Students to mobilise against university budget cuts

The Education Alliance or EA, comprising more than 40 Danish student organisations, is calling for a demonstration in central Copenhagen and elsewhere in Denmark on 5 October against government cuts, including what it claims will be a DKK14.7 billion (US$2.4 billion) cut in 2016-21 in higher education spending.

The figure is its calculation of the impact of the budget for 2018 proposed by Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen and his VLAK government – a coalition of the three parties, Venstre or left liberal party, Liberal Alliance and the Conservative People’s Party – which prolongs a 2% cut in university budgets until 2021.

“The budget cuts have resulted in great quality deterioration across the whole education system. We have witnessed rounds of layoffs, a closing down of courses, increased sizes of classes and worsening scientific infrastructure,” the EA said in a statement on its Facebook page.

“This is only the tip of the iceberg. The VLAK government is continuing the budget cuts and announcing a further cut in the student financing system, SU,” the statement said.

“We have to stop this while there still is some quality left to fight for. We want to raise the quality of our higher education and we want the politicians to understand that [these cuts] are short-sighted. The politicians have to understand that they have to raise the ambition for the future of Denmark.”

EA protests will carry the message: “Raise quality. Stop the cuts. Keep the SU”.

Significant budget cuts

According to the University of Copenhagen’s online newsletter, Uniavisen, the total cuts for Copenhagen University alone from 2016-21 will be DKK930 million, and in 2018 alone the university will lose DKK123 million out of a total budget of DKK2.1 billion.

Lecturer Thomas Vils Pedersen, representing the staff at the University of Copenhagen, said that this cut will lead to a lowering of quality. “I can see no more options for further effectivisation,” Vils Pedersen said.

In the financial law for 2018 the annual budget per student is set at DKK68,700, down from DKK75,800 in 2012. Following the budget outline for 2021, the average per capita student allocation will be DKK64,900 in 2021, a total cut of 14% over nine years.

In the budget proposal, DKK10 million (US$1.6 million) is earmarked for research on how to measure quality and how to design higher education for greater learning achievement, engagement and study intensity.

“From my first day here in the ministry I have wanted to have a greater focus on quality in higher education,” Minister of Higher Education and Science Søren Pind said. “Denmark will benefit from an improvement in quality instead of focusing on how many we educate. We do lack knowledge on how we measure quality and what is functioning in relation to improving the quality,” Pind said when announcing the funding.

At a higher education conference on quality in higher education in Nørre Nissum in early September, Pind spoke of the need to create a Danish higher education quality on a par with the Danish furniture design and the famous restaurant Noma – which came top in Restaurant Magazine’s World’s Best Restaurant awards four times between 2008 and 2014 – both of which are world-class.

A new commission to strengthen quality

Different governments have worked intensively with university reforms over the past two decades, notably through broadly composed expert commissions – the Productivity Commission, Quality Commission and others, as reported by University World News.

These commissions have had broad representation from universities and professional associations and students and have been chaired by external experts independent of the government.

The new Quality Commission, established in May this year, is headed by the senior official in the Ministry of Higher Education and Science.

The commission includes representatives from Danish professional associations and higher education institutions, but not from the student organisations, which are represented in a reference group.

Sana Mahin Doost, the president of the National Union of Students in Denmark, or DSF, and representing the EA, said: “It is deeply concerning that we are not represented in the Quality Commission that is shaping the university of the future. It shows that the government does not recognise students as equal parties when discussing our education.”

She said that the governmental talk of Danish higher education being world class is ridiculous, given the 2% cut until 2021, which implies almost a DKK1 billion cut at Copenhagen University alone for 2016-21.

“It is a mockery that the government is constantly cutting the budgets and at the same time telling people that they are investing in higher education, because this is not true,” Doost said. “And when universities follow suit and adapt their activities to the economic framework given each year, they nevertheless are met by further budget cuts.”

Doost said that at a time when the rhetoric is about future-proofing universities, it is conspicuous that the education sector is being systematically cut.

“It is impossible to imagine how the university of the future will develop technological innovation, better teaching and excellent research without spending a penny.”

Jacob Fuglsang, education editor of the Danish newspaper, Politiken, said it is no wonder that the students are protesting. “The cuts will lead to quality problems in higher education – and because the cuts are unfocused they have serious effects on the whole sector.”

But Minister Pind told University World News: "Quality is not just about money. It’s at least as much about how we spend the money and learn from each other's experiences. When I meet teachers and students, I often hear examples of how teachers have made teaching better, for example, using digital tools.

“Having said that, of course it is important that we closely follow how the balance between quality and efficiency evolves in the institutions. And in the long term there is of course a limit to how much you can streamline and at the same time maintain quality.”

He said the Quality Commission has a major task in “helping us clarify how future university education should be organised because the labour market is changing significantly”.

The labour market of the future will need “people who can add presence, human understanding, empathy and creativity. The machines cannot. In the future you will also have to educate continuously and be enterprising,” he said. “These are some issues the commission is working on. And of course, I have great expectations for that.”