New reforms include bid to attract international students

A Danish government reform plan presented by three ministers on 2 March 2023 is seeking the establishment of 1,100 new university places – increasing to 2,500 each year from 2029 – for international students studying English-taught masters degrees in areas that are in high demand from the Danish business and industrial sector.

The proposed reforms, which introduce four pathways to the masters degree have been greeted with mixed responses.

While it is seen as positive that the reforms are not perceived as a camouflaged cut to higher education funding, as was the bid to move study places out of big cities, there is still widespread scepticism over the government’s proposal to cut the study time for half of the country’s master’s degrees – notably those in the humanities and the social sciences – from two years to 15 months or 75 European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) points.

The new reform plan titled “Prepared for the future – towards a coherent reform plan for education” was presented by Minister of Higher Education and Science Christina Egelund, Minister of Education and Children Mattias Tesfaye and Minister for Economy Troels Lund Poulsen.

The government outlined the new paths towards a masters degree in a press release as follows:

• 1¼-year masters degree with a clear working market goal;
• 2-year masters degree with a greater degree of specialisation;
• 2½ or 3-year masters degrees with higher degree of specialisation;
• Flexible business academy masters degrees of varying length.

“Today it is expected that every fourth young person will complete a university education. In 1990 this was every 10th. The majority chooses the same path regardless of whether they intend to work in the private or the public sector or in research. At the same time many students find that the transfer into the workforce is complicated and that the possibility of taking a university degree while working is limited,” the press release states.

It goes on to say that the new ‘flexible’ university paths are characterised by: an improved quality in university education; new possibilities for further study; more international students studying in areas that are in high demand from the industrial sector; a partnership between universities and the business sector that will develop a new master’s degree; and a masters degree council to develop new masters degrees.

The proposal includes details on how the intake of international students will influence the Danish State Educational Grant and Loans Scheme for students, known as the SU.

The SU is currently the subject of political controversy after it was reported earlier this year by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation that foreign citizens’ student debt to Denmark had increased from DKK800 million (US$115 million) to DKK1.3 billion (US$186 million) over three years.

In 2013 the major parties agreed to cap the total amount of SU support to migrant EU workers at DKK442 million, as previously reported by University World News.

Mixed responses

Camilla Gregersen, Chairperson of the Danish Association of Masters and PhD students (DM), was positive about the fact that the latest reform represents measures to redress the reduction of international students coming to Denmark.

“We strongly appreciate international students coming to Denmark to contribute with their knowledge and new perspectives – please keep coming! We hope that the authorities will find a more effective way to collect student loans in the future without making the system an obstacle for future international students,” she told University World News.

“With that said, we don't believe that tightening regulations on debt collection in Denmark will affect the number of international students. They will still come to explore the great variety of education we offer, to learn more about Danish culture, make friends for life, and have a good time. We don't think they come here with the intention to exploit our system and benefits.”

However, to, she criticised the government’s claim that students will have a closer link to the working market via shortened masters degrees. “No student will have easier access to work with a shortened education,” she said.

Budget allocation

The government has explicitly stated that resources made available via the reforms will be reinvested in the higher education sector – an amount estimated at DKK950 million (US$136.3 million). Of that amount DKK600 million will be used to develop a new “flexible master’s degree landscape”, up to DKK250 million to develop better further education options for those having taken a 1¼ years masters degree, and DKK100 million for more international students.

According to Egelund, “the government wants to secure the whole education system for the future”, while Lund Poulsen said the government wants “to give our students more flexibility so that their career paths can be opened up and not closed … That is why we are proposing this reform of the university education that will make a closer link between the working life and the universities a reality.”

According to he said society will benefit from savings amounting to DKK5.6 billion (US$ 793 million) through the process of getting students into the workforce more quickly.

In an editorial titled “Acute problems not solved” (translated from Danish), Information newspaper wrote: “It is difficult to understand how the new mosaic of different types of master’s degrees is going to create a more transparent higher education landscape that is the declared ambition of the government. And the reform is founded on the dubious precondition that workforce demand will increase the so-called structural employment by 5,900 persons in 2030 by more students entering the workforce faster.”

According to the Information article, economic analysis shows that the need for a higher number of university graduates is not the burning issue. What is needed, it is argued, is for more young people to enter the so-called welfare professions which include nursing, teaching and social work in which admission in 2022 fell by 14% compared to 2019.

Concerns over quality

Lisbeth Lintz Christensen, president of Akademikerne, the Confederation of Professional Associations in Denmark, said while plans for accepting more international students were very positive, the government’s reform proposal was “founded on a speculative grounding”.

“Even if you dress the reform proposal up with good intentions of better quality, it is a fact that the reform is about finding work for 6,000 full-time employees. We will have weakened master’s degrees, lower educational level and, as a result, lowered welfare.

“I fear that the government is starting an experiment that might lead to great consequences for future options of the younger generations. Leaders that are employing graduates both in the public and the private sector have said no thank you to shortened master’s graduates and the same has been said by members of the working panels at the universities,” Lintz said.

Sara Vergo, chairperson of Djøf, the trade union of graduates of the social sciences, business and law, said the government had not listened either to the students or the employers.

“Djøf has established that neither private nor public leaders are wanting the one-year master’s candidates and that our students today are feeling well-equipped for the workforce,” she said. “In spite of this the government is now playing recklessly with the high level of education of which we boast about in Denmark,” Vergo said.

In an article in Berlingske Tidende on 7 March, Natasha Friis Saxberg who is CEO at the Danish ICT Industry Association and vice-chairman, Danish Quantum Community, called for all the so-called STEM courses within the natural sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics to be exempted from the reforms.

“We are very sceptical about the proposal to reduce half of the master’s degrees to be 1¼-years. Businesses are competing on innovation, knowledge and to be in front in relation to solve some of the challenges we are confronting. Therefore, we should also strive for ever more well-educated members of the workforce to be able to handle these challenges and manage the increasing international competition,” she said.

She said a two-year program allowed for necessary specialisation. “Therefore, all so-called STEM-educations within the natural sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics should be exempted from the reform.” she said.

Esben Bjørn Salomonsen, chairperson of the National Union of Students (DSF), told University World News while the union was happy that the government proposes to reopen some international study places, it was “too little too late”.

“The reopening will first start from 2028. And there is no planning on altering the policy that sets a limit to how many international students at a time there can be in Denmark, so the only difference is that since they are here for a shorter period of time, there can be more of them.”