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In order to save university education, a government committee would end student democracy

Education policy — A Science Ministry committee charged with improving university education has some good recommendations. It also has one that students and administrators warn is bad. Very bad

A group of about 20 or 30 students stand in front of the Science Ministry, three banners stretched out in front of them. With the exception of one student – Sana Mahin Doost, president of DSF, the national council of post-secondary students, who’s being interviewed by a TV reporter – all of them have tape over their mouths.

One of their banners mourns the death of student democracy. (Hvil i fred studenterdemorkati (1968-2018) it proclaims.) Another, (this one reading Udvalget for billigere Uni-uddannelser) accuses decision-makers of pushing through reforms they say will result in discount degrees.

Black and white pictures of students have been arranged in front of the entrance to the ministry so that people entering the building have to step on them. When they do, the students shout “Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!” as best as their taped mouths will let them. They shake the last banner, bearing the message “I træder på de studerende” to let offending individuals know they are walking all over students.

It is Monday, March 12. Inside the ministry, Søren Pind, whose remit as minister includes higher education, has called on the Committee for Better University Programmes (Udvalg om bedre universitetsuddannelser) to present to the press the list of 37 recommendations it’s come up with for doing just that. They save the two most irritating for last. Especially number 37 (“Responsibility for programme content and quality is made the sole responsibility of the unified administration”) has the students riled up.

The recommendation deals with the system of study committees, made up of democratically elected students and faculty, that make decisions about individual programmes. A majority on the Committee for Better University Programmes would change that by placing decision-making about such matters in the hands of the administration. The committees wouldn’t be eliminated, but they would be reduced to a consultative role.

“In reality, the study committees are the last vestiges of the system for allowing students and faculty to have a say in decision-making. Now, they want to take that away, too. That’s not going to result in better education. It’s going to make things worse,” Amanda Büchert, the president of the University of Copenhagen student council, says a few hours later, after she’s taken the tape off her mouth.

Pictures of students arranged in front of the entrance to the Science Ministry building
image: Dennis Christiansen
People stepping on the pictures as they entered the ministry were met with shouts of “Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!”
image: Dennis Christiansen

An exercise in simplification

Inside the ministry, Pind is saying a few opening words before the Committee for Better University Programmes presents its recommendations.

“Our universities are world-class,” he says and goes on to explain that the process of drawing up the recommendations took him to the US, where he visited universities to find out how Danish universities can maintain their reputation.

“Stanford is revamping its programmes, and we should do the same,” he says before inviting Agnete Gersing, committee chair and the ministry’s permanent secretary, to do the honours.

“University education,” she starts off, “is a really, really good investment.”

Her argument is built on figures. For example, despite a doubling in the number of university students over the past 20 years, most of those graduating with a master’s degree find a job, and the salaries they earn are twice as high as a skilled worker can expect to earn. The salaries are also “much higher than those earned by trade-school or business-college graduates”.

Firms are increasingly demanding graduates, she says. And, for each master’s degree universities turn out, the country earns 4 million kroner, according to her figures.

But there’s a but. “One of the biggest hurdles we face is that we have not been able to sync up what we teach with what businesses want,” Gersing says. “A lot of graduates have been fortunate enough to find work and earn a good salary, but there are plenty of recent grads who still haven’t found a job within a year or a year and half of graduating.”

She has slides to back up her argument. And, what do you know, she too has one showing that humanities top the list of degrees that are least likely to land you a job. Another of them shows that the number of bachelor’s programmes nearly doubled between 1997, when there were 202 to choose from, and 2017, when there were 386. The Committee for Better University Programmes, Gersing says, recommends bringing that number down. Or, as the report puts it: “that universities review their educational offerings in order to allow for a better overview of the educational landscape.”

Pind puts its more simply: “It’s an exercise in simplification.”

A free lunch (for now)

In reality, both of the recommendations are in lock-step with the aims of the so-called ‘study-progress reform’ (fremdriftsreformen) and the equally so-called ‘resizing of study programmes’ (dimensioneringen): set up a conveyor belt to take young people through higher education as quickly as possible and then deposit them into a job at the end. The Committee for Better University Programmes also recommends one-year master’s programmes, as well as more bachelor’s programmes that satisfy the demands of corporate Denmark. It may well be that university education makes good financial sense for students, but, while they are studying, they are a drain on the nation’s economy.

Pind adds that he hopes the recommendations will be the missing piece that will, after years of trying, open up the job market for students who graduate holding only a bachelor’s.

Among the new ideas in the recommendations drawn up by the Committee for Better University Programmes: once you get your bachelor’s, you should be allowed to work for two or three years without having to reapply to get into a master’s programme. It also recommends eliminating the multiplier that allows students leaving gymnasium to multiply their final average by 1.08 if they begin a post-secondary programme without taking a gap year.

“We think that, at least, is a good idea,” says Büchert, whose organisation is vehemently opposed to both schemes.

Søren Pind, the higher-education and science minister
image: Dennis Christiansen
Agnete Gersing, permanent secretary in the Science Ministry, explains that the number of different types of bachelor’s degrees has nearly doubled in 20 years
image: Dennis Christiansen

Likewise, Büchert reckons that the recommendation to improve students’ IT skills appears is a good idea (though she hasn’t had a chance to look at it closely). “That’s right in line with the school’s new strategy,” she says. But she’s got a but of her own: it only discusses feedback and counselling in vague terms. Nor does it say where any of the money will come from.

Anders Bjarklev, the chair of the Rector’s Conference, which brings together the heads of all eight Danish universities, also has questions about funding.

“If the recommendations go through, I expect that [the legislature] will decide that these are things that they find worth investing in,” Bjarklev, himself a member of the Committee for Better University Programmes, says.

What about the humanities?

Once the floor is opened up for questions, a number of the reporters present jump on Pind’s “exercise in simplification” and ask if any programmes have already been targeted.

“To start with, as part of ‘resizing’, we’ve reformed how we fund programmes so that there is much greater incentive to structure programmes so that graduates find jobs. But if you take a closer look, you find some surprising things. You can’t predict with any certainty which programmes … . There are some humanities programmes whose graduates have surprisingly high employment rates. Let’s see how the exercise in simplification goes. I’m curious myself to see how reducing the number of programmes will turn out,” he says.

This has been an ideological discussion ever since the student protests of 1968. Who decides at university? In my opinion, it should be the administration that decides.
Søren Pind, higher-education and science minister

The reporter who asked the question formulates it a different way: will humanities programmes be sacrificed for the benefit of the social and natural sciences and tech?

Pind: “I’ve made no secret of the fact that we’re going to see a situation that, on the one hand, is going to result in fewer humanities programmes. But, on the other hand, it’s also important for me that we don’t break down healthy academic environments. The reason for that is quite simply that the exact competencies we’re talking about here – broad-mindedness, creativity, all of these values, empathy, et cetera – to a large degree are engendered by the humanities. So, while we can see that joblessness is a problem for people in the field, we also need to admit that addressing the challenges we can expect to face in the future will require healthy humanities programmes.”

His comments do little to reassure the students. They fear that the recommendation to offer a broad-based bachelor’s degree at the University of Copenhagen, as is currently offered at Roskilde University, will water down individual humanities programmes.

“We’re critical of the recommendation to offer a broad-based bachelor’s degree that gathers several different programmes under one roof,” Büchert says. “The University of Copenhagen has a lot of programmes, and some of them are quite small, but we think that has a lot of benefits. If you want to take a broad-based bachelor’s degree, you can already do that someplace else.”

(This, by the way, is the same opinion held by Danske Universiteter, the universities’ lobby group, which wants schools to be able to decide on their own whether it is in their interest to offer the broad-based bachelor’s degree.)

A threat to student democracy

The demonstrating students are also dissatisfied that there was no student representative on the Committee for Better University Programmes. Committee members included university representatives, public servants and businesspeople. Students were allowed only to observe.

“It’s ironic that they came up with recommendations without asking for advice from the students. How can you set up a committee to define what it means to be a high-quality educational institution without involving the people who know most about it? The people you are actually offering the education to,” Büchert says.

Responding to her criticism, Pind answers: “There were two things that were important in all of this. Firstly, to get group of smart people, almost independently of each other, to make their recommendations for how we could do things better. And I picked people who could do that. The second thing was to have an observer group that included student participation and allowed them to voice their opinion.”

The next question comes from ForskerForum, a newsletter for academics, which wants to know Pind’s opinion about the recommendation to strip study committees of their decision-making powers.

“This has been an ideological discussion ever since the student protests of 1968. Who decides at university? In my opinion, it should be the administration that decides. I believe that the administration should set the ground rules, and that the outside world should be able to go to the administration when they need to find someone who should be taken to task. But that also means that if the administration of an individual university chooses to have a study committee, well, then they may.”

In addition to recommending taking decision-making power from away from study committees, the Committee for Better University Programmes also suggests that the administration alone should select a student representative. Currently, the study committees nominate candidates.

“The important thing in regards to this recommendation is that it places more responsibility with the rector,” Pind says. “You can spend as much time as you want discussing how much responsibility a rector should have, but I have always been in favour of strong institutional management, and a decision about how much is enough should be up to [the universities] to decide for themselves.

The 37 recommendations

The Committee for Better University Programmes

Read more about the Committee for Better University Programmes.

You can also download its final 440-page report, including its 37 recommendations.

You can also download just the recommendations. Both, though, are only available in Danish.

Universities support student concerns

Büchert and the student council see the two proposals as a de facto elimination of the study committees. Being reduced to a consultative body is unacceptable, she feels.

“When you downgrade a committee from decision-making to consultative, you take away a lot of the motivation for people to get involved. This is something that is going to demotivate the study committees and spread apathy. We’ve already seen this with the departmental councils,” she says. (Consultative departmental councils were set up in 2013 but have since been eliminated.)

Students aren’t alone in pushing to keep the study-committee system the way it is. The Committee for Better University Programmes was split on whether the recommendation should be included.

“We don’t support making changes to the role of study committees,” Bjarklev says. “The system we have now works quite well. We get good advice from the students and the faculty. It ain’t broke, so they shouldn’t try to fix it.”

Whether the role of students and faculty in the decision-making process is something that will get fixed into oblivion has yet to be decided. Pind, however, explains that he’s “deeply committed, as a lawmaker and as parent” to the task of forming the university of tomorrow. He expects to draw up a final proposal based on the recommendations of the Committee for Better University Programmes later this spring.

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