MPs want to scrap HE funding and study-time reforms

The major Danish political parties except for the Social Democrats are now in favour of scrapping the unpopular progress reform introduced in 2013 to speed up student time to graduation, financially penalising institutions that do not meet specified targets, as previously reported by University World News.

The reform, which was tied to a reduction in flexibility in the Danish student financing system or SU, was highly unpopular with students, who organised a 10,000-strong protest in central Copenhagen, criticising then minister Morten Østergaard.

Paradoxically, official statistics for the cohort graduating on time in 2016 shows a significant improvement and good progress towards the agreed target for 2019 of reducing study time towards degrees by an average of 4.3 months across all Danish institutions. As of 2016 the time to graduation had been reduced by 3.9 months.

A majority of politicians also want to scrap the ‘dimensioning reform’, which links the student intake in various subjects each year for each institution to the number of graduates succeeding in getting work after graduation.

Both reforms have been heavily criticised by universities and student unions and were brought in under long-term pressure from the Ministry of Finance and senior officials in the Ministry of Higher Education and Science.

Minister of Higher Education and Science Søren Pind has been having second thoughts about the usefulness of these reforms due to ongoing closed negotiations between the political parties in parliament and his ministry about substituting the taximeter funding model – in which funds are allocated to universities according to the number of graduates they produce – for another model, not yet agreed.

As University World News reported, under the proposed new funding model 10% of funding would be allocated according to the proportion of students who have graduated three months after the allocated study time and obtained work within two years of graduation.

The liberal party, Venstre, to which Pind belongs, suggests that a new budget model may substitute the two previous reforms, making them redundant. Hence, as the newspaper Politiken reported last month, a scrapping of these reforms is the likely outcome of the current negotiations.

Universities Denmark – the organisation representing the Danish universities – said in a press release that the percentage of the budget to be allocated according to study-time fulfilment and the number of students obtaining work should be reduced to 5% across all institutions and the other 5% should be negotiated individually between each higher education institution and the ministry.

“The total governance of higher education institutions [by the ministries] ought to be simple and transparent,” Universities Denmark said, “and we are critical of a model where we shall be ruled simultaneously by the dimensioning model, the taximeter rewarding model and the progress reform.”

View of Social Democrats

The spokesperson for the Social Democratic Party in parliament, Mette Reissmann, however, does not see any immediate reason to scrap the progress reform, and said her party is satisfied with the way the reform is working.

“We have not seen any documentation to suggest that the progress reform should be buried,” she said. And referring to the ongoing budgetary model discussions, she said that her party is against a double regulation.

She also pointed out that the two reforms in question were endorsed by a majority decision in parliament, and argued that it is not possible for the government to scrap the law before another consensus is reached in parliament.

Ideological struggle

Professor Ivar Bleiklie of the University of Bergen, an international expert on university reforms who was a member of the Danish Quality Commission which in 2014 published recommendations on quality and relevance in higher education, sparking a new set of university reforms, told University World News that the current debates demonstrate how higher education policy is becoming a highly politicised issue, and increasingly an arena for ideological struggle between the major political parties.

He said: “We are probably gradually moving away from a situation in which policies were developed by the civil service, often in close collaboration with universities, and thereafter sanctioned by the politicians. The field was more often than not characterised by a high degree of consensus, and many major reforms in European countries might therefore have been supported by governments of different ideological colours.

“There are strong indications that this kind of stability and consensus is about to fade as higher education is growing into a large and important public sector that is moving into the focus of media and politicians.”

He warned that when policy conflicts are driven by the ideological views of political contestants, the probability for abrupt policy change increases notably when one ideological filter is replaced by another.

“For instance, will some observers claim that the reform is a success when Danish students take a shorter time to earn a degree than before? Others might claim that the Danish system of formula funding promotes opportunism on the part of institutions and undermines the quality of the educational programmes.”

He said abrupt policy change will increasingly depend on political power constellations such as whether a government is based on a stable majority party or majority coalition or alternatively on shifting majorities and unstable coalitions.