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Humanities students to continue blockade until they get what they want

Blockade — The standoff is continuing at the Faculty of Humanities. Last Friday, the students’ humanities council HUMrådet decided to continue its blockade of management corridors until the dean dropped his plans to merge courses.

A dark-haired student follows an army of signs, and a stripe along the floor, and ends up in front of the management corridor at the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Copenhagen.

She looks at three history students sitting, chatting, in front of the glass door that is normally transparent, but which today is black from posters: »We support the HUMrådet and occupy the dean’s offices,« it states.

»Do you need any extra help?« asks the new entrant.

»We always need butts on seats,« says one of the history students.

Her buddy points down the stairs:

»We’re pretty much covered here, but down below they need some help,« he says.

The female student trudges down the stairs, and just after, Niklas Zenius Jespersen, former chairman of HUMrådet comes up in the opposite direction.

»You know the routine: No one gets in,« he says to the history students.

He points to the black door in to the management offices:

»There are some important papers in there, and some people are trying out some poor excuses to get in there. They should not be able to get a hold of this stuff.«

If you are lowering the already lowered academic standards, what do you have left?

Sidsel Dorthea Vedel, chairman of the HUMrådet

The seriousness of this can be heard in her voice, and with good reason: In the room below, about twenty students, led by the HUMrådet chairman, has just started a meeting to decide whether the blockade should continue.

They have denied Dean Jesper Kallestrup and his colleagues access to their offices for two weeks, because they are dissatisfied with the target plan that management has introduced for the period 2020 to 2023.

At the meeting, students reach agreement with little dissent: They will continue the blockade until they get what they want, even at nights and on weekends.

They have four demands. They want the dean to give up plans to merge subjects, make wider pathways through bachelor’s degrees, and set up joint, compulsory, electives. And then they want management to guarantee that they will not propose something like this again.

Extreme consequences

Sidsel Vedel, chairman of the HUMrådet, has just taken a round of the management corridors to get status reports from her fellow students, many of whom are sitting around, making banners, scribbling down strategies on A4 sheets, or authoring posts on social media.

She shares the latest news with them: The dean is reportedly willing to discuss the requirement to drop the wider courses, i.e. the compulsory elective courses which the students fear will prevent them from becoming upper-secondary school teachers (because they might deduct ECTS credits from any other minor subject).

»It’s starting to work!” one of the students shouts when he hears the news.

The chairman’s enthusiasm is more restrained. She insists that a few concessions will not get them to lift the blockade.

»There are not a lot of our demands that we can compromise on. They affect different subjects differently, and it would not how solidarity if we just dropped one of them,« says Sidsel Vedel.

She points to how students on the smaller language programmes will be hard hit by the target plan.

»Take Italian for example: It is a major language area, and a major cultural area. Right now, you only have two years of basic subjects on your bachelor’s degree programme, and if you have to take teaching in French and Spanish, you get even fewer academic skills. Especially when we only have 12 hours of teaching a week, which is another consequence of the cuts,« says Sidsel Vedel.

»If you lower the already lowered academic standards, what do you have left?«

This article is a translation. See the original here.

The chairman considered studying at Roskilde University (RUC) herself. which offers humanities subjects with wide entrance pathways to the study programmes before she ended up studying philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. She says that it was because the study programmes in the capital city were more specialised, that she ended up choosing the way she did:

»I respect RUC, but it is nice that we have both options on the island of Zealand. If you want the widest track, you can go to RUC, and if you are more interested in the nerdy core academic skills, you can study at the University of Copenhagen,« she says.

Niklas Zenius Jespersen says that the consequences of the target plan will be »quite extreme«:

»If you carry out these mergers of subjects, it will be the death of many study programmes. It would be a unmitigated disaster,« he says.

Over the limit

The HUMrådet has previously blockaded management corridors, but the dispute between management and students seems to have escalated to new heights this time.

You realise the situation is acute when you enter into the main building of the Faculty of Humanities, KUA2, where a multitude of banners dangle down from the ceiling, walls and bannisters.

»Down with the deanocracy,« thunders a square banner, »fewer subjects = lower academic standards,« concludes another, and from the beams up at the ceiling there is a third: »Listen to the students. We know our study programmes best,« it says.

It is starting to work!

