Danish reforms will impact both domestic and international students

Denmark is in the grip of a productivity crisis. Economic growth has been slow to nil in recent years and sluggish productivity, expert say, is to blame. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that Danish productivity has been lagging the world’s leading economies for much of the last two decades, and growth forecasts are slight – the Danish government projects GDP growth of 1.6% this year and 1.9% in 2015.

The Danish government formed a national Productivity Commission in 2012 to investigate, and its wide-ranging findings have included a December 2013 report, Education and Innovation, which called for sweeping reforms of higher education in Denmark. The Commission proposed an overhaul of funding models for education and the introduction of tuition fees for students – currently, non-EU students pay tuition fees but Danish and EU students do not – along with a renewed focus on quality and relevance with respect to labour market requirements.

Meanwhile, a second team, the Quality Commission, has also been reporting on Danish education this year, with an initial report in April, an interim report in September (largely formed, it appears, to rebut a firestorm of criticism arising from the April report), and a final report due later this month.

Danish undergraduate degrees currently require two to three years to complete, after which most students go on to complete a master’s degree for an additional two years – making the master’s degree the de facto entry point to the work force for most Danish graduates. The Quality Commission has proposed tougher admissions requirements for Danish universities and the expansion of bachelor degrees to four years.

Under the Quality Commission’s proposals, the number of spaces in master’s programmes would also be capped at one-third of the annual graduating cohort, and a majority of students would enter the work force after their undergraduate studies. The expanded bachelor degree programmes, the commission suggests, would include a fourth-year curriculum more closely tied to employer or labour market requirements.

Quality, relevance, and productivity

Quality, relevance, and productivity now appear to be the key terms at play in the reform debate in Denmark. The Danish government has said that it does not intend to introduce tuition fees for Danish students. However, it has already moved forward with other Productivity Commission recommendations and it seems clear that change is coming to the country’s higher education system this year and next.

Amidst strong criticism from academics and students alike, the Minister of Higher Education and Science, Sofie Carsten Nielsen has introduced a new quota system that aims to reduce enrolment in programmes with poor employment prospects and encourage enrolment in fields of study for which there is greater demand in the labour market.

The move is a striking example of more direct government intervention to address substantial challenges of employability of graduates and to match graduate skills with labour market requirements. The minister’s plan will cut 4,000 spaces over the next three years for programmes with a poor employment outlook. “Today 15,000 students are admitted each year to higher education [degrees] that have bad job prospects,” said an official ministry release. “Within three years the number will be reduced to 11,000. That means 1,300 fewer places each year for the next three years.”

The new quota system relies on historical employment data for the period 2002 to 2011, with particular reference to the percentage of graduates still unemployed in their second year after graduation, and then sets out an enrolment cap tied to average intakes in the period 2009 to 2013.

Some argue that only major changes to the system will create a shift in enrolment toward more in-demand fields of study, and, by extension, a shift in labour markets to a greater share of private-sector employment. Less than half of Danish graduates are employed in the private sector presently, compared with an EU average of 60%.

Other observers, however, are not convinced. University World News quotes an editorial from the Danish newspaper Politiken that says starkly: “Government is axing the humanities. Over the next three years, institutions have to reduce the number of new study places by 2,363 at the universities alone. Courses in language, arts subjects and media and communication are all among those that have to reduce intake by 30%.”

And Palle Rasmussen, a professor of education and learning research at Aalborg University, tells Agency France Presse, “The problem is not as serious as some people would have it. If there are some courses that don’t lead to jobs, students will eventually avoid them.”

The first doors closing for international students

In the wake of the new quota systems, Copenhagen University and the University of Southern Denmark announced this month that they will not enrol new international students from 2015 onwards.

The move effectively places the government’s internationalisation agenda in direct conflict with the implementation of planned enrolment caps for some fields of study.

University World News reports, “At Copenhagen University, prorector Lykke Friis said the universities had no other choice when more than 60 master’s degree programmes would have to reduce their intakes of Danish students in 2015 and onwards.

Ms Friis told the Information newspaper it was difficult for Copenhagen universities to fulfill the internationalisation strategic plan of the Ministry when there were not enough study places available for local bachelor’s candidates who had graduated and had a legal right for further education.”

“This will be a hard blow to internationalisation but I don’t think the Minister fully understands the consequences [of the new quota system],” added Maja Horst, head of the department of media, cognition, and communication at Copenhagen University.



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