Research and teaching cuts will pull universities down

When the Danish government announced cuts to education and research last September, it set off howls of protest in university circles.

The cuts will pull Denmark down, and closer to other developed countries’ level of investment. Universities are to lose 8% of their government subsidy for education, with 2% cut every year from a 2016 baseline and fully implemented in 2019.

Government research funding has been cut by DKK1.4 billion (US$212 million) annually off a DKK22 billion (US$3.3 billion) research budget. The money saved is to be put into things like hospitals and tax allowances for home improvements.

Previous Danish governments have been generous in their financing of higher education and research. The country invests more in research and higher education than most of the countries it compares itself to.

Denmark should strive to be a knowledge society – a 'vidensamfund’ – politicians have said. There is, after all, not much land, not much labour here. ‘Knowledge’ is the primary productive factor. Denmark invests nearly 2% of its gross domestic product on higher education, almost solely government investment, and above the OECD average of 1.6%.

As the dust settles, the hardest hit in absolute terms has been the University of Copenhagen which has just shed 523 jobs – a first attempt to plug a projected DKK690 million shortfall in 2019 income. The cuts come at the same time as the government refused to continue a DKK70 million rent subsidy to a new Faculty of Humanities building.

The university has expanded rapidly in the past decade and the ignominy of the government’s refusal came at the same time as it rejected the plea for formal ownership of its own buildings to make savings on rent.

Little has been released so far on which jobs have been lost at the university and which projects have been cut short. But the stories seeping out from fired staff show that the university has targeted small subject programmes and student services.

As for other Danish universities, the second-largest, Aarhus University, has just surfaced after a 2014 round of layoffs. It has had its income cut by a further DKK300 million as a result of the new changes. Other smaller universities have announced cuts with Roskilde University cutting 80 staff.

At the same time as the cuts to higher education and research, Danish government releases have moved away from previous governments’ talk of a pioneer or foregangsland nation that ranks well in environment, labour market policy, education, and even happiness.

The government’s former higher education and science minister, Esben Lunde Larsen, who oversaw the cuts and then moved on to be minister for environment and food at the end of February, told the University Post that “we don’t want to overeducate our youngsters, so it is important that we are aware of how many take, say, a university education, and how many take, say, an education in business academy or as a craftsman”.

The Danish government is already clearly at odds with Danish universities. But there is more that could potentially shake up the previous consensus on Danish higher education.

The ultimate taboo, SU

Take student grants, known to every Dane as the ‘SU’, for example. The Danish government will not, or not yet, cut its generous grants and loans to students. A Danish university student not living with his/her parents can receive six years of €790 (US$895) a month before taxes.

A 2014 European Union Commission study showed that Danish students get 50% more than in the second-placed EU country, Finland.

The generous Danish grant system is out of sync with the rest of Europe and has been consistently criticised by business groups and the OECD which have argued for reduced grants and the introduction of a limited tuition-based university system.

A recent survey of political party leaders in the Danish parliament showed none willing to argue for a reduction or abolition of the student grant system which is seen as a core service of the Danish welfare state.

But a panel of business and industry experts has just recommended turning more of the grants into loans. Higher Education and Science Minister Ulla Tørnæs says she found the recommendation “interesting”, as “we have the world’s most generous study grant and loans [SU] system. I find it natural that it is up for debate.”

The brunt of the cuts to education and research has so far been borne by the university institutions, rather than their users, the students. Now, student groups fear, they are next in line.

So much for internationalisation

These are bleak times for Danish universities.

A recently passed immigration law makes obtaining permanent residence difficult, if not impossible, for non-EU international students who come to Denmark to study at university.

With the 523-staff cull, the University of Copenhagen has cut back on international staff and student services, with many non-Danish and internationally renowned professors getting the chop, and the almost symbolic closure of the English-language student-contribution news site University Post. As one student argues, with the new immigration laws and cuts to funding, the internationalist rhetoric of Danish universities may need to be adjusted.

Danish universities have been doing relatively well on the world stage, with the University of Copenhagen the fifth-best non-Anglo university in the world, or 35th, on one of the key league tables, the Shanghai-based Academic Ranking of World Universities. The same table had Aarhus University at a solid 73rd.

At universities now, students, scientists and staff are reeling from the recent round of dismissals. But the effects have not yet been seen in full. Many of the staff will only leave at the end of their redundancy period, in most cases the summer of 2016.

As government funding dwindles and the new austerity sinks in, universities are retreating from all bragging about their ranking status. Because as further budget cuts between now and 2020 really begin to bite, as the reductions in staff-student ratios take hold, and as the brightest and most productive students seek places elsewhere, they can almost only go down.

Mike Young is editor of University Post, University of Copenhagen, Denmark.