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University of Copenhagen
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Diary from a programme threatened with closure

Simon Poulsen is a master’s student in Indo-European studies. Read his report on a proud study programme’s dramatic nosedive at the Faculty of Humanities

During the course of my studies, small humanities programmes have been hit by cuts and more cuts. None of the mysterious decision-makers have any awareness about how the cuts are implemented in practice in the study programmes, or how the many cutback initiatives accumulate.

In this post I recount the story from the students’ point of view: How is it experienced when the legitimacy of your choice of study programme is undermined by the Humanities’ downward financial spiral?

September 2012. This is the year before I start my Indo-European study programme. I am still attending Danish high school (the gymnasium) in Odense, but I have got to know the academic environment in Indo-European studies, and I have met a few students, as I participate in a junior researchers’ project. Sadly I am not a part of it, when the Indogermanische Gesellschaft hold their symposium in Copenhagen.

It is an event that takes place somewhere in the world every fourth year. It is the ‘Olympic Games of language history’, I explain to friends.

My fellow study programme colleagues and the student interns slave away at organising what is to be an unusually well-organised and memorable conference. Nobody knows yet what things will look like three years later.

”I give in and defend my bachelor thesis and submit my last exams in Gothic and Vedic. What now?”

Before the student intake reform: Graduate redundancy is zero

September 2013. The largest group of students ever is admitted to Indo-European studies, and I am a part of it. 22 new students, including a couple of places in Open University. For once the subject can measure up to its sister programmes. We are around 20, and there are around 30 in linguistics – before the unusually high, but sadly normal, dropout rate sets in.

The programme is happy to have grown, there has seldom been so many associated teaching staff, PhD students, post doc’s. Of course there are only a couple of each, but this is many in a small subject area.

September 2014. Dimensioneringen. The Danish student intake reform. The first threat of cutbacks appears. The government wants ”a better fit between education programmes and the labour market”. Indo-European sounds remote from the labour market, and in the statistics it looks like we are producing alot of useless graduates.

”It starts looking bad for linguistics in Copenhagen, while even more bizarre solutions are put on the table”

But wait. The programme is too small to be itemised on this subject alone, and the national statistics agency counts us as part of a nationwide pool of linguistic programmes. This is how it must be, because in the five-year period calculated (2009-2013), only a few students graduated from our programme – and none of them are unemployed.

Neither are any of the three graduated students unemployed from the last big year of graduates. In the University of Copenhagen’s (UCPH) latest (July 2016) savings report from the consultants Struensee, our graduate redundancy rate is 0 per cent. The student intake reform has left us with an admission of 10 bachelor students and one master’s student, so no-one, in practice, can enter the programme unless they have a legal claim to be able to do so.

We are not in a state of panic. After all, society clearly does not need hundreds of Indo-European studies graduates every year.

September 2015.The Study Progress Reform. All students – and in particular those in the Humanities at the UCPH – are taking too long to finish their studies. Things are tightened up, and students complain about rigid compulsory registration and full-time-study rules. It is all national politics, and for the Indo-European programme it means that the curriculum needs a rewrite.

Because our introductory courses are at other departments and in other subject areas, they are only offered every 2nd or every 4th semester to ensure large classes. This means that we cannot stick to the reform requirements and have to take 45, 37.5, 22.5 and 15 ECTS credits per semester during our course of study.

We wonder about the non-transparent top-down process: Where is the study board, the department, the dean? Who is making the decisions?«

On the same occasion, they try to do something about the high drop-out rate. They introduce a study programme start test in the department to weed out those students that don’t turn up, and those that are otherwise completely uncommitted after one month. This is so the university’s administration and the SU study grant agency don’t have to use ressources on the students that are absent.

It is unfortunate, at the same time, that the rules for leave have been tightened. This is now that a natural and student-financed break between the different parts of the course of study has become impossible.

The shock: No new students admitted in 2017

January 2016.
Reset. Suddenly we have been ostracized along with 12 other small language subjects (besides Modern Greek, which was shut down a few months earlier). Indo-European studies has an appalling dropout rate of 62 per cent – all admissions included. This includes Danish SU grant free riders and the unmotivated pseudo students who entered the programme of study as a seventh priority when they applied.

As part of a new round of cuts, the university shuts down all new student admissions in 2017. The reason: The claimed high unemployment and the dropout rate. This time it comes as a shock. It is as if no changes get the time to be evaluated before you get hit by another penalty for the same offence.

We hold our breath, but believe in better times to come. We have a serious internationally recognized professional identity and strong connections to other subject areas.

Not to mention the strong research tradition: Indo-European studies was the birth of synchronous linguistics, and Danish scientists like Rasmus Rask, Vilhelm Thomsen and Holger Pedersen have helped define the current subject.

April 2016. The merger. We are saved by the university’s board, for now, even we though are proposed merged with Linguistics. The reason is that ”the programme (in Indo-European) is an essential basic language historical subject with a strong, recognized, research environment”. The proposal provides for a more robust study environment and better finances.

The same model has been introduced in our (geographically) closest sister programme in Leiden, Holland, which showed good results from joint admission to several tracks of linguistic courses of study. We lament that our neighbouring study programme (in a physical sense) Finnish and (in a professional sense) Indology are proposed closed, but do not otherwise take note of the students half way through their studies and their ‘self-evident’ (see Board record 82 (B)) legal requirement to continue on their master’s programme.

Forced marriage: Students redirected to Linguistics

May 2016. Suddenly the Board passes the motion that our master’s programme is to be merged into Linguistics. This has not, in any form, been on the table before. We wonder about the non-transparent top-down process: Where is the study board, the department, the dean? Who is making the decisions? And to who can you appeal your case?

“It is as if no changes get the time to be evaluated before you get hit by another penalty for the same offence.”

Unfortunately it is not only technicalities, rules about accreditation, pre-approval of new education programmes and introductory programmes that make the future merger difficult.

Old disputes and grudges makes the process even worse. The study board does not even decide to appoint a committee – there is, after all, a long time until 2018, the merger date.

Even though Linguistics has more students, they have fewer offered master’s subjects than Indo-European studies, and they see a potential focus on Danish grammar. We arrive, hat in hand, and they have the power of veto. It looks to become an unequal merger, and it is beginning to look dark for linguistics in Copenhagen, as even more bizarre solutions are put on the table.

25 May 2016. Anna, a BA-student in the Finnish language, finds out by coincidence, that they have closed down admissions to her own master’s programme. With immediate effect.

Instead the BA-students’ legal claim to finish their study programme has been redirected to Linguistics. Nobody knows who is behind it, and whether this is at all possible. The Danish Agency for Higher Education won’t interfere, but must approve that the choice makes professional sense – and this ‘professional sense’ concept is apparently in free fall.

Today: The professional environment is forced abroad – away from its Danish roots

For the first time in the process, I am now really worried. What is my letter of admission to Indo-European studies worth, if the legal claim to finish my studies is not real? And what, in particular, is going to happen to the next year’s uptake? How sure can they be of their legal claim, when a master’s degree can disappear overnight?

June 2016. I submit and defend my bachelor’s degree and undergo my last exams in Gothic and Vedic. What now? The master’s programme looks like it will survive a couple more years, and then the real world awaits me. Until now I have pulled out all the stops and banked on my Indo-European studies , but I no longer believe that there is a future for it in Denmark. The plan has been successful. The professional environment has become deeply flawed and has been forced abroad – away from its Danish roots

A historic string of successes

Did I mention, that all this has happened at a department with stable finances? In a subject, that has one permanently hired employee – the first professor since 1976 – and where the rest of the teaching staff are paid by external projects supported by grant funds that even generate a financial surplus to the department?

Did I mention that the many external employees, according to the Struensee report, give us a joint first place for this department in terms of government- subsidized student income (STÅ) per scientific employee? Since 1995, there has always been at least one externally employed staff member or PhD student.

Did I mention how large a portion of students who have graduated these last few years with a prize-winning assignment? In how many other subjects is it more than two thirds?

”The plan has been successful. The professional environment has become deeply flawed and has been forced abroad – away from its Danish roots.”

Did I mention the portion of our, incredibly few, students who have spoken at conferences in Russia, Norway or Austria? Did I mention how often my teachers have been interviewed in radio programmes or in newspapers, local, national and in Sweden and Finland? Do you remember the conference on Elfdalian, that became a curious media success, also outside the narrow circle of the profession.

Did I mention that we have a unique study environment, where everyone, student or staff, no matter their seniority, each help other inside and outside their study programmes?

Did I mention how many students that are in study-relevant jobs? Did I mention the summer school ‘Roots of Europe’, that this year attracts 40 students from all over the world to Copenhagen, because it builds a bridge between language history, prehistoric archaeology, and genetics – also drawing fully funded finances to the department?

No, because facts like these are apparently not interesting these days. It is a political decision to narrow down the field of the humanities, and we should realize that we are under attack. I hope that there is a future for the subject – also in Denmark – when the rounds of cuts are over this time. And I hope that UCPH continues to be Denmark’s only classic university. We may end up being like Roskilde University without projects, or Oxford without the hours for tutoring. In which case it rings hollow when the Dean promises that they will neither skimp on the academic level nor the breadth of the study programmes on offer.