Ministers impose four years of cuts on universities

Universities face a 2% cut in their budget every year over the next four years, following an announcement by Minister of Children, Education and Gender Equality Ellen Trane Nørby and Minister of Education and Science Esben Lunde Larsen that the Danish education sector will no longer be ring-fenced in government budgets.

Over the four years this will amount to a budget cut for education of DKK8.7 billion (US$1.3 billion), of which DKK3.3 billion (US$494 million) is for post-secondary education institutions.

The decision has taken the sector and the general public by surprise because it was not part of the ruling Liberal Party’s agenda at the general election earlier this year.

In the communication of the new policy to be enforced in the government budget, which is due to be published by the end of September, Lunde Larsen made a statement that has both confused and angered academics and university leaders.

He said: “Nobody is going to convince me that the higher education institutions that today are 'kornfed' [Danish for ‘fattened up’ or force-fed like geese in the production of foie gras] cannot tighten up.”

He added that higher education institutions shall contribute to government budget reductions “on a par with other governmental institutions”.

Opposition politicians and university lecturers immediately picked up on the strange wording with hostile comments on social media.

Pro-rector of Copenhagen University and former minister Lykke Friis said on twitter that the minister’s message was a “winding” in the stomach for universities and would hit the quality of education.

Chair of the Student Council at Copenhagen University Alexander Thorvaldsen tweeted that the proposal would indeed have a slimming effect on universities: “Fewer lectures, fewer teachers and less feedback.”

Rector of Aarhus University, or AU, Professor Brian Bech Nielsen, in a press release stated that he could “completely rule out that AU is ‘kornfed’”.

“We do respect that the majority in the parliament can prioritise [the use of] resources,” he said, but called for universities to be shown respect rather than prejudice in such discussions.

Some politicians voiced support for the proposal. Liberal Alliance spokesman for education Henrik Dahl told the newspaper Politiken: “It should be easy to effect these budget cuts. Danish universities are extremely bureaucratic. It will benefit research if we get rid of those people that are disturbing the research [process].”

Martin Ågerup of the Danish think tank CEPOS – Centre for Political Studies – told the newspaper Jyllands-Posten: “It is obvious that the education sector is having problems that do not relate to lack of resources.”

He said Denmark spends more on education than any other country in the OECD.

“If Denmark used the same percentage of GNP [gross national product] on education as Sweden, we could save DKK32 billion (US$4.8 billion). And if we used the same proportion as the average of the OECD countries, we could save DKK38 billion (US$5.7 billion),” he said.

Regulations imposed

Rector of Copenhagen University Professor Ralf Hemmingsen, who until last week was also chair of the Danish Rectors’ conference, said in a press release: “Copenhagen University will propose a five-point action plan that can effectuate a quick deregulation of bureaucracy. The cause of this bureaucracy is the numerous rules and regulations imposed upon Danish universities by the authorities.

“If we are going to keep the quality of research and higher education intact it is mandatory that the government shall loosen up the detailed control of Danish universities. We urge the minister to call for a meeting to discuss these measures,” he said.

The support from the government per student has been reduced by 10% over the past five years, Hemmingsen said. “The situation [at Danish universities] is now comparable to the guest in the restaurant, who is not willing to pay for the meal he has had. Politicians have asked for an increase in the number of students and for more control of higher education with a continuous lowering of the price,” Hemmingsen said.