Proposed reforms for postgraduate studies under scrutiny

A string of proposals including a radical restructuring of the masters degree, the conversion of the state student grant (SU) into a loan at postgraduate level, and a lowering of points needed for university admission, has sparked heated debate among academic stakeholders.

Currently, basic living costs of all under- and postgraduate students who are Danish nationals, and some citizens of other EU countries, are covered by the SU with no expectation of it being paid back. At the moment, masters students are eligible for a combined SU grant and loan of DKK8,500 (US$1,240) per month, with the loan amounting to DKK3,000. If implemented, the new proposals would turn the whole allowance into a loan, but increase the total available to DKK12,500.

The proposal to turn the grant into a loan is one of 35 recommendations by the Reform Commission which submitted its report to the government on Wednesday 6 April. According to the commission, savings made through such changes should be reinvested in education.

Established by the government in October 2020, the commission was led by Nina Smith, professor of economics at Aarhus University and former chair of the Danish Economic Council.

The seven-member expert commission was served by the Ministry of Finance (chair), the Ministry of Industry, Business and Financial Affairs, the Ministry of Employment, the Ministry of Children and Education, the Ministry of Higher Education and Science and the Ministry of Immigration and Integration.

The report was followed by a two-day conference arranged by the Ministry of Higher Education and Science on 7-8 April.

Complex challenges

The commission was mandated to reduce social injustice and address other complex challenges that reform policies over the last two decades had been unable to solve. According to the mandate, the expert commission should work out “better education, more people in jobs and in better jobs”.

According to the mandate, despite numerous initiatives in the sector over the years, there were still as many as 50,000 youths who were either unemployed or not studying. The mandate also reflected concerns over unemployment among university graduates including “women of non-Western backgrounds”.

The commission divided its recommendations into three broad categories – new paths to the longest degrees; lifelong learning; and easier procedures for doing business.

The commission said a 250% growth in humanities and social science graduates (up from 3,300 graduates in 1990 to 11,600 in 2019) compared with a 125% growth in technology and natural science graduates over the same period (2,000 in 1990 and 4,500 in 2019) underpinned the commission’s proposal to radically restructure the masters degree system by introducing a one-year masters degree, a two-year business academy masters degree and a research masters degree.

According to the commission, graduates with masters degrees earn more on average during their careers than other groups and are better able to pay back loans.

The new proposals would mean a four-year masters degree for little less than half of all university degrees. In the humanities and social sciences, seven out of 10 bachelor students would take a one-year masters degree, and the right to enrol in a masters degree after two years of bachelor-level studies falls away.

The commission is also recommending that all students be given a life-long opportunity to return to university studies for free and that the average points of 12 for admission to higher education be reduced to nine.

Not government policy

On Twitter, Danish Higher Education and Science Minister Jesper Petersen was quick to remind his followers that the proposal for a “change in the student funding [from mostly being a grant to a loan at masters level] is not something that has been planted” in the government’s “back garden”.

As late as January 2022, Petersen said that the substituting of loans for grants was not a policy of the government, as reported by University World News.

President of the 165,000-strong National Union of Students in Denmark Julie Lindmann told University World News the union was against removing the SU on the masters degree.

“We believe that our SU system is something we should be incredibly proud of in Denmark because it creates equality when it comes to the possibilities of taking an education.

“They are also talking about changing our masters programmes completely so that seven out of every 10 students studying for a bachelors in social science or in the arts should only take a one-year masters degree. That will create two different leagues in our education system and create more barriers.”

On the release of the report, Mads Eriksen Storm, head of education and research policies at the Danish Chamber of Business (Dansk Erhverv), told Berlingske Tidende newspaper it was wiser to use the money for education than for support (of students’ living costs).

“But we argue that the SU money shall not be redirected towards the universities but used for broad lifting of the education sector in general,” he said.

Political spokesperson of the Red-Green Alliance Mai Villadsen (in opposition) wrote via Twitter: “Of course we shall not cut more for the younger generation by taking the SU [away from the masters degree] or reduce the time for higher education …The youth shall not once more have to pay the bill.”

Employee competence

Lizette Risgaard, president of FH, the Danish Trade Union Confederation, said the proposals “are taking us in the right direction”. However, she also said FH would “have preferred to see even more ambitious proposals on how to lift employees’ competence during their time in the workforce – think about the youths in the workforce until they are 70+ years”.

Lisbeth Lintz, president of Akademikerne, the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations, said: “The last thing we need to see is less education. We welcome the commission’s proposals for the discussions needed on higher education in the future, but we are afraid of the negative consequences for social mobility and the well-being of the students”.

Professor Anders Bjarklev, president of Universities Denmark, said he was sceptical about aspects of the recommendations.

“We must be careful to not put pressure on the students by [introducing] experimental stages like the one-year academic masters degree proposed. There is nothing that is proving that students having graduated with this one-year masters degree will be more attractive to the employers, and therefore I am sceptical about this part of the recommendations.”

Mads Eskjær Øbakke, vice president of the National Union of Students, said via Twitter: “Now another proposal to slaughter the SU is presented. That is totally biased. The SU is a basic fundament of the Danish welfare model that has to be defended tooth and nail. We trust that the Social Democratic student party will stand shoulder to shoulder with us in support.”

Camilla Gregersen, chair of the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs (DM), told University World News: “The time is not for cutting down on education. On the contrary we need more well-educated young people. At DM we experience an increasing demand for our graduate members in the private labour market. However, we don’t see an equal demand for [those with] bachelor degrees.”