American institutions compared to universities in Denmark.

This fuelled a debate on whether students in Denmark – especially those in the humanities and social sciences – were being offered too few hours of teaching each week, and whether it was a good idea for many senior professors to be exempted from teaching due to the demands of the research they prioritise.

In the policy discussions ahead, the focus will continue to be where Morten Østergaard placed it: how can Danish university degrees become more relevant for the workforce?


There appears to be some polarisation within the higher education community around the hot issues of quality and relevance, and the debate is likely to continue as a government-appointed quality commission is due to deliver its first report on 1 April.

Recently the new chair of the Danish Rectors’ Conference Professor Ralf Hemmingsen, rector of Copenhagen University, said in a press release that the dimensioning of new study places should be based on workforce needs. This was a new signal from rectors.

But universities were annoyed by a 19-page memorandum from the Danish Accreditation Institution, or AI, on 11 February.

Executive Director Anette Dørge suggested that the claim of relevance for the workforce – which was mandatory when applying for course and degree recognition for new studies – was treated too leniently in university applications for accreditation and should be strengthened.

The report stated that more than half of applications for accreditation did not include documentation from panels of employers, as requested.

Hemmingsen issued a press statement suggesting that the accreditation institution was venturing onto thin ice. He wondered whether the AI questioned its own accreditation of degrees and about the timing of the memo, which he described as “selective and politicised”.

Regional relevance

Casting the issue in a Scandinavian context Lena Adamson, associate professor of psychology at Stockholm University in Sweden and a higher education consultant to the Council of Europe, said the issue of relevance was “extremely important to students and to society, but we need an open discussion on what we actually mean by ‘relevance'".

It is totally unacceptable for a person to spend time, effort and money on a degree and end up unemployed, she told University World News, and it is equally unacceptable for employers to find students lacking in important competencies.

“But we need to ask what employers really want: do they want more engineers or do they want different engineers; do they want more psychologists or different psychologists?

“That is, should more places be allocated to certain programmes – and study places be reduced on others, usually the humanities – or should all programmes to a larger extent develop student skills and competencies that are needed in working life?"

She argued that universities must be free to decide what programmes they want to deliver. However, all studies should impart relevant skills and competencies – and many Swedish programmes could and should be better at this.

“Unfortunately we hear very little from our government on this issue. The minister of education is solely focused on the school system and possibly teacher training – a fifth of all Swedish higher education students – and the secretary of state is solely focused on old traditional academic ways and not at all on the need for new skills and competencies for the future amongst our students.”

Adamson pointed to a recent McKinsey report stating that 72% of higher education institutions believed that, based on examinations, graduates were adequately prepared for their profession while only 42% of employers agreed. This clearly indicated the need for discussion on what was meant by ‘relevance’.

“For higher education this is not more textbook knowledge. It is instead such things as the ability for critical, analytical and creative thinking, intellectual flexibility, communication skills, students monitoring and developing their own development and learning and so on – in fact, a lot of traditional higher education values. And what Einstein once said about ‘training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks’.”

Higher education, Adamson said, should also produce students who can create new jobs. “Every new highly qualified job results in two to three new jobs within the service sector. This is also insufficiently discussed.”

The Danish political discussion was needed in Sweden, Adamson said.

“The trap a government must not fall into though is becoming authoritarian. Instead, create an open dialogue with higher education institutions, then give clear messages and good support and much will be done!”