Mega-reforms to HE proposed by quality commission

Denmark's Quality Commission has proposed sweeping reforms to higher education, in its first report released last Thursday. Among them are tougher admission requirements and the extension of bachelor degrees to four years of full-time study. The response from universities and students has been negative.

The commission called for national quotas for higher education programmes, and for access to masters-level study to be limited to one-third of the annual graduate cohort.

The bachelor degree should substitute a current system in which the masters degree had become the ticket into the workforce.

The extensive 109-page report, New Ways - The future higher education system, has seven appendices comparing higher education in Finland, The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, and a special analysis of "The Swedish Bachelor - A degree of success".

Reactions to it were immediate, with all Danish newspapers covering the report. Students responded angrily, especially to the shortening of higher education for many of them.

Since 2007, the number of students admitted to Danish universities has increased by 50%, chair of the commission Jorgen Sondergaard said at a press conference last Thursday.

"It is therefore necessary to dimension the intake so that there is a better balance between those candidates universities produce and the need in society for their competencies."

The main proposals

In future, the commission proposed, the Danish bachelor degree would be four years in duration, with the fourth year containing curriculum elements developed in collaboration with the working world.

Currently the majority of graduates from Danish universities are employed by the public sector. Within 10 to 15 years, four out of five will have to find work in the private sector. This would require changes in the way students select and organise their studies, the commission argued.

The major objective of the proposed reforms is to improve the employability of graduates. It is of major importance to stem the present trend of graduates not finding jobs.

One proposal is to reduce the number of courses offered by universities. Courses with fewer than 30 students will have to be grouped together with similar courses with low enrolments or closed.

The masters degree system would be restructured so that one third of graduates continued towards a research-oriented degree, while two-thirds entered the workforce and could eventually embark on a masters in combination with work and over a longer time period.

The increased competition for access to the masters level would increase the quality of studies, Sondergaard argued.

Fierce reactions

Reaction from students and universities has been fierce.

Laura Kofoed, representing the Danish Union of Students, said that "less education is a bad thing".

Her colleague Jakob Ruggard told Denmark Radio, as reported by Uniavisen: "All of my 160,000 student colleagues are waiting for more education, more teaching and better supervision.

"What the commission proposes is significantly less education, and that is the opposite of quality."

Ralf Hemmingsen, rector of Copenhagen University and chair of the Danish Rector's Conference, said the proposal was playing with the futures of the young. "I have great difficulties in seeing how shortening higher education can make it better."

Professor Ivar Bleiklie of the University of Bergen, who is a member of the commission, told Information that other Nordic countries faced the same challenges of increased student intakes to courses that were not necessarily in demand by society.

"In many countries you have regulation of certain professional degrees, but there is no regulation of those parts of the higher education system that are expanding the most," he said.

Asked whether the reform proposals might comprise a Danish deviation from Bologna Patrizia Marchegiani, special advisor to the Expert Committee on Quality in Higher Education in Denmark, said no.

"The proposed changes to the academic structure is within the Bologna declaration, since we still maintain a three-cycle system, with a bachelor level of 180 to 240 ECTS and a master level of a minimum of 60 ECTS."

The ECTS is a grading system defined in the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System framework.

The seven-member commission will continue its work assisted by an extensive secretariat, underscoring the importance politicians see in its work.