Universities and students to benefit under new government

Higher education in Denmark looks set to benefit from the election of Denmark’s youngest ever prime minister, Mette Frederiksen (41). Her left-leaning government plans to roll back the former government’s university budget cuts and improve study and work opportunities for international students, among other moves that universities will welcome.

At the end of June, after three weeks of negotiations that followed elections, Frederiksen’s centre-left Social Democratic Party formed a minority government – backed by the Socialist People’s Party, the Red-Green Alliance and the Social Liberal Party – that ousted the right-wing ruling coalition led by former prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen.

The centre-left parties signed an 18-page agreement that sets a “new direction for Denmark”, promising a more ‘green’ economy with binding legislation for a reduction in greenhouse gases to 70% of the 1990 level by 2030.

The agreement explicitly targets greater international cooperation, stating that it will work for “a more human asylum system within the framework of international law”. It scraps the ex-government’s controversial project to set up a detention centre for rejected asylum seekers on Lindholm Island.

“This is not a governmental declaration but a document demonstrating the political understanding of the signatory parties. And I am going to respect this wording and intentions all through the way forward,” said Frederiksen upon signing the agreement on 25 June.

The document opens up opportunities for more English-speaking students from Europe to enter areas where Danish business lacks experts, and to retain international students who have graduated in Denmark.

There is special mention of foreign students who have paid for their education in Denmark now having better options to seek work in the country upon graduating.

Positive response

Jesper Langergaard, chief executive officer of Universities Denmark, told University World News: “The political understanding between the government and the supporting parties has set a new direction for higher education in Denmark. We are now looking into a future where annual cutbacks are a thing of the past. This is of course a relief.

“The parties have committed themselves to removing the regulation on international students coming to Denmark. This is very important to us. International students are great asset to our universities and they contribute to the development of our companies after graduation.”

However, said Langergaard, the government’s direction appears unaltered regarding public spending on research and innovation, “with spending aimed at 1% of gross domestic product. It goes without saying, that the universities would have preferred a more ambitious approach.

“This is especially the case when considering the overall goals set out by the parties on reducing the carbon footprint by 70% by 2030. Further research and innovation may be needed to achieve this. We are hopeful that government will come to this conclusion, when working with the climate goals and that this will lead to an increase public investment in research.”

Greater equity

Lars Qvistgaard, chair of Akademikerne – the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations that organises 400,000 higher education graduates – described the new political dispensation as a first step towards improving higher education quality, including more young people, countering the former government’s plans to weaken the student financing model, and offering greater opportunities for higher education admission “regardless of social background”.

“I completely agree with the political parties when they write that equal access to higher education is a fundamental pillar for the welfare society.

“I am glad that the regulation which was limiting the eligibility to start a second degree will be eliminated and that the budget cut of 2% of the governmental budget to universities will be removed,” he added.

Last month University World News reported that in a national survey conducted a week before the elections, 69% of respondents said cutting higher education by 2% each year was the worst idea introduced by the Rasmussen government.

Also, the so-called ‘cap on higher education’, setting a limit of six years after graduating in one higher education subject before a person can be admitted to another, was found to be highly negative or negative by 56% of the respondents.

New investment needed

Qvistgaard continued: “My generation has on very many aspects neglected our obligations towards the younger generation.” This would now be redressed via the common ground agreement reached by the four political parties.

“I have noticed that the new political majority is setting a new educational direction so that the next generation will have the same chances for getting a higher education as my generation had.”

This, Qvistgaard said, demands more than just removing the most severe of earlier higher education mistakes. “It demands real new investments in both higher education and research.”

New Minister of Higher Education and Science Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen is 36 years old and holds a political science degree from the University of Copenhagen (2009).

When taking over from predecessor Tommy Ahlers, she said she would work for a green transformation, scrap the cap on higher education and end the cuts to university budgets.

Halsboe-Jørgensen said she looked forward to working on ideas around the high performance culture, which has increased stress levels among young Danes.

“This is one of the greatest problems in our society today. We can have the best teachers and the best researchers and the most modern teaching equipment. But if the students do not feel well, these are not worth much,” she said.