Government to monitor universities on employability

The government has ordered a review of the regulatory framework for universities to see how well higher education prepares young people for work options. It will look at how the legal framework and the development contracts of universities are supporting the political objectives of high quality and will examine the relevance of higher education provision.

Ulla Tørnæs, the minister of higher education and science, told University World News: "The current regulatory framework for our higher education institutions were developed and put in place 10-15 years ago. It has in many ways been a success. But we must constantly ask ourselves: Can we do it better? Do we need better regulatory frameworks to meet the challenges of today?”

She said challenges include “the mismatch apparent by the fact that a number of study programmes have high unemployment rates while in other fields our businesses are lacking skills of the highly educated”.

She said: “That is why I have launched a review of the regulatory framework. As part of the review we will ask the higher education institutions ‘What works well?’, ‘What works less well?’.”

Previously she wrote in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-posten that an important part of the review will be an “external mapping of the experiences and perspectives of the higher education institutions”.

This message was further elaborated upon in a meeting between the ministry and the higher education sector at Hotel Koldingfjord on 28-29 April, where the minister gave the introductory speech on “The need for a better match between education and work”.

A background document prepared by the ministry illustrated seven basic facts in higher education: the number of students 2010-14; unemployment and match 2009-12; study intensity distributed by different higher educations; study intensity and higher education quality – a survey; European Credit Transfer System points and study intensity; dropout 2010-14 and interaction between teaching staff and students distributed by kind of higher education.

Work in private companies

“The message is crystal clear,” the document said, repeating the prognosis of the Productivity Commission: “Towards 2030 the number of persons with higher education will increase by 40% compared to 2013. That equals 340,000 people.

“Up to now half of the degree holders in higher education have been employed in the public sector. In the future, this will be reduced to 25%, and the rest will have to find work in the private sector. That means that every year towards 2030 15,000 people have to find work in private companies.”

Tørnæs said in her introductory speech in Koldingfjord: “In the 60 days that have passed since I became minister, I have received many interesting ideas and proposals. I would like to mention one. Both universities and industry have asked for more flexible masters studies – studies where the student can study part-time for the masters degree, and at the same time work.

“I see these masters candidates as one investment that can contribute to greater correspondence between education and the working life.”

FORSKERforum, the Danish researchers’ magazine, published a story with the headline ”Service monitoring: More political governance of universities?”, suggesting Tørnæs and the heads of the ministry will ask a consulting firm like Deloitte or McKinsey to do a ‘service review’ of Danish universities. It asked whether the underlying motive was to introduce “more effective governing of universities”.

Professor Jacob Torfing from Roskilde University, told the magazine: “If the politicians are rewarding the productivity improvement at [Danish] universities over the past decade with more control and governance from above, this will create an enormous demotivation in the university world with serious consequences for the society.”

'Over-monitored and over-regulated'

Mike Young, editor of University Post, University of Copenhagen, told University World News that Danish universities “already see themselves as over-monitored and over-regulated – and not just from the present government. Now the ministry is again asking for universities' cooperation and enthusiasm. Universities will not like it.”

But Anders Bjarklev, chair of Danske Universiteter, the Danish Rectors’ Conference, said in last month’s newsletter that universities welcome the review.

“Already in 2014 Danish universities themselves started extensive work to find areas where the university sector could reduce bureaucracy. That has resulted in 144 proposals that we have sent to the new higher education and science minister,” he said.

Reviewing governance should not lead to more governance, monitoring and detailed regulation of the universities, he added.

“There are sufficient such mechanisms already – let me mention only the study progress reform, the institutional accreditation, development contracts and the common accounting plan.”

Professor Ivar Bleiklie of the University of Bergen, who was a member of the Danish Quality Commission that delivered several reports on how to improve the quality of Danish higher education in 2014 and 2015, said Denmark would be breaking new ground by measuring how well higher education serves the labour market as a quality indicator.

But he questioned whether this task should be transferred to Deloitte or McKinsey instead of the government doing such work itself, since there is not much evidence supporting the idea that market actors do this better than traditional government agencies.

David Palfreyman, the bursar and a fellow of New College, University of Oxford, UK, and director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, who was a keynote speaker at the dialogue meeting at Hotel Koldingfjord, presenting on ”Trends and challenges in higher education today”, told University World News: “It looks like Denmark is tackling the issue of accountability of universities for their use of public money, and hence questions arise of just what they contribute to graduate employability, and over their efficiency.”

'No simple answers'

“This is happening in almost every country and, of course, there are no simple answers.”

He said his view is that universities when created were far more utilitarian than some now like to be and that 'marketisation' within higher education is 'a good thing' – the university and its professors “must descend from the Ivory Tower on the Acropolis and get grubby in the Agora!”

But he said that the market has to be regulated by government so as to protect the student-consumer – a mechanism he has further discussed with Ted Tapper in Reshaping the University: The rise of the regulated market in higher education (Oxford University Press, 2014), which he said was “seemingly one of UK Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson’s favourite books in 2015”.