Quality commission calls for changes

The Danish higher education system is in urgent need of an overhaul, notably with regard to a greater focus on work availability for graduates, an increased status for good teaching, and greater encouragement for students to study full-time, according to a new report.

The report, New roads and higher ambitions, was prepared by the government’s Quality Commission and delivered last week to Higher Education and Science Minister Sofie Carsten Nielsen.

It lists 11 challenges and 10 proposals, each presented with statistics and figures, while each challenge has its own chapter, often supported by explanations.

The commission’s 10 proposals include a new structure in higher education; fewer student places in fields with high unemployment; a new admission system; stronger leadership; students should study full-time; good teaching should have a more prominent place; less bureaucracy in education planning; and a new census system.

Among the most controversial proposals is the call for a reduction in places in disciplines of high graduate unemployment over the last 10 years, notably in some courses in the humanities. Nevertheless, up to 4,000 such places have already been cut while ‘fine-tuning’ is now occurring in a dialogue between the ministry and the higher education institutions.

Limit access to masters

Another proposal is a plan to impose a limit on the number of students completing a bachelor degree who could then undertake a masters degree. The third is a proposal to slice off 5% of the government funding per student, estimated at DKK1 billion (US$154 million), and make the money available to an advisory council that would then allocate it to universities – after selecting the best projects based on teaching quality.

The latter proposal has angered the Danish Rectors’ Conference with its president, the rector of the University of Copenhagen, Professor Ralf Hemmingsen, declaring this was unacceptable.

“That is equal to feeding a dog by its own tail and would be a serious hollowing out of the allocation for education and hence [would] undermine university operations,” Hemmingsen said. “This is not the way to better teaching quality. And it is not feasible for part of this allocation to be taken from research.

“If you want to improve quality in higher education, you should not reward institutions for the number of students they enrol, but rather on how many they manage to graduate. The establishment of a council to distribute funds after applications for projects that are advancing teaching quality will immediately weaken the quality of the education.”

Improving teaching

Nielsen told a press conference she would work towards improving university teaching, a better coupling between education, research and the labour force, and an increase in the number of students studying full-time until the majority were full-time.

The commission’s recommendations have generated considerable controversy among students while the first – limiting access to masters degree courses – has resulted in protests across the nation.

“We don’t want to enter into a competition with one another to obtain a place to study,” said Jakob Ruggaard, leader of the Danish students association. “We should become smarter together.”

But the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations published a letter backing the commission’s proposals. Confederation chair Finn R Larsen said the quality of higher education should be high on the political agenda. Larsen said the confederation had called for a teachers academy to be established, such as the one at Helsinki University in Finland.

Jacob Fuglsang, education editor of Politiken, said that Danish students would soon meet two high fences on their way through the higher education system: “First, when they apply for admission, and second, when they have completed the bachelor degree. The most important question is what is going to happen to those students not accepted for admission to a masters degree?”