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Student life

Student rebels at the University of Copenhagen. The last 500 years

Portrait — In the dawn of time, Danish university students were men studying to become priests. Then they turned into exalted, rebellious youths reading poetry and wanting to overthrow society. But who are the students today? Some say they are self-absorbed and coddled. Others say they are critical and reflective.

University student.

If you close your eyes and imagine someone who fits the description of a student, who do you see?

A radical left-wing humanities student with a pearl necklace wearing second-hand clothes and a mullet haircut? An actuarial mathematics student with a crisp-ironed clean shirt and shiny shoes whose steps echo through the room?

Or maybe just an ordinary, non-stereotypical, young person who does not display any special interests or political beliefs, and who at first glance could be studying everything from biology to theology?

Ever since the university’s founding in 1479, students have been a distinctive group in Copenhagen. They have lived side by side with the city’s other citizens and have been characterized by living cheaply and spending a lot of time in the city’s pubs.

This is still the case, but apart from these characteristics, it is difficult to point to a large number of common traits between students in the 17th and 21st centuries.

University was once reserved for the elite, and they developed a kind of common identity. Nowadays the university is for the masses, and the common identity may have disappeared.

But who are the students nowadays?

What does she look like? (And we write she, because two-thirds of new students in 2023 are women). Where does she come from? And what does she really want to do with her education and her work inside and outside university?

To answer these questions, we need to take a step back, start from the beginning, and ask: Who were the students then – and how have they changed to become who they are today?

The seminary and the travellers

We are exploring the history of students’ with Ditlev Tamm, an author and professor emeritus of legal history. This year he has released a tome with the title ‘Byen, Kollegierne og Studenterne – 400 års studieliv i København’ or ‘The city, the dorms, the students — 400 years of student life in Copenhagen’.

In it, he outlines the lives, activities, and distinctive spirit of the students in Copenhagen over the course of the centuries, beginning in the 1600s. At this time, the University of Copenhagen was the only university in Denmark, and the majority of students studied theology, with only a minority studying law and various natural science subjects.

»After the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, there was an acute need for priests to take up positions out in the many parishes. The university therefore functioned almost exclusively as a seminary for priests,« says Ditlev Tamm.

In the years between the Reformation and 1660, society was a combination of absolute monarchy and aristocracy, with a king at the top of an extensive nobility with a monopoly on virtually all significant positions in society – with the exception of the clergy positions, which were not attractive to nobles. And even though the cover of Tamm’s new work illustrates well-dressed pipe-smoking students, it was neither nice, nor prestigious, to go to university in Copenhagen for the first several hundred years.

»Children of the nobility would never enroll at the university in Copenhagen. If they wanted to study, they preferred to go abroad, typically Germany, France or England. They studied there for many years – sometimes for as long as eight years. This also meant that some of them were as knowledgeable and at least as qualified as the Danish professors when they returned,« says Ditlev Tamm.

A few nobles made do with the University of Copenhagen, including Tycho Brahe, who is today considered the founder of modern observational astronomy.

But even though a Danish university was not considered good enough for the nobility, not everyone could get into university.

»It was the children of the middle class who came to university to study – children of successful merchants or the children of priests who wanted to follow in the footsteps of their fathers,« says Ditlev Tamm:

»In general, it was a very small group of people who were admitted to the university in those years. No more than 100-200 students were admitted per year, so there were only a few hundred students in total. The majority studied theology, and a small group studied to become doctors, chemists, physicists or something like that. Everyone, however, was expected to have knowledge of theology, so everyone who went to university received teaching in it,« says Ditlev Tamm.

Poetic street characters

For the first couple of hundred years, being a student was not associated with a distinctive identity – you just studied to get a good job. The students were not particularly visible in the city or in the minds of its citizens, because there were so few of them. But in the 1700s, students began to make a name for themselves.

It is really embarrassing for men that we have to go all the way to 1875 before women are admitted to universities
Ditlev Tamm, Professor Emeritus

First of all, there were significantly more of them. In 1736, exams were introduced on the law programme, which meant that judges now had to have been through an official exam. For the first time in history, the study of law grew larger than the study of theology. At the same time, enlightenment philosophy was all the rage throughout Europe, and this led to more critical students in Copenhagen.

»As a result of the Enlightenment, students began to shape a kind of common identity for themselves, where they thought in terms of political freedom, read new literature about love and the suffering of young people, and decided that they did not need to think in the same way as old people did,« says Ditlev Tamm.

»The students fought for the freedom to criticize society’s norms and hierarchies. Being a student developed into a quality in itself. The student became a kind of poetic figure in the surrounding society.«

The students certainly also shaped this narrative themselves. Students throughout the ages have always considered themselves to be a notch above those that are less literate, Ditlev Tamm reckons. This was clearly expressed in the barbaric rites that new students were subjected to by the older year cohorts when they were admitted to university.

»As an aspiring student, you had to wear strange clothes, put pigs teeth in your mouth and horns on your forehead to show how stupid you were before you went to university. You got water poured all over you, and the process would manifest a transformation from brutish and stupid to an educated human being,« says Ditlev Tamm.

He says that the tradition stopped in the 1700s because the rituals simply became too coarse.

»There has always been a bit of an Erasmus Montanus in the students. They considered themselves more refined and smarter than most people. They walked around in black clothes and looked smart, read really intellectual books, and had more knowledge than the other citizens of the city,« he says.

Erasmus Montanus is Ludvig Holberg’s comedy from 1723, which follows Rasmus Berg, who travels to Copenhagen to study and then returns to his native province using his Latin alias. Not only his name has become pretentious and refined during the studies in the capital, but his entire worldview. He sets himself apart from his family and local region with his new arrogant manners – and is accused of heresy because he stubbornly maintains that the Earth is round and not flat.

