Experts’ committee unveils higher education reform plans

The Committee of Experts for Better University Education or UUU, has published a hefty report on modernising Danish higher education, along with 37 recommendations, which will be drafted into a White Paper for Parliament to consider.

The recommendations, which cover a wide range of aspects, from encouraging students to take a break before doing a masters degree to strengthening teaching, and developing more appropriate skills for today’s labour market, were unveiled by the committee and published at a meeting in Copenhagen on 12 March.

The committee is chaired by the top official in the higher education and science ministry, Agnete Gersing, and its members are drawn from the ministry of finance and the business sector, as well as including university leaders and educational experts.

Gersing said: “One of the greatest challenges is that we have not been good in adapting those we graduate to the demands of the labour market.” She added that too many education programmes have been established – the committee is recommending that they be cut, with arts and humanities programmes in their sights – and that there “has not been sufficient focus on good and competent teaching, a central task for universities alongside research”.

The most important proposal is for a more flexible pathway to postgraduate degrees, enabling students to leave a gap of two to three years after graduating with a bachelor degree before taking up a masters.

Currently students who do not continue straight away to a masters degree mostly lose the opportunity to take one. The change would give graduates an opportunity to gain work experience before continuing into postgraduate study. It would also change the present culture in the recruitment of academic staff in Denmark, where very few people are recruited with just a bachelor degree: they have to have a masters.

The second-most important proposal is several measures to create better dialogue between universities and representatives of employers to create synergy between what universities teach and the skills needed in the jobs market.

Another key proposal is to create a one-year research-based 60 ECTS top-up programme for those with a bachelor degree, as a means to try to tempt students to go on to study for a masters degree in subjects that are not in demand. In effect it would be a masters degree taken in one year instead of two, but UUU has not been explicit about what kind of degree it would be.

Other proposals address the need to strengthen teaching, including by recognising teaching as being as important as research, permitting the hiring of academics purely to teach and not undertake research, systematic use of student evaluations to strengthen teaching, restricting the use of non-tenured teachers, and establishing a prize for excellent teaching.

The UUU’s report, University Education for the Future, at 420 pages is a hefty broad-ranging tome. It deals with competencies, learning feedback, learning outcomes, quality of teaching, research-based programmes and technology. It includes five fact sheets on selected themes and 10 technical attachments. For instance, there is one on ‘Quicker paths to new jobs’.

In addition to the recommendations mentioned above, there are proposals for various measures to improve the relationship between higher education and employment and salary outcomes; development of digital competences in all degree programmes and more use of technology in teaching; improved transparency; and broader admissions, along with more teaching for students with a low level of competence.

Søren Pind, minister of higher education and science, said: “In Denmark we shall live by our competence. That is the reason why we shall have some of the best university education in the world, preparing students for a future with new technology and to handle great changes. I find the UUU’s work a good proposition towards that development and look forward to studying the proposal closer.”

Conditioned optimism

University World News asked Jacob Fuglsang, education editor of the major Danish newspaper Politiken, if after two decades of reorganisation, mergers and detailed reforms, the ministry is now drowning the universities in detailed instructions.

“It is possible,” he said. “The universities are to some extent tired of all the reorganisation and so on. On the other hand, many of the recommendations are expected and the universities knew something like that was coming.”

He said the process of closing down education institutions is very difficult and will take a long time. But the recommendations to prioritise teaching are already making headway at several universities.

Universities Denmark, the Danish rectors’ conference, issued a statement saying it does not agree with the proposal to allow universities to hire full-time lecturers who do not undertake research. “Teaching at universities should be research-based,” the chairman, Professor Anders Bjarklev, said.

Birgit Bangskjær, chief consultant at Akademikerne – the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations which represents 392,000 members – and who is a member of the UUU, issued a statement backing the UUU’s united stance in recommending a “wiser”, more flexible approach to the route into a masters degree.

“This can develop the academic bachelor market since ambitious and talented bachelor degree holders can try out their energy in the workforce and have a legal right to come back and complete a masters degree later,” she said.

Professor Ivar Bleiklie, a specialist in higher education at the University of Bergen in Norway, told University World News the proposals reinforced the call of the quality committee in 2014-15 for more flexible degrees and the option to finish one’s studies one year earlier instead of the two-year masters degrees, and to make it easier to come back to universities after having had some work experience. As long as there are resources to fulfil them, the proposals seem “reasonable”, he said.

But Professor Jens Oddershede, former rector of the University of Southern Denmark and chairman of the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy, said: “This is one of the more disorganised reports I have seen. The biggest ‘news’ is probably the proposal of a one-year masters degree.”

Sana Mahin Doost, chairperson of the National Union of Students in Denmark, said as students they are deeply worried because they were not invited to participate in the work of the UUU and one of the recommendations is to exclude students from democratic participation in the governance of universities.

“The proposal is to make the studienævn – the council in each university where students and teachers together make decisions about education – into an advisory body and hence take away today’s decision-making powers.”

“We are here confronting the end of democracy,” she said.