Government to move thousands of study places out of bigger cities

Strong opposition from Denmark’s university community has greeted a government plan to move thousands of study places out of the country’s bigger cities to towns, to improve higher education access and as part of a wider effort to decentralise public services and rebuild strong local communities.

On 27 May at Aarhus University the government initiative – Closer To: More education and strong communities – was presented by Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, Minister for Higher Education and Science Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen and Minister of the Interior Kaare Dybvad Bek.

The government plan includes a limit on how many students can be accepted for higher education in the cities of Copenhagen, Aarhus, Odense and Aalborg and at the main campuses of their universities.

“We want to use new tools, even if these are controversial,” said Halsboe-Jørgensen.

New study places will be established at 25 localities across Denmark as the first step to having altogether 7,500 study places outside the bigger cities in Demark, the prime minister added.

There will be 2,000 new study places created at the new study centres and 1,000 at existing higher education institutions, and a further 4,500 will be moved from the bigger cities by limiting the number of study places their universities are allowed.

The plan specifies that:

• About 25 new higher education courses will be established. There will be attractive higher education study centres throughout Denmark;

• Better conditions for university education outside the bigger cities;.

• New and more flexible education branches;

• The plan affords a better recruitment basis, and restrictions on enrolment in the largest cities;

• About 60% of study places in the four major welfare education offerings – educational science, teacher training, nursing and social advising – will be localised outside the big cities by 2025, with study places in at least 10 new localities;

• Educational science will be established in Holbæk and teacher training in Svendborg;

• A new National Partnership for Welfare Education will be forged;

• Veterinary science will be moved partly or fully to Foulum village in Viborg municipality;

• There will be relocation of artistic education. For instance, dancing education in Copenhagen will be moved Holsterbro town, which will also provide new music education with 30 study places; and

• Some military education will be organised through distance teaching.

“We realise that it will cost money to establish new study places. During the next five years we will use DKK2 billion [about US$330,000] more for this,” said Halsboe-Jørgensen, the higher education minister, noting that 68,178 new students were accepted in 2020.

She said the moving out plan would be fully financed by cuts being made in some areas.

One is a reduction in English taught courses that is being negotiated between the government and opposition parties in parliament. Some funding will also come from limits to what higher education institutions may spend on marketing their education abroad and the use of external consultants.

Centralisation to be reversed

“Many Danes have, over the past decades, seen that it has been a longer journey to higher education, to the hospital and to the police station, and that the main street in the town has been filled with empty shopping windows and lost its function as a place [where] people meet,” said Dybvad Bek at the launch.

“The government now want to reverse this development and has planned a long list of actions to bring the feeling of closeness back to Danes. We are ready to create a better balance in Denmark, with stronger local communities where the town centre again becomes a gathering point and where welfare comes closer to citizens.”

Strong reactions

Some serious concerns have been expressed by leaders of the university community, including students and professional associations.

Professor Bente Stallknecht, pro-rector at Copenhagen University, is sceptical about the government plan.

“If we close down study places in the big cities, the grade point needed to be accepted will rise, and I fear that we will get an A-group and a B-group of students,” she said. “There will be higher competition to get access to the most attractive studies in the bigger cities than we see today.”

The head of Akademikerne – the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations – Lars Qvistgaard said the choice of study is also a youth life choice.

“We are not in disagreement with the governmental ambition of a better balance between the cities and the countryside [with regard to study places] but we do not think that such a hard moving out of study places as the government is proposing is the solution,” he said.

“Young people are not numbers that can just be moved around in an excel sheet. Greater competition for fewer study places in the four bigger higher education cities will only lead to an unhealthy competition culture,” said Qvistgaard.

“Higher education policies should not be used to solve challenges of mobility in the workforce.”

Thomas Damkjær Petersen, president of IDA – the Danish Society of Engineers – said that “higher education policy should focus on quality and not end up with politicians at Chrsitiansborg [parliament] moving pieces around the map of Denmark.”

Notably, in relation to STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – subjects, whose graduates are in great demand in the workforce, he thinks a consequence of limiting study places in the bigger cities will reduce the number of STEM students nationally.

“Most of the young want to study in bigger cities and if these important study places are distributed across Denmark’s 98 communes, many of the young will end up not choosing STEM subjects and will, instead, opt for other subjects in the bigger cities,” Damkjær Petersen said.

Camilla Gregersen, the president of DM – the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs, which has 50,000 members – commented to University World News: “I’m concerned the plan will lead to significant reductions in the universities’ economy.

“We know from experience from other political relocations of specialised employees, that it is more than difficult to move a scientific research area across the country. Reductions will ultimately lead to layoffs of talented researchers and teachers and fewer university graduates – which is not good for a knowledge society such as the Danish.

“Both students and academic staff are dependent on a rich study environment and collaboration across research areas.”