Humanities student

The HUMrådet has received support from several fellow students – Sidsel Vedel says that she only knows about half of the students occupying the Dean’s Office corridors – and the support messages have come in from several organisations, including the National Union of Danish Students, the National Association of Nursery Teachers (PLS) and PROSE/STUD, the union for IT students.

The students say that management, as a countermeasure, has threatened to expel them from their study programmes.

»We think this is over the top. So unless they would like to negotiate the actual content of the target plan, then we have agreed that we will no longer meet,« says Sidsel Vedel.

More modern study programmes

Associate Dean Jens Erik Mogensen rejects the claim that management has plans to expel the students. This is »an ultimate tool« that will not be used unless students violate statues on orderly conduct, like resorting to violence, harassing employees, or things like that. He guarantees that no one will be expelled for actions [demos, strikes, and boycotts, ed.]

The associate dean says that there have been many misunderstandings during the blockade. He rejects, for example, that management will ever introduce courses that prevent students from becoming upper-secondary school teachers. The interplay between compulsory elective courses and subjects for upper-secondary-schools is an issue that management intends to solve, he says.

At the same time, he guarantees that the target plan will not mean new layoffs at the faculty. Conversely, it is important to make sure that current employees are not subject to a too-heavy workload after the last round of layoffs.

The target plan includes a statement that study programmes at the Faculty of Humanities »should enhance students’ ability to acquire an interdisciplinary and individualised skill profile by removing structural barriers and increasing co-operation on education.«

This will mean »fewer teachers« and »bigger classes«.

It is formulations like these that the students highlight when they have to explain why they have blocked the management corridors for weeks.

Jens Erik Mogensen says that management is willing to adjust the wording in the target plan together with the students. He confirms however, that management will try to increase the class size of some of the small language programmes.

»We cannot afford these tiny study programmes with only a few students. It is difficult to run them from a financial standpoint, and it is difficult to ensure a good study environment. It is our experience that they can become lifeless,« he says.

He understands the students’ fears, he says, and acknowledges that academic standards change when study programmes are merged. But he says nevertheless that there are both financial and academic reasons for doing so.

He mentions the previous mergers of Persian, Arabic, Hebrew and Turkish, as well as Polish, Russian and Balkan studies, which, according to the associate dean, have been a success, partly because the students get »a broader outlook«.

»We cannot afford these tiny study programmes with only a few students.

Associate dean Jens Erik Mogensen, Faculty of Humanities

»If we take the study programme on Middle Eastern Language and Society, I think it is a modernization that students can now move up and study the society of the entire region, while they at the same time have tracks in the study programme, where they can go out and learn the individual languages,« he says.

»We have set up study programmes that are more modern, that are transnational, while at the same time preserving the languages rather than dismantling them. Because this was the alternative,« says Jens Erik Mogensen. He adds that it is a similar choice that management faces today.

Many people choose the University of Copenhagen because of the specialisation they can get here. Unlike, for example, at Roskilde University. Is there a risk that we will lose this specialisation?

»No, there will still be a big difference between our faculty and the humanities’ basic programme at RUC. Even though we put subjects together, there will still be a high degree of specialisation. You are still specialising in selected topics within the study programme you have chosen – it just does not have to be within the older core academic skills.«

Blockade moves into new week
Jens Erik Mogensen says that he is annoyed by students making ultimate demands and not being willing to enter into »a proper professional dialogue«.

Sidsel Vedel and HUMrådet argue, however, that the Dean’s Office does not invite to a dialogue between two equal parties: »We are not interested in a dialogue in which we have no real co-determination, but where the Dean’s Office subsequently makes decisions over which we have no Influence,« she says.

The chairman says that opinions are divided about the previous mergers that Jens Erik Mogensen points to. The problem is, according to Vedel, that there is already such a high degree of joint course study on many of the humanities subjects, that even wider studies and courses will unavoidably damage academic standards.

»We have already passed the breaking point,« says Sidse Vedel.

That is why she and her fellow students have continued the blockade over the weekend.

On Monday morning, the mess has piled up in the management corridors, with carpets and pillows chucked in the corners, and a trio of inflatable mattresses narrowing the corridor.

On the floor, a freshly painted banner states that they still uphold their demands: »We want to be specialists, not generalists«.

Translated by Mike Young.

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