Young minister wants to prioritise the elite

The new Minister of Higher Education and Science Esben Lunde Larsen is on a mission to ‘cultivate the elite’.

In an interview with the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende Larsen recently said that although Denmark had the most favourable student financial support system in the world, the system should be adjusted so that students could study for more hours per week during the term, and to treat elite students preferentially.

”The elite have not to a sufficient degree been prioritised in our education system,” he declared.

”Danish students shall not be treated like a grey mass without differences in talents or ambition levels. To a larger degree we will point at the leaders who have outstanding abilities and talents and offer them specific training at a higher level than their peers.”

Lunde Larsen (36) was appointed to his post in the Liberal Løkke Rasmussen government in late June, removing ‘innovation’ from the portfolio of the previous Social Democratic ministry.

Research and science ministers with a PhD are rare in Scandinavia. The last one who comes to mind is Gudmund Hernes in Norway (1990-95). But Lunde Larsen holds a masters degree in theology and a PhD from Copenhagen University.

A former teacher, a post-doc and a regional politician, for two years he also chaired the Board of the Danish State Educational Grant and Loan Scheme, or SU – presiding over the above-mentioned financial support system.

The minister is from the so-called ‘Bible-belt’ in the Ringkøbing area, where he received 11,000 personal votes, and the media has tried to allude to him as a kind of religious fundamentalist.

When he was appointed minister, the newspaper Ekstrabladet, ran a story with the headline: ”The new science minister: God created the world.”

What is undeniable is that Lunde Larsen holds strong opinions and is not afraid of voicing them on controversial issues.

In 2014, when the Swedish chocolate producer Haribo decided to remove products shaped like black faces from its popular bag of liquorice sweets, Skipper Mix, he told Ekstrabladet that the case against Haribo illustrated an exaggerated political correctness.

”I am against forcing politically correct wordings,” he said.

However, since attaining power he has demonstrated great political handicraft. First, after only two weeks in charge, he managed to ease some bureaucratic ill-effects of the Danish educational reforms, which led to students who had taken a year off since graduating for a BA degree being blocked from applying for a masters.

He gained room to manoeuvre on this when the long-standing top bureaucrat at the ministry, who had been heavily involved in the higher education reforms, was transferred to immigration.

Also, he announced that at the start of the autumn term he would call for a dialogue between the higher education institutions, the students and the politicians on modifying the reduction of the student intake, notably in the humanities, as previously reported by University World News.

Through several opinion articles in Danish newspapers through the summer and on his frequently updated Facebook page, he presented the reasons why the Liberal Party opposed the report of the Quality Commission, which advised that “students should be guided through their studies and that the main responsibility for this should be [carried by] the higher education institutions”.

”We do not think so,” he said on his Facebook page. ”We want the students to take responsibility for their own education, to have great demands and expectations, and for those to be met by the higher education institutions. Students must be [offered] research-based teaching of the highest quality by top, highly motivated teachers and a learning environment that fosters creativity and with good international options,” he said.

To that end, this autumn he plans to embark on a tour of some of the world’s leading universities to see how they cultivate their research talent.