Rectors propose ‘less risky’ path to shortened masters

Rectors of Denmark’s eight state-funded universities have presented what they consider to be a more sustainable alternative to the government’s plan, currently being discussed in parliament, to shorten up to half of the country’s two-year masters programmes and make the degree more industry-oriented.

In a press release on 30 May, Universities Denmark said it was proposing a reform of the masters degree that will make it possible to guarantee both the quality of the degree and the employability of graduates.

The eight vice-chancellors making up the membership of Universities Denmark are Brian Bech Nielsen of the Aarhus University, Nikolaj Malchow-Møller of the Copenhagen Business School, Henrik C Wegener of Copenhagen University, Jens Ringsmose of the University of Southern Denmark, Hanne Leth Andersen of Roskilde University, Per Michael Johansen of Aalborg University, Anders O Bjarklev of Denmark Technological University, and Per Bruun Brockhoff of the ITU-University of Copenhagen.

Nielsen, who is also chair of the rector’s collegium at Universities Denmark said: “The government has expressed its intention to create more flexibility for the students and at the same time increase the supply [of masters degree candidates] and [produce] economic gains. All those … are covered by our proposal and in a much better way both for students, employers and for society at large.”

Six months ago, the government presented its proposal for the reform of the masters degree, as reported by University World News.

Under the reforms proposed by the government’s Reform Commission, up to half of the country’s masters candidates would take a shortened, 16-month degree (mini-masters) or a business education degree.

A ‘dangerous’ project

Danish universities and other stakeholders have been extremely sceptical about the move, arguing they cannot see how the shortening of what is sometimes referred to as a candidate degree will improve the quality or how it will prepare Denmark “better for the future” – the tagline given to the reform by the government.

Instead, the rectors have proposed that the university intake for two-year masters programmes be cut by only 5-10%. They also suggest that instead of aiming for 20% of candidate degrees to become industrial degrees, this should be limited to 5%.

Nielsen said: “To shorten the masters degrees is a large and very dangerous project. We must harvest some experiences with the new and shortened masters degrees before rolling it out to the greater parts of our higher education system.”

He said the rectors’ proposal represented a more “sustainable reform” that ensures societal benefit and a sufficient supply of highly educated workers at the level required in the governmental proposal but “without the great risks that are found in the very extensive changes in higher education in the proposal by the government”.

Chair of the National Union of Students in Denmark (DSF) Esben Bjørn Salmonsen told University World News while the proposal from the rectors was “more balanced” than the government’s proposal, a better move would be to “to scratch the whole reform and start over again”.

He said any new reform thoughts should focus on what would increase the academic quality of education and wellbeing of students.

“In DSF we are very sceptical of reforming our education to increase the workforce according to the Ministry of Finance. The narrow-minded focus on that is harming our education."

Fundamental questions

Professor Susan Wright, who is co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Futures (CHEF) at Aarhus University, described the rectors’ proposal as a “wiser way to approach reforming Danish candidate [masters] education”, but said “some fundamental questions still need to be asked about what is going wrong before trying to fix it”.

Outlining the national context in which the reforms are being proposed, she said Denmark was faced with falling numbers of young people, a continuous labour market demand for people with a masters degree, and a historically low unemployment rate among graduates with a masters degree.

“From 2012 to 2022, the proportion of the 30-69 age group with a higher education qualification (from an industrial academy, professional high school or university) rose from 32% to 42%.

“One question is: what is an appropriate balance between those types of higher education? In that period, the percentage of the 30-69 age group with a qualification from an industrial academy fell from 38% to 34% and numbers at university had been rising, but still only about 18% of that age group had a university education in 2022,” she told University World News.

“This is low by European standards but is maybe appropriate given the constellation of higher education institutions in Denmark. The government’s control of university places and funding means that it can limit the places in university education without changing the candidate degree itself.”

Wright said to compensate for the rectors’ proposal to cut the two-year masters programme by 5-10%, Denmark’s rising demand for highly qualified labour would necessitate the recruitment of more international students.

“They would not be attracted to the mini-masters degree (75 ECTS) proposed by the Reform Commission as it does not even meet the standard of the UK’s one-year masters degree and would not be a qualification recognised across Europe for employment or access to PhD programmes,” she said.

Differences between disciplines

“This opens a second question: whether and how the candidate degree itself needs changing. Candidate programmes seem to vary considerably by discipline. Some candidate degrees offer a chance for students to switch from their bachelor subject and engage in a new, small, specialised, or interdisciplinary subject over two years.

“Others offer a pathway for students with a ‘professional bachelor’ degree to rise to the level of a university candidate and that involves a steep learning curve over two years. In many arts and humanities degrees, higher level taught courses on theory and research methods in the first year are followed in the second year by the student using their knowledge actively to design their own project, and learn how to collect original material, analyse it and write a thesis that demonstrates how they are advancing on existing knowledge.”

Wright said cutting the second year of active learning would damage the whole purpose of the degree, let alone its value to employers looking for original thinking and analytical abilities.

“A colleague in physics however told me recently that students can achieve that in a one-year masters in his discipline. The rectors are suggesting that the risky proposal to shorten candidate degrees should be limited to only 10% of the programmes. That would be sensible if it were treated as an experiment with structured research and discussion about the benefits and disadvantages of a shorter candidate degree for different disciplines and types of programmes,” she said.

Wright said the rectors’ proposal regarding the government’s aim for 20% of masters degrees to become industrial degrees had prompted serious doubts from industry as to whether it could provide sufficient places to graduates.

Societal engagement

“On the other hand, the Danish Council for Research and Innovation policy under the ministry’s recent report provides clear evidence that academics have vastly increased their sharing of research and knowledge with surrounding society, and an obvious way to extend this trend is through education programmes,” she said.

“Some disciplines have an established relationship with clearly defined industries in their field, others, like anthropology, have built up links with a vast array of organisations that offer placements and benefit from students’ disciplinary expertise.”

Wright said the rectors’ plan – to aim initially for 5% of industrial degrees, where the student is full time at university in the first year and then half time working in an organisation and half time at university over a further two years – seemed to solve another problem, “as many candidate students currently need paid work to supplement [the state educational grant] and are also expected to study full time”.

The suggestion that an additional 15% of two-year masters degrees should include a compulsory element of around one semester (20-30 ECTS) directed towards project employment “would suit a wide range of disciplines (like education), where the student’s research is already engaged with a sector”, she said.

Wright said the rectors’ proposals would hopefully “open up a space for politicians and academics to engage in a more constructive discussion than hitherto” about how to maintain the quality of Denmark’s two-year masters degree, whilst balancing the different kinds of higher education and experimenting with “ways to engage education programmes in the existing academic trend of exchanging knowledge with surrounding society”.