Students hold mass protests against education cuts

Twenty-two thousand students from more than 40 student organisations in the 'Student Alliance’ gathered on 29 October in central Copenhagen and Aarhus, according to police estimates, to protest against the DKK8.7 billion (US$1.3 billion) education cuts planned by the Løkke Rasmussen government over the next four years.

The students marched from the central square – Rådhuspladsen – in Copenhagen to the parliament, focusing on three demands: “Stop the budget cuts in the billion class!”, “Improve quality”, “Invest in the future”.

Student organisations claimed the real number of protesters was 40,000.

In a statement announcing the march, the alliance said: “The billions cut will mean huge quality reductions in the whole educational system and lead to closing down of studies and to significant reductions in the teaching staff. Politicians should have higher ambitions for the quality of our education.”

The student protests are a follow-up to an avalanche of statements in the press by industrialists, university managers and representatives from labour organisations in reaction to the austerity measures announced by Higher Education and Science Minister Esben Lunde Larsen in August in the most undiplomatic way when he characterised Danish universities as “kornfede” (“fattened up”).

Defending this view in parliament, he said that this statement was taken out of the context of his argument and that he used this term “with a twinkle in his eye”.

Newspapers and social media each day now are filled with stories on the impact of the austerity measures. Copenhagen University might have to close admission to veterinary studies next year and reduce intake to several other courses. President of the Technical University of Denmark and chair of the Danish Rectors’ Conference, Anders Bjarklev, in an op ed article in the Danish newspaper Information, said that the government with this budget is at risk of losing the established leading position of Danish green research and technology.

Chair of the Danish Council for Independent Research, Peter Munk Christiansen, commenting on the proposed 30% cut in the council’s budget for next year, said: “Denmark has through many years had a balance in the financing of research. Now there is a significant move towards more strategic and applied research. This will have catastrophic consequences for free research in Denmark and the recruitment of young researchers.”

Chief science officer of Novo Nordisk, the largest biomedical company in Scandinavia, Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, told Berlingske Business that the government cutback of public research is “too hard and might lead to great harm both for Danish industry and for employment”, and he said that the austerity measures could have implications for Novo Nordisk’s future in Denmark.

“In the Danish university world we have had a strong momentum over recent years. But, what might take 10 to 20 years to build, could be broken down in a short time. The best students shall have a motivation to follow a research career at universities, but if they see that there are cutbacks and fewer positions at universities, that path becomes unattractive to them,” Krogsgaard Thomsen argued.

Minister attacked in the media

In several articles in the Danish magazine, Forskerforum, Minister Lunde Larsen has been attacked for allegedly not playing the austerity game in a transparent way.

It is claimed he stamped as secret a report by a consulting firm that was hired to analyse the budgetary system to universities – the “taximeter system” – because the report contained proof of Danish universities having lowered the standards expected from students at examinations in order to not lose out in their budget allocation, which is based on the number of students graduating.

Forskerforum last week also accused the minister of being cowardly, for failing to attend the annual meeting of the Danish Council for Independent Research last Tuesday to debate “When research creates changes”, and sending instead the newly appointed ministerial bureaucrat Agnete Gersing.

Jacob Fuglsang, educational editor of the major newspaper Politiken told University World News: “This could be the largest protest in recent times, and it is important to notice the broad basis of the initiative. You could argue that the reaction of the students is a natural consequence of the reductions students have experienced both during this and previous governments.”

This is a corrected version of this story. UWN had incorrected reported a claim made on Larsen's Facebook page that he had attended the opening of the new James Bond film Spectre with several other ministers and politicians Facebook page, instead of attending the Copenhagen University Student Council meeting. This claim, made by Laura Bech Hansen chair woman for the Student Council for the Humanities at Copenhagen university, is untrue and has been withdrawn by her. There is no truth in any suggestion that Larsen was watching the film while the Council meeting was in progress.