Scrapping of English-taught courses hits STEM admissions

The publication of Denmark’s 2022 higher education intake in late July revealed a sharp decline in applications for studies linked to welfare services. As reported by University World News, applications for courses such as teacher training, social work and some others fell by 14%, with nursing applications falling by a record 32%.

An outcry followed in Danish newspapers. In a statement, Minister of Higher Education and Science Jesper Petersen described the developments as “deeply worrying” and said the government was taking action on “several fronts”.

However, the outcry became even louder when further analysis by the ministry (in Danish) showed that closure of English-taught degrees (mainly at business academies and in respect of professional bachelor degrees – a total of 87 courses offering 3,900 places) had led to significant falls in admissions in English language courses as follows: 46% in STEM admissions, 51% in IT admissions and 24% in students admitted to engineering courses from 2021 to 2022.

According to the ministry, the drop in intake of all STEM students (across both English and Danish language courses) was 1,573 or 10% of the total intake. The loss of more than half of that number – 808 students – was due to reduced intake into English-taught STEM degree courses, which fell from 1,749 in 2021 to 941 in 2022 (46%). The total reduction of Danish-taught STEM courses, however, was only 5% (381 students).

For IT education, intake in English-taught courses fell from 1,182 in 2021 to 577 in 2022 (51%) and in engineering from 882 to 674 (24%).

The biggest drop in STEM intake was felt at business academies which only accepted 22 students into English-taught degrees in 2022 compared with 415 in 2021, a fall of 94%. Also, IT education taught in English at business academies fell sharply from 83 students in 2022 compared to 561 in 2021, a drop of 85%.

‘An accident in slow motion’

In a headline on 29 July, leading Danish newspaper Politiken announced: “The prognosis of a shortage of intelligence workers in 2030 is an accident happening in slow motion.”

University and industry leaders are understandably unhappy about the developments.

Rector of the Copenhagen School of Design and Technology (KEA) Steen Enemark Kildesgaard told Berlingske Tidende on 27 July: “We regret this development. KEA could have had an even better intake and by that a better delivery of strongly sought-after experts to the Danish workforce if we could have kept our English-taught degrees.”

“It is regrettable that we now have to reduce our intake by 7%. Women now account for one third of those accepted for our STEM degrees,” he said.

On its website, KEA states: “KEA no longer admits new full degree students to English-taught programmes (the so-called international lines). New intakes take place at the Danish lines. Current students who are already a part of an international line can complete their education at KEA.”

Laura Klitgaard, chairperson of the Danish Society of Engineers (IDA) representing 140,000 members who are engineers, natural scientists and IT specialists, and chair of Engineer the, a 50-member alliance of technological companies, educational institutions and organisations working to create the foundation for more future knowledge workers, expressed her concerns via Twitter on 28 July.

Insufficient graduates

“We are not educating sufficient IT, engineering and technology [graduates] to be able to fill the need. It is frustrating that the good level of intake [at universities] from the [earlier] years could not be sustained. We need to take in more students, also from abroad.”

In an IDA press release on 28 July, she said: “Danish businesses are already striving for more workforce in these areas [IT, engineering, technology] and are forced to steal staff from each other.

“With the coming green changes and the extensive digitalisation of the whole of society, the demand for engineers and IT-educated staff will only increase. Now, we are forced to think back on the corona[virus]-period as a positive period and this does not give any meaning.”

Anders Buch, director at the Research Center for Quality of Education, Profession Policy and Practice at VIA University College, told University World News the government’s “closing down of higher education to save SU [government student financing] for international students was wrong”, and the decision needed to be reconsidered.

“Denmark is lacking engineers and other talented heads and those cannot only be conjured by telling Danish students that they should choose a technical higher education,” he said.

Shortfall in IT specialists

Last year, HBS Economics consultancy predicted a shortage of 22,000 IT specialists in Denmark in 2030.

On 1 July, the Danish Agency for International Recruitment and Integration (SIRI) published the so-called “Positive List” of 45 highly-skilled jobs for which Denmark is actively recruiting from abroad. Many of the jobs are in the fields of engineering, natural sciences and information and communication technology.

“As Denmark already has a shortage of people with higher education in 2022, it might be necessary to import huge numbers of STEM specialists from abroad in the years to come, which again is an argument that we should not have closed down the English-taught degrees,” Buch said.

“One should instead have considered different options that could have been used to have international students staying in Denmark upon graduation.

“When the English degrees were scrapped, we lost out on experts with Danish education and knowledge of the Danish language and society, and [now] we have to choose someone educated abroad without that knowledge … The government thinking has been incredibly short-sighted,” Buch said.

The value of international students

Mads Eriksen Storm, head of education and research policy at the Danish Chamber of Commerce, agreed. “The Danish labour market lacks employees in a lot of areas. Instead of reducing the number of international students, the focus should have been on ensuring that more students would stay and work.

“We wish to increase the number of international students in the areas where the labour market is short such as IT,” he said.

Director of Universities Denmark Jesper Langergaard told University World News: “The cost of foreign students is continually of great political interest in Denmark, especially when they exceeded the cap that had been politically agreed by the parties in the Danish parliament.

“However, inviting foreign university students to Denmark is an investment with a net positive return, and with even greater potential if a greater proportion of them choose to stay in Denmark after their studies.”

He added that Denmark benefits from foreign students in the longer run.

“We need our politicians to think beyond that one particular fiscal year and think of the future. We need these talents in Denmark. They contribute greatly to society, to our businesses, to our public sector, to our economy.”

A qualified future workforce

Rector of Roskilde University, Professor Hanne Leth Andersen, who is also chair of the educational committee of Universities Denmark, said the cuts to English-taught programmes were worrying.

“International students and researchers contribute to the quality of our international programmes by introducing broader perspectives, not only in STEM, but also in the fields of social science and humanities. We need these graduates to ensure a qualified future workforce in Denmark within all fields.”

Camilla Gregersen, president of the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs (with 43,000 members) and deputy president of the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations (with 464,000 members), told University World News the decision to cut back significantly on English-taught education would “backfire”.

“In practice, it worsens the lack of educated people in STEM fields. As a trade union in the STEM field, we have warned against this from the beginning.

“I hope that at some point the politicians realise that we need the foreign students. They enrich the studies culturally and contribute financially. We actually cannot do without foreign students.”

National Union of Students in Denmark President Julie Lindmann echoed these thoughts when she told University World News the 2022 intake was a “hard hit” for those rooting for more international students and a diverse student environment.

“Denmark is too small a country to insulate itself and we need to roll back the agreement so we can have more international students in the future – not only for the [sake of the] quality of our education but also for our study environment and the future of the Danish workforce,” she said.