Is higher education set to become an economic handmaiden?

Academics are concerned that the new Danish government – a three-party coalition made up of the Social Democrats, the liberal Venstre (Left) party and the Moderates (collectively known as the SVM) – intends to prioritise the needs of the labour market and the economy in its approach to higher education.

As reported last year by University World News, the changing political landscape in Denmark has led to a coalition government bridging the socialist-conservative blocks that have existed for more than 40 years. The new government continues to be led by Social Democrat leader Mette Frederiksen who stays on as prime minister for a second term.

The centrist Moderate party, founded by former Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen in 2021, saw a surge in popularity during campaigning for the 2022 general election, eventually ending up as the third largest party with 16 seats.

The Moderates had positioned themselves at the tipping point between the blue and the red bloc when it came to deciding the next prime minister, but the incumbent red bloc won a majority, thus preventing the Moderates from having a decisive seats in the current government.

A joint government platform

After seven weeks of negotiations the SVM governmental platform was presented as an agreement between the three parties under the banner: “Responsibility for Denmark. The political foundation of the government” (in Danish).

At a press conference at Marienborg, the prime minister’s official residence north of Copenhagen, Frederiksen explained what she termed a “reform path” in education.

“We will invest more in business education. Welfare education (teachers, nurses, social workers and pedagogues) will be exempted from moving out [of the big cities] and the masters degrees will be reduced so that half of the graduates will complete the degree in one year [instead of two] and more resources will be used in teaching and supervision,” she announced.

The higher education elements in the platform are as follows:

• Establish 500 to 1,000 new study places in English-taught, business-relevant, masters degrees where there is a lack of experts in the workforce.

• Analyse selected higher education so it better matches demand in the workforce.

• Analyse how merit from work can contribute more to academic competence.

• Establish new flexible paths at universities so that half of graduates can complete a masters degree in one year.

• Better lifelong learning options for those taking the one-year masters degree.

• Active involvement of all stakeholders – universities, industry, business, students and others – in working out reforms so that the first graduates [after the reforms] can finish in 2029.

• Make a future-secured system for governmental funding (state student grant, the SU) so that it is adapted to five years of full-time studies [against six currently].

• In dialogue with universities, seek to increase international students within limited areas where there is a demand in the workforce while respecting former political agreements, also with regard to the student grant.

The direction taken by the new government has been criticised by some higher education stakeholders.

Jesper Langergaard, director of Universities Denmark, said while the organisation welcomed new Minister of Higher Education and Science Christina Egelund, it was “at the same time somewhat worried about the direction of the government set forth in the tri-party agreement that will act as a platform for the new government”.

Langergaard said the proposal to reduce the length of up to half of all university degrees so that study time will be reduced to four years from five presents a risk of “lower quality and poorer university graduates in the future”.

He said the fact that research “is almost absent” from the agreement, combined with “substantial budget cuts in the humanities, social sciences and business education”, was also of concern.

“In short, the sky is looking a bit gloomy for the universities in Denmark in the coming years,” said Langergaard.

President of the academic labour union DM, the Danish Association of masters and PhDs, Camilla Gregersen, told University World News that her union believed the reduction in study time for 50% of masters programmes was a “huge loss for society”.

“We also believe that the SU should be preserved to maintain flexibility in the education system.

“We hope that the new Minister of Employment Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen will prioritise a Working Environment Agreement as soon as possible, which should have a clear ambition on how to reduce poor psychological working environments. This can increase the labour supply at a time when employers are clamouring for labour,” she said.

Gregersen added, however, that she was “hopeful” about the new minister for digitisation and gender equality position, which “heralds new times for digitisation and equality which both need a significant boost on the national agenda”.

Focus on the labour market

Professor Susan Wright, who is co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Futures (CHEF) at Aarhus University, commented to University World News that the elements of the government’s platform “make very clear that the government treats higher and further education as the handmaiden of industrial innovation and a competitive economy. The section of the government’s platform devoted to education focuses almost entirely on the needs of the labour market.”

Wright said that while it is “crucially important that graduates gain employment, education also has its own purposes, not least enabling people to get excited about exploring existing ideas and developing new ones, following a thirst for knowledge, and equipping them with the critical thinking needed to analyse what is happening in the world and the ability to conceive and act on alternatives.

“These abilities are valuable for employees, but also for engaging with all other aspects of society and democracy. This understanding of education as a valuable domain in itself is missing from current political discourse,” she said.

Wright said the government’s plan to reduce half of the candidate programmes in Denmark from two years to one derived from a report of the Reform Commission, which proposed major changes to the aims, organisation and funding of Danish higher education, but was not grounded in higher education research.

“It draws on Danish statistics and documents from think tanks (including EY [a professional services organisation] and KPMG) but there is only one reference to a peer-reviewed academic publication. It is, therefore, unclear on what premises, surmises or views the Commission reached its conclusions.

“The proposal to halve candidate programmes is riddled with misconceptions. First, it suggests that by reducing the masters from 120 ECTS [European Credit Transfer System] to 75 ECTS and increasing the teaching input, this will improve the programmes.”

A ‘banking’ notion of education

Wright said: “This idea echoes what Paulo Freire called a ‘banking’ notion of education, where teachers, akin to bank clerks, 'deposit' more and more information into students’ heads.”

The strength of the Danish candidate degree lay in the fact that in the second year students used the knowledge gained from courses to address a specific problem in their field, said Wright. They were expected to design and run their own research, learn how to analyse raw material and write up the results in a coherent argument that demonstrates a contribution to existing knowledge.

“The proposal to cut out the second year of active learning removes the main purpose of a masters degree. The idea that students can be compensated by more teaching is flawed because by law, studies are based on a working week distributed between teaching, reading, supervision and other student actvities,” she explained.

“If the proportion of teaching time increases, the time for self-study and active learning decreases. The British masters degree tries to cram what we do in two academic years into 12 months, but the results are generally much weaker as students do not have time to digest, own and actively use their learning.

“Even so, the UK’s masters is 120 ECTS and the Danish proposal for two semesters of teaching and an essay for 75 ECTS will leave students with a degree that does not reach the standard of a masters and will be unrecognisable outside Denmark as it does not fit the Bologna degree structure.”

A potential loss in productivity

The Danish Confederation of Professional Associations (Akademikerne) also suggested that the reforms would make Denmark poorer.

Lisbeth Lintz, president of Akademikerne, said a government intending to take responsibility for Denmark’s future should invest in “what we are dependent upon to be able to keep up the welfare and affluence in society”.

She noted that when the former Social Democratic government presented a proposition to reduce the masters degrees, the Danish Economic Councils said it might produce a huge loss in productivity.

“We do not think that Denmark needs measures that are weakening productivity,” she said.

Karsten Bo Larsen, research director at the Centre for Political Studies – an independent, liberal, free-market think tank based in Copenhagen – said an alternative to reducing the study time for masters degrees would have been “to let fewer candidates take the masters degree instead of reducing the quality”.

Søs Marie Serup, a political commentator in the Danish tabloid B.T., said the proposal would lead to what she would characterise as “a massacre, in particular, at the universities”.

“In total it looks like one is drawing the money out of the universities to place it elsewhere. That is an enormous change. And it will definitely not be popular at all places,” she said.

The newspaper Information also wrote on 17 December that the “brutal cuts at universities” constituted a “huge change in the whole higher education system”, equal to the number of graduates of all the humanities and a significant part of social sciences.

“And the change is not decided upon to create a good education at each faculty, but it is designed to secure resources elsewhere,” it noted.

Knowledge levels

Professor Brian Bech Nielsen, chair of the rector’s collegium at Universities Denmark and rector of Aarhus University, said he was worried about the coming government and their ambitions for the education sector.

“It is completely incomprehensible that one now is going out to lower the knowledge level in Danish society,” he told science publication

He disagreed that the shortened masters degrees will be compensated by more teaching and supervision, as claimed by the government.

“The quality simply cannot increase when you are cutting down the degrees by one year. It is simply wrong in my optical perspective because quality takes time. It is time-consuming to go deeply into an issue and understand it and get it under our skin. And that time is now cut,” said Nielsen.

Professor emeritus at Copenhagen University Heine Andersen told University World News the announced plans for research and universities from the new government raise “serious concerns” for the future.

“Research is almost not mentioned at all in the plans, and at universities there are plans for drastic cuts,” he said. He said the cuts to the masters study time and a reduction in student grants were “very dangerous signals”.

An ‘attack’ on students

Julie Lindmann, chair of the National Union of Students, which has a membership of 165,000 students, told University World News the new government is “attacking students hard”.

“It is not comprehensible that a new government – at a time of massive dissatisfaction among the young – is choosing to cut the SU and also to cut the time for the masters degree, and by doing so to place further stress on thousands of students who have already, before this, faced a … difficult situation with Corona[virus] and the recent cut in daily allowances,” Lindmann said.

On Monday 19 December 2022 the University Alliance held a demonstration, together with the DSF and nine other student organisations, in central Copenhagen under the slogan: “Lower the speed: keep the SU. Higher education is not a highway!”

“We are concerned because when too many young people are unhappy, we need politicians who understand that the straight path through the education system is not for everyone,” said Lindmann.

“But the new government wants a different path. They want to cut the student grant, so that there is no longer room to leave the correct path without having to take on debt.

“That’s why we now shout out and stand together,” she said.