Scepticism over government’s one-year masters degree plan

Proposed reforms to masters degree programmes, which will reduce the period of study for up to 50% of masters degrees from two years to one, have been met with scepticism by many higher education stakeholders.

The reforms, titled Danmark kan mere III (‘Denmark can do more part III’), propose to make up to 50% of masters degrees – mainly in the humanities and social sciences – available as one-year courses and create three different pathways to the masters degree.

If the proposed reforms are accepted, the first student in the new one-year masters degree is expected to graduate in 2029.

The reforms are ostensibly aimed at better preparing students for the transition to work.

At a press conference in Copenhagen on 26 September 2022, Higher Education and Science Minister Jesper Petersen said the government was trying to ensure that students are “better prepared for working life” and was “investing in the quality of higher education”.

“Many graduating today from the universities are experiencing a difficult transfer from education to work. The government wants higher education that is better suited to the reality meeting students in the workforce,” he said.

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said the reforms meant “better quality, more supervision and also better well-being”.

The proposed reforms are based on the proposals of a reform commission led by Professor Nina Smith for a thorough overhaul of the Danish masters degree.

Work and study

In terms of the proposal, around 35% of existing masters degrees will become one-year programmes and 15% will become “professional” masters degrees. The reforms also include a plan to have students work for up to 25 hours a week.

The government estimates the reforms will free up DKK2 billion (US$260 million) in the budget, with DKK1.2 billion coming from the increased supply of graduates into the workforce. Surpluses will be ploughed back into higher education.

The government says the surplus will allow for an increase of 15 hours of teaching and supervision in the new one-year masters degree, and at least 20 more hours of teaching and supervision in bachelor degrees and the two-year masters degree.

In addition, more funds will go towards improvements of teachers’ qualifications and the quality of teaching in general.

“We are going to prepare the students better for the work and invest more in the quality of higher education. Too many students today are having too few hours of teaching, too little contact with the working life, and too many difficulties in translating their qualifications to the needs in the workforce,” said Petersen.

“We have to take a political responsibility for this and, therefore, we are embarking upon a reform of historical dimensions that will lift the quality and give the students more options on which paths to select in higher education.”

Response to the proposed reforms has generally been sceptical.

President of the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations (Akademikerne) Lisbeth Lintz said in a statement that Denmark “is in need of more, not less higher education”.

“When the government is proposing to cut the masters degrees in half, the students will be divided into an A-group and a B-group preparing for a workforce that does not value a one-year masters degree. This is playing recklessly with the future of the young,” she said.

Universities Denmark said it was concerned the reforms would lead to fewer students taking a five-year university degree.

More consultation

Calling for more consultation with universities and business, Chair of Universities Denmark Professor Brian Bech Nielsen told Danish media: “It is an illusion to believe that the young people can reach the same level of knowledge with a 50% reduction in the time it takes to get a masters degree. Nothing indicates that employers are looking for younger people with less higher education.

“Universities Denmark is proposing that before action is taken on such an extensive political reform, students, business and the universities should be consulted.”

Universities Denmark Director Jesper Langergaard echoed these comments when he told University World News the proposed reforms were “dramatic” and would lead inevitably to a drop in the overall education level in Denmark which would affect its international competitiveness.

“The scope of what the government is proposing here is enormous. Cutting a year of the education from half of the students is, suddenly, not something we would recommend. There is no evidence that these graduates with a shorter education will be in demand.

“I am afraid that they will end up being losers in this proposal. This will inevitably lead to a drop in the overall education level in Denmark and will affect international competitiveness of businesses in Denmark, as well as society as a whole.

Chairperson of the Danish Society of Engineers (IDA) Laura Klitgaard said cutting the study time for half of masters graduates was not in line with reality and might harm the Danish “growth engine”.

Klitgaard told that the ministry had informed IDA that the proposal amounts to shortening almost one in three of the masters programmes in the technical and natural sciences.

“In the engineering field today, we have a well-functioning labour market with diploma engineers having a bachelor’s degree and civil engineers having a masters degree. For as far as the eye can see there is demand for engineering graduates of the two-year degree and some businesses are even saying that is insufficient. One has to step carefully [in this reform] if the reality is that Danish enterprises are not in the need of one-year candidates,” she said.

Mads Eriksen Storm, head of higher education and research at the Danish Chamber of Commerce, told University World News that from a private sector point of view it was crucial that quality and relevance are prioritised.

“If some degrees are to be shorter, it must be certain that it doesn’t mean poorer degrees … We find it difficult to understand that if, for instance, a history masters graduate fails to get a job after five years, how should it be easier after four? Why don’t we let fewer people in these degrees in the first place?”

Academic freedom concerns

Professor Emeritus Heine Andersen at Copenhagen University told University World News the proposed reforms represented a “serious violation” of academic freedom.

“Not only will the state reduce the number of years students can spend on their studies, but the state will dictate how many hours a week universities must deliver lectures. Ridiculous in universities!”

Julie Lindmann, president of the National Union of Students in Denmark (DFS), accused the government of “gambling” with higher education.

“One is presenting a reform with very narrow frames and then you are appointing a committee [to analyse the proposal]”, Lindmann said. “DFS is strongly critical of the proposal and we will maintain this position even if we are members of the evaluation committee,” she said.

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 that a shorter masters degree would “inevitably reduce the students’ opportunities”.

“We risk creating an A- and a B-team,” she said. “Employers will certainly still choose those who have spent two years specialising, and yearn for more talented candidates.

“There is no need to experiment with the youth and its education, especially at a time when there is a real need for well-educated young people, so that Denmark’s growth industries will not stall.

“We will become poorer as a society if we reduce knowledge. A shorter masters degree without the opportunity to immerse oneself will rob the students of the independence that companies demand of their employees,” she said.