Universities begin preparing for sweeping reforms

Danish universities are preparing for extensive changes now that the Productivity Commission and the Quality Commission have delivered their reports. Higher Education and Science Minister Sofie Carsten Nielsen told higher education officials that among other things she wants a focus on quality, new ways of teaching using new technology and more employable graduates.

Although the commissions’ proposals have yet to be discussed in parliament, and the final report of the Quality Commission is not expected until autumn, universities know change is coming and pretty much what it will entail, and are positioning themselves accordingly.

Meeting with more than 100 higher education officials at the government’s annual meeting with the sector, held in Kolding in the last week of April, Carsten Nielsen – appointed minister for higher education and science in February – said her ministry was working to implement the many reform proposals.

She said she wanted more students to study full-time again, and that this would demand new ways of teaching at universities and more use of digital technologies to cater for a new generation of students.

The need for change

The minister said Denmark was ambitious, and the question now confronting higher education was less about training a sufficient proportion of young people than it was about offering high quality education.

“We owe to society, for the high investment of our common resources in higher education, a best possible value for these investments. And we owe [it to] our young generation that we educate them in such a way that they can get an adequate job upon graduation.”

In an article in Politiken on 29 April, Carsten Nielsen expanded on the ministry’s approach. “Status quo is not an option. There is a need for change and improvement,” she wrote, adding later:

“Some of the recommendations involve fundamental changes to the education system. These include the proposal for four-year undergraduate programmes and one-year masters programmes.

“I'm not going to rush through decisions. It requires careful consideration and debate. We must, among other things, keep in mind that any changes in the educational structure must interact with the increasing internationalisation of education.”

Reform themes

The minister said commission recommendations fitted into themes the government had been working on, and agreed with. There were now three initiatives designed to ensure that students and the labour market got as much benefit as possible from education: training for jobs; better informed study choices; and a simpler, higher quality academic environment.

Regarding training for jobs, the government will require cuts to courses in low demand and expansion of those in high market demand. Many graduates had to stand in unemployment queues or take jobs they were not trained for, wrote Carsten Nielsen. “That means we are all losing out on the knowledge potential of our society.”

Both the Quality Committee and universities had come up with proposals on how to regulate courses and student numbers in a smart way. There were good suggestions, and it was crucial that such change happened “on a solid scientific basis, covering all higher education – not just universities”.

The government, the minister said, was currently investigating several routes and would produce a model later this year, in time for people applying for tertiary education next year.

Regarding better informed study choices, Carsten Nielsen said that while institutions made information available about courses, students faced with crucial education decisions lacked comparative and comprehensive information.

The government was taking steps to ensure relevant information was available “in a simple and straightforward manner” that enabled programmes to be compared and students to see the salaries they could expect to earn on graduation, how former students rated courses and the extent they were useful in future jobs.

Thirdly, Carsten Nielsen wrote, the government wanted “a more simple and more solid higher education landscape”. There had been rapid growth of courses to a current 1,500, which did not promote clarity and had led to some programmes of low quality.

In small courses with only a few lecturers, it could be difficult to ensure a “versatile and inspiring academic environment for both teachers and students”.

It was not possible to indiscriminately say when courses were too small, but new training targets could be set that would lead to fewer courses and would underpin a strong, high quality learning environment. This was a shared responsibility of the state and institutions.

Courses could be combined and developed, and the government wanted a cleanup of the confusing array of course titles to make it easier for students to link qualifications with what was on offer in the job market.

Universities freeze some posts

In late April the newspaper Information published an article on how Danish universities were preparing for the impending changes.

“At Southern Denmark University, a professorship in continental philosophy is now not being filled, even if there are several qualified applicants,” the article said.

Universities are holding several such academic staff positions open, until it becomes clear how the reforms will affect student recruitment, notably to humanities courses that today have fewer than 30 students, Information reported.