University leaders say masters reform is unworkable

University leaders say the masters reforms designed to speed up graduation time could reduce the amount of time available to do the masters thesis by a third, to four months.

On 18 April 18 2013 the Danish coalition government signed an agreement with the other parties in the Danish parliament on ‘Reforming the student financing system and the conditions for fulfilling studies in time’, the so-called 'study progress reform’.

There are ten points in the agreement, several of these focusing on the conditions students have to fulfil to be able to receive financial support in the SU system, the most favourable student financing system in the world.

The study progress reform has a clause to reduce study time for degrees (both bachelor and masters) by an average of 4.3 months by 2020, and by an average of 7.6 months for graduates from Copenhagen University, with 12.2 months for students in the humanities at Copenhagen University.

Ralf Hemmingsen, rector, and Lykke Friis, pro-rector, of Copenhagen University, with their counterparts from the University of Southern Denmark, have written to the ministry expressing the risk that with the present regulations, the time available for a masters thesis could be reduced from six months today to four months.

“It would be very strange that Copenhagen University on one hand is raising the quality by providing more teaching and on the other hand reduces the time allocated for the thesis,” Hemmingsen said.

Cut study time

The aim of the study progress reform is to cut study time – Danish students are among the slowest to graduate in Europe – in order to cut DKK2.2 billion (US$312 million) from the student loan budget, and to get Danes into the workforce earlier.

In particular, the government wants to speed up graduation time for masters degrees. The five-year masters degree is a three plus two year degree, which students in 2011 on average took 6.1 years to complete, varying nationally from 5 years to 6.6 years on average.

The SU previously allowed students one year of delays with the so-called fjumreår – “the year of goofing around” – and they could still receive full financing, but this has now radically changed.

The study progress reform automatically registers the students for exams according to their study programme, and universities will be financially rewarded only for those students who fulfil the degree requirements in the allotted study time for the degree.

Some of the measures in the agreement became effective in 2014, but the full effect of the reform for the universities will be felt in 2020. Each Danish university has been allotted a fixed average study time target measure based on the completion time in 2011, with a budget of DKK930 million (US$132 million) as a total reward for Danish universities in 2020.

Danish universities are collectively responsible for reaching the targeted reductions in study time, meaning that all eight universities will be penalised if one university fails to reach the goal.

In the Copenhagen University newspaper, Universitetsavisen, Hemmingsen and Friis stated that there is a risk that Copenhagen University, or CU, will suffer a penalty of up to DKK345 million (US$49 million) if students do not speed up their pace towards their degrees.

Hemmingsen said conflicting bureaucratic rulings had created the problem. While the ‘study progress reform’ demanded that students complete 30 ECTS per term, a 2010 ministry regulation says the thesis must be completed by 1 July. Compliance with the latter is required to count towards budgetary rewards.

Students at CU today complete the masters degree significantly later than their peers in other Danish universities, often due to them delivering the thesis too late, causing the evaluation to be postponed to the next term.

CU is a sought-after university and many students have taken advantage of the provision until 2014 that allowed them to extend their study for a year without producing any study results.

Hemmingsen and Friis said that the student sickness leave statistics, which is a legal reason to postpone examination periods in the new system, already show that students are not eager to comply with the sharpened time requirements.

Until now this problem has not had any practical consequences for either the candidate or the university. The demand of the progress reform is for CU to reduce the average time to graduation for all candidates graduating by an average of 7.6 months within 2020.

Due to the university holiday from 1 July each year, and with the examination period being in January, the thesis contract date, which today often is in mid-January, will now have to be fixed by mid-December, to secure enough time for the evaluation of the thesis before 1 July, which in fact will mean a reduction in time for the 30 ECTS thesis.

According to Jacob Fuglsagn, education editor of Politiken, while past students were often stuck in the ‘masters thesis swamp’ that trapped many Danish graduates so that they failed to complete their masters on time, students are now at risk of having very weak learning outcomes from the reduced masters thesis experience.

This has been a significant problem in Denmark where more than 90% of students who complete a first degree go on to take a masters – and there is practically no demand among employers for people with only a first degree. The aim of the reform is to change this culture, so that the Danish private sector in particular should in the future employ candidates with a bachelor degree.

“The masters thesis is now being sent towards the garbage heap of history,” Fuglsagn wrote, “while the students are fighting for its survival.”

“The study progress reform has made universities like Aalborg and Copenhagen Business School reduce the time for the thesis to five months. The University of Copenhagen is working with a proposal for only four months for writing the thesis.”