»Under the absolute monarchy, however, there were limits to how critically you could speak out against your king and against society – at least if you had hopes of getting a state position. At the same time, the late absolute monarchy period was a high point in terms of student life, and it was followed by slightly duller years.«

Only men attended university right up until 1875. According to Ditlev Tamm, it is »one of history’s great mysteries« how men have succeeded in keeping women away from higher education for so long. They just assumed as a matter of course that the university was not a place for women.

»This was not something that was discussed until the late 1800s, which in itself is strange. But it is really embarrassing for men that we have to go all the way to 1875 before women are admitted to universities.«

Students were all the rage, then they stumbled

Looking over the past 400 years, the professor has no doubts as to when students in Denmark had their heyday. From 1820 until the 1864 Second Schleswig War students were all the rage throughout Europe, including Denmark.

In Northern Europe, students shaped the great ideas of the time, and in the Nordic countries there was a strong community across the Scandinavian countries.

»Students became part of a liberal movement during these years, that had new ideas on democracy and that pushed for a constitution. But dreams were shattered when war broke out between the German Confederation and Denmark, and the other Scandinavian countries chose to remain passive,« Ditlev Tamm says.

He adds that the innovative thinking and progressiveness that had characterized students in the 1800s disappeared after Denmark lost the 1864 Second Schleswig War.

»The Nordic association, which the students had dreamt of in the mid-1800s, collapsed. And the students went back to being both conservative and passive in relation to the surrounding society. You can no longer trace the same enthusiasm in the spirit of the students,« says Ditlev Tamm.

Get involved, for heaven’s sake!

From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, you could not trace much enthusiasm or combativeness among students. In his book, Ditlev Tamm refers to the Social Democrat politician Hartvig Frisch, who in the 1920s commented on the absence of student passion and commitment.

When I started as an instructor in the 1990s, there were always students who took on the initiative for a bring-a-cake rotation in class. This kind of thing is completely gone today.

Professor Henrik Vejre, Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management

»Hartvig Frisch had been at university himself, which was actually unusual, because most of the students were conservative and disengaged. Frisch was part of the left-wing Studentersamfundet group and often participated in academic debates, where he often urged his fellow students to take action,« says Ditlev Tamm telling them to:

»Get involved in your surrounding community, damn it! You can’t just sit at university reading books!«

Some students took up the call and organised themselves in smaller groups that criticised the established norms of society in different ways. A student association was active in connection with the Danish resistance movement during WW2.

»But it wasn’t because the students had particular importance in this connection. Several of them were just part of the resistance movement just like a number of other Danes, but the vast majority were passive,« Ditlev Tamm says.

It was not until the 1968 Danish student rebellion that students again became a significant and distinctive group in society, says Ditlev Tamm. They demanded greater co-determination at the university, which they believed was outdated and dominated by a professorial regime.

Students ready for combat

Lars Bille, an associate professor emeritus at the Department of Political Science, clearly remembers the students’ uprising. He was there when the department was founded in 1965, and he taught there for almost 40 years.

»The founding of the Department of Political Science actually started as an experiment, and it happened to take place at the same time as the start of the student rebellion, which hit the department with a bang,« says Bille. He adds that the first 10-15 years of his tenure as associate professor at the department were marked by »a revolution at the front door.«

The Danish student rebellion was part of a larger movement of students across 200 universities worldwide that wished to challenge what they perceived as a narrow-minded, capitalist, and bourgeois worldview that the university was helping to reproduce.

»In those years, lecturers were denied access to the department because it was occupied by students multiple times. As permanent staff, you were considered a lackey of capitalism, and when you walked through a room full of students, it sometimes just went completely silent. There was no academic dialogue – it was just conflict,« says Lars Bille, who also says that it »was not fun« to be teaching staff during this period.

The students were basically critical and not receptive to the established knowledge that was presented to them by the instructors. They demanded greater co-determination over what should be included in the syllabus, and when they did not get what they demanded, they protested.

»I clearly remember an episode where I had chosen a particular textbook for a lecture on modern Danish history. The students were not satisfied with it. But the book was part of the curriculum and contained important academic points, so there was no way around it,« says Lars Bille and continues:

»The teaching began, and I asked the room a question. On the first row were the ‘commissars’, the student political representatives, with their arms crossed. No one would answer my question, so we sat in silence looking at each other for three-quarters of an hour. Then we took a break, and after the break I asked the same question again. Then we sat in silence for another three-quarters of an hour, and then the lesson was over.«

Less confrontation, more table tennis

Though it was difficult to teach confrontational students in the 70s, Lars Bille also remembers that it was hugely inspiring to meet so many young people who were passionate and fighting for a cause. It was not until the early 80s that the revolutionary atmosphere subsided, and the struggle between teachers and students developed towards a more objective, academic conversation, according to Lars Bille.

»The students became a little more … What should I call it … normal,« Lars Bille laughs. He also talks about how social life at the university began to take off in the late 80s and early 90s.

»I started playing table tennis with some of the students, and a lot of different student associations popped up including the revue of political science, which is almost world-famous today.«

After 2002, Lars Bille went from being on the teaching staff to being the head of the Department of Political Science, which is why he, by his own admission, »lost contact with the students.«

But if we compare the students today with the students he taught in the 1970s, he believes that there is not nearly the same fighting spirit and eagerness to change society as among the students back then.

»Students used to fight to change society. Today, they are probably closer to just wanting to improve it. There’s a lot of things going on