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Spotlight on Denmark

As reforms sweep across Danish universities, quality is replacing quantity as the top political priority, according to the politicians. Others are not entirely convinced, as Thomas Sørensen explains in our latest blog, which shines the spotlight on the country’s higher education sector.

A SMALL country in the North of Europe, Denmark is probably best known abroad for having one of the world’s happiest populations. But a recent wave of reforms in the higher education sector seems to indicate that there is a difference between being happy and being content with things.

In the previous few decades, it’s fair to say that research has dominated education with regards to political attention. And with quite a bit of success: Danish researchers are highly cited – a Scimago ranking places Denmark in second place behind Switzerland in one of its tables, and an international evaluation panel recently issued a report praising the Danish basic research centres.

Education is top of the agenda

In recent years, however, as the financial crisis prompted more and more young Danes to apply to university, politicians, employers and university leaders have lifted education to the top of their agendas.

The political signals have shifted along the way, though.

More students, please!

In the summer of 2011, minister of science Charlotte Sahl-Madsen of the right-leaning Conservative People’s Party called on the Danish universities to admit more students. At the same time, the left-leaning Opposition focused on the rising number of rejected applicants and criticised her for not doing enough.

The universities responded by making room for more students, closing the gap on the politicians’ ambition of having 20 percent of every youth generation acquire a master’s degree.

Later that year, the Opposition won the election, naming Morten Østergaard of the centrist Social-Liberal Party as minister for education (the change in ministerial titles clearly signalling the shift in political attention).

One of the first actions of the new government was to emphasise their focus on education by raising the 20 percent goal to 25 percent.

The applicants listened, and so did the universities. Student numbers kept rising – and so did government expenses.

In Denmark, universities receive funding when students pass exams. At the same time students get monthly grants of around 700 Euros. All told, Denmark spends around 2.4 percent of its GDP on the higher education sector, according to the OECD. A number matched only by Norway’s 2.6 percent.

And even though the rise in public funding seems to be gearing down, you would be hard pressed to find a university leader who would claim that Danish universities have been neglected financially since the 1980s.

We need to talk about quality

Recently, though, something seems to have changed. In early summer of 2013, in the midst of quite an intensive spree of reforms of the HE sector -dramatic restructuring of student grants rules, entirely new quality assurance procedures, and internationalization strategies to name a few – minister Østergaard started emphasising quality over quantity, admitting that the much-celebrated 25 percent goal had overshadowed the need to focus on the content and quality of the education that students were attaining.

Since then, a battle has been waged for the right to define what quality means, and how you measure it. Needless to say, a consensus has not yet formed.

Some are claiming that quantitative measures will overlook the complexity of education and the general value of ‘Bildung’, as the Germans would call it.

At the other end of the spectrum, others have taken the stance that education quality can be measured by looking at graduates’ employment numbers and salaries: A position that has been criticised by student unions for confusing education policy with labour market policy.

Less ‘over-education’

The ministry has tried to settle the discussion by commissioning an ‘Expert Committee on Quality and Relevance’ to develop an end-all definition of quality and to suggest further reforms. The committee presented its first recommendations on April 3 – an event that prompted reactions from all across the HE sector.

Namely one of the committee’s recommendations created waves: A suggestion that the current framework (in which a Bachelor’s degree can be attained in three years and a Master’s in two) be transformed into a 4+1 year model while restricting access to the Master’s level.

According to the committee, this move would mean less ‘over-education’ – a term that the new minister of education Sofie Carsten Nielsen (who took over from fellow social-liberal Morten Østergaard in February 2014) has used on several occasions to underline that politicians now feel that too many are being accepted to university.

The proposal is considered a major departure from the current norm, since almost all Danish bachelors students go on to take a Master’s degree. One of the prominent questions has been whether Danish employers will readily accept workers without Master’s degrees, while others have pointed out that a 4+1 model will put Danish students and universities at a disadvantage with regards to internationalisation and the Bologna process.

Apart from pledging not to introduce tuition fees (access to Danish HE is free for EU citizens), minister Nielsen has tried to remain above the fray, asking that all parties engage in constructive public debate about the report. A second report, moving into the auditoriums and discussing content rather than structure, is anticipated later this year.

Tweeting quality via a hashtag

The committee attracted a fair amount of attention even before it finished its first report. Many noticed that three of its seven members were economists, while none were researchers of education or pedagogy.

This perceived lack of representation was one of the things that inspired two associate professors at Aarhus University – Lone Koefoed Hansen and Peter Lauritsen – to establish an alternative committee on Twitter in late 2013.

Under the auspices of the hashtag #AltUdvalg, students, researchers, university leaders, and even the two different ministers of education and other political figures have contributed to a substantial education debate on the 140 character social media platform.

More than 1,500 tweets have been sent containing the #AltUdvalg tag (the two associate professors estimate that there have been even more contributions that didn’t include the tag), and they will be collected in reports which will then be submitted to the governmental expert committee.

A hidden agenda?

The fact that economists seem to be the driving force behind future education reforms has also led university rectors to doubt the veracity of the politicians’ ‘qualitative turn’.

”Asking five surgeons to evaluate a patient increases the chance of surgery being recommended as a solution”, said the spokesman for the eight Danish university rectors Ralf Hemmingsen in an interview with Danish newspaper Information previous to the first committee report.

Doubts have probably not been allayed by the fact that the government asked the expert committee to come up with quantitative indicators for quality.

“I am worried that there is a hidden desire to put a cap on the education sector, because the growth in student numbers is starting to put a strain on public funds. The politicians have not been clear about this, but that would be a completely different discussion to the one we’re having right now… It’s hard not to think that the concerns about quality are superficial when the whole process has been so focused on the economics of it all”, said Hemmingsen.

Thomas Sørensen

Thomas Sørensen

Words: Thomas Sørensen, Press officer at Aarhus University

Pictures: Lise Balsby, Aarhus University

Edited: Nic Mitchell, @EUPRIO News