University masters degree reforms: Practical or political?

While welcoming the surge in interest in the humanities as a result of recent government proposals to cut up to half of the two-year humanities masters programmes offered by Danish universities to one year, peak body Universities Denmark has produced a report on the humanities that argues the need for facts rather than politics.

“Dialogues and political initiatives work best when they are based on facts,” according to Professor Jens Ringsmose, rector of the University of Southern Denmark and chair of a taskforce set up by Universities Denmark to examine the future of the humanities in Danish universities.

In an article about the discussion paper published on 17 March in Altinget, a leading political news site, Ringsmose said while the recent (copious) opinions being expressed about “what the humanities are and – perhaps in particular – about what the humanities should be” are “refreshing in many ways”, it was also possible to get the feeling from time to time that “only a few people are actually aware of the major changes that have characterised the humanities field over the past decade”.

Such changes include a drop of 47% in admissions of bachelor degree students to humanities programmes since 2013, when admissions to the humanities were at their highest.

According to Ringsmose, enrolment in the humanities field is now 10% lower than the number admitted in 1990, when 5,113 students were admitted, against 4,627 in 2022. In comparison, the population in Denmark has grown by approximately 16% since 1990.

“In addition to the structural changes, the content of the courses has also changed significantly. Today, there is a much stronger bond between humanities education and business. The students have, for example, significantly better opportunities to participate in project-oriented courses and to write a thesis together with companies,” he said.

“At the same time, we have sharpened the competence profiles of the programmes, for example, through dialogue with our customer panels, composed of representatives of public and private companies.”

Arguing the need for more clarity about and understanding of the humanities, he also noted that there is today historically low unemployment among newly graduated graduates from the humanities.

How will it work?

In the wake of the discussion paper, journalist Thomas Bøttcher, writing in DM Akademikerbladet on 23 March, questioned both the pragmatism and realism of the proposed higher education reforms.

“Further cuts will kill the humanities, according to the woman that is the mind behind the present reform discussions [Professor of Economics Nina Smith], but is the change to the one-year [masters] degrees any better?” Bøttcher asked.

“Smith has proposed that eight out of 10 masters education places be changed from two- to a one-year masters degrees as a part of the university reforms. But how? In 2022 Copenhagen University, Aalborg University, Aarhus University and the University of Southern Denmark admitted a combined 3,546 masters students to the humanities – but these were distributed across 123 different programmes,” Bøttcher noted.

He said 52 of the 123 humanities masters programmes admitted 20 students or fewer.

“So how does the government intend to reallocate 80% of all study places at the department of cross-cultural and regional studies at the University of Copenhagen, where Assyriology only admitted two students in 2022, Asian studies 11, Greenlandic and Arctic studies four, religious studies 21 and Eastern European studies in total seven students?

“According to the draft, there must continue to be two-year masters programmes, but with new content; in addition there must be one-year masters programmes and a focus on vocational candidates. This means the introduction of two new study schemes in addition to the old one, which must function in a transitional phase.”

Purpose of reforms

Member of Parliament Victoria Velasquez of the Red-Green Alliance (EL) on 7 March also posed a similar question when she asked Minister for Higher Education and Science Christina Egelund directly: “Is it the aim of the government that fewer masters degree graduates shall be educated with the governmental proposal ‘Prepared for the future’?”

Academics and students appear to be widely opposed to the move and have challenged the basis for the reforms.

Esben Bjørn Salmonsen, chair of the National Union of Students in Denmark, told University World News that further cuts to the humanities would be irresponsible since it would diminish the number of subjects it is possible to study in Denmark.

“We need to protect research environments in Denmark,” said Salmonsen.

“There [are] a lot of myths about the humanities in Denmark. That the unemployment is too high, and the wages are too low. These conceptions are mainly based in the past, and a lot of these numbers are moving fast right now. It is [inappropriate] to base future education uptake on past employment statistics.”

Professor Hanne Leth Andersen, rector of Roskilde University and chair of the Universities Denmark education committee, said the new government's reform had not specified the percentage of one-year masters in different discipline areas.

"There are, of course, discussions about the distribution between main areas/specific education such as engineering, data science, language studies, high school teaching, etc.

"This is understandable, since there are good reasons for the length of most candidate programmes, with the profile of academic competences [such as] experience with the use of advanced and specialised methods, independent project management and implementation such as in thesis work, ability to develop solutions to emerging problems, and international experience."

Camilla Gregersen, chair of the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs (DM), told University World News the reduction in the masters programme from two to one year would affect the quality of graduates.

“They will become less attractive to potential employers, and we risk creating an A and a B team, where employers will prefer candidates with five years of education to those with only four years of education. It is wrong to abbreviate the masters programmes, and that goes for STEM, social sciences and arts.

“In addition, the number of humanities graduates has fallen significantly in recent years, and we risk not only that the quality of the graduates will get worse, but also that we will have too few,” Gregersen said.

She said the new system would produce “a lower level of education, which will trickle down through the system to the educational institutions where several four-year graduates will teach.”

The politics of reform

Heine Andersen, professor emeritus at the University of Copenhagen, told University World News the most likely interpretation of the reforms was political: the Social Democrats’ “attempts to regain the position as the number one party of skilled and unskilled workers”, he said.

“And that is why education policy has to gradually become more labour-oriented, with more focus on giving unskilled people an education and ensuring that we train enough skilled workers in the future. Children who do not ‘discuss abstracts around the dinner table’ should also feel welcome at school, as Minister for Children and Education Mattias Tesfaye has said.

“What you see is an unholy alliance between, on the one hand, neoclassical supply-side economics with their Excel sheet forecasts, and, on the other hand, populist labourism. In Denmark there is an old tradition of anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism in large parts of the working class, peasant population and middle class. Academics and researchers, especially those in the humanities, are of no use. That’s what we see coming up now,” he said.

Associate Professor Jesper Eckhardt Larsen of the department of pedagogy at the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, who has a PhD degree and has written a book on the humanities, told University World News the humanities – prioritised from 1945 as a means to contribute to building peace, values and culture after the war – are today seen as a problem child.

“… Or something that should be prioritised down, and perhaps should have its name changed to ‘communication’ or something else that can be useful for something that can be performed in the working life,” he said.

He said Denmark had not dared to prioritise the humanities “due to a stronger political attitude towards university research from a more or less transparent anti-academic view in a polarised public sphere”.

Larsen observed that in the Danish context there is an almost impenetrable cultural divide between teacher training and education at universities. He has analysed this as “an echo of the Danish schisma between the ‘Madvigianism’ (‘the university man’ Johan Nikolai Madvig, 1804-86) and the ‘Grundtvigianism’ (‘the people’s man’ NFS Grundtvig, 1783-1872).”

Larsen has identified three key trends in attitudes towards the humanities since the end of the last century which indirectly build upon what he terms a common ‘scripture’: a knowledge elite is pointed out; this elite is attributed values that are in conflict with the ‘interest of the people’; and this elite is regarded as identical with the humanities.

Contemporary trends

In contemporary politics, these trends are evident in the following ways.

First, in the fighting off of experts from the Liberal government (during the reign of Anders Fogh Rasmussen in 2001). Here, Larsen highlighted the New Year speech made by Rasmussen in 2001-02 in which Rasmussen spoke of a “trend towards a tyranny of experts” and said the people themselves were the “best at choosing”.

Secondly, the trend was visible in the rise of a new working-class line in the Social Democrats (under Mette Frederiksen since 2019). Larsen observed that it is no longer the unity of the people’s role towards the individual, but the role of the individual in the unity of the people that is at the centre for the Social Democratic understanding of civility.

This includes a prioritisation of ‘welfare educations’ that include teacher training and nursing, but not secondary school teaching and is expressed in It Pays to Invest in People: a book on social investment, early intervention, the finance ministers’ models of calculations and the socio-economic investment model (SØM), written by two Social Democrats, Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen and Pernille Rosenkrantz-Theil (2018).

Thirdly, Larsen noted that the fighting-off of ‘wokeness’ in the United States had found a Danish parallel in the statement from parliament in May 2021 titled “On exaggerated activism in certain research environments” which was passed on 1 June 2021 by a vote of 72 to 24.

Tabled by right-leaning members of several parties – Henrik Dahl (Liberal Alliance), Bjørn Brandenborg (Social Democrats), Ulla Tørnæs (Liberal), Morten Messerschmidt (Danish People’s Party), Britt Bager (Conservative), Peter Seier Christensen (New Right) and Jens Rohde (Liberal) – the proposal reminded university leaders of the Danish parliament’s expectation that university management ensures that the “self-regulation” of scientific practice actually works, that politics is not “disguised as science” and that “it is not possible to systematically evade justified professional criticism”.

The proposal drew criticism in an open letter from over 3,300 academics who argued it infringed on academic freedom and specifically targeted critical research and teaching, especially in race, gender, migration and post-colonial studies.