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Comment: UCPH in the ´high-speed society´

Our prime responsibility is to promote the quality of the study programmes, argue Rector and Prorector in this featured comment. The Danish student loan and grant scheme SU is a distinctly political issue about redistribution, and it must be determined in the Danish parliament

German sociologist Hartmut Rosa has written a critical theory about acceleration in society. The ‘high-speed society’ does not move in the direction of clearly defined targets. But speed is seen as a value in its own right. Even our holidays are hurried, loaded with a heavy programme of events. This acceleration of ‘life pace’ is, according to Rosa, alienating: we do not have the time to read a thick book, we put it aside on the night table and buy a new book instead.

You can interpret the debate on the Danish student loan and grant scheme (SU) by employing this strand of sociological theory, even though the real life of students – fortunately – often is more rosy than Rosa’s dystopia suggests. Nonetheless, the government has argued that its reform will reduce completion time. As Rector and Prorector our prime responsibility is the sheer quality of our degrees and this will continue to be our highest priority.

SU is a distinctly political issue about redistribution, between generations as well, and as such it must be determined in the Danish Parliament. Generally, we welcome initiatives which prompt students to complete their degrees faster, provided that they do not compromise content and quality. Therefore, we find it hard to understand why the government wants to punish the universities financially if the students are delayed. This money will go straight from the education. At the same time, this would be to exert dual control or going from carrot to stick, because until now the University has received a bonus for students who finished within the prescribed period of study.

Better study environment

There is good reason to propose a more balanced description of the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) than solely a ‘culture of delay’. UCPH students have indeed become faster. From 2009 to 2012 more have obtained their bachelor degree within four years. And the drop-out rate within the first year of study has almost been halved from 2008 to 2012; UCPH has the lowest rate in the country. Our graduates keep getting younger, while student enrolment almost breaks a record every year.

UCPH makes efforts to ensure both quality in study programmes and progress in completion time. With three years of budget security, the government has made it safe to hire more researchers to teach. We have to get even better at integrating research into education. And we have to pursue new didactical methods. But we also have to create a clearer course structure in the few places where it has been lacking. From 2014 all bachelor students will be offered at least 12 hours of teaching a week. Furthermore, we are developing weekly schedules designed to help students plan and organise their studies.

Since 2007, we have invested funds specifically to improve the study environment. And this year, the Board granted an additional DKK 5 million to this end. The study and work environment will also gain from the great ongoing investments in new buildings and labs which at the moment mostly can be sensed in the shape of construction mess, dust and noise.

Need better credit transfer

The student counselling has also been strengthened: from the freshman programmes which include integrated academic introductions, to demands of study activity and guidance to students who are delayed.

At UCPH we are working to improve ‘mobility windows’ which open a world of opportunities for students: courses across the range of the university, courses with a practical, hands-on dimension and opportunities to study abroad. But we must also consider whether these important experiences tend to extend the study programme more than necessary.

The administrative procedure for credit transfers can be long. And some students completely fail to apply for credit after a stay abroad, perhaps because foreign grades are only transferred with ‘passed’. So if the government will impose requirements for student to apply for credit after a stay abroad, it will be wise to combine this with a ‘government authorised’ translation of foreign grades.

Not culture ‘of delay’, but studying

But there are also some ‘structural factors’ that even the best education cannot surpass. The unemployment rate for new graduates is sky-high. Some students react by ‘sitting’ on their thesis and waiting for better times. And in Copenhagen we have a lot of exciting student jobs which can also mean an extension of the studies.

Besides, UCPH appeals to a multitude of students. For example, some 10 per cent of the 11,000 students at the Faculty of Humanities are over 40 years old and they are perhaps not in a hurry to finish their degree. Is this good or bad? It is not a straightforward question, but it is certainly forgotten when the matter is discussed politically.

In this complex debate about the duration of study programmes, we do not intend to ignore a culture of studying which is both value-adding, culture-creating and focused: an original education with an academic twist, the ‘great journey’ in the years where the person is being shaped, a year abroad to acquire a linguistic instinct. and a sense of culture. This is not a ‘culture of delay’, but a ‘culture of education’ – or what you may term Bildung. And this culture is certainly also appreciated by those companies and organisations which recruit our graduates.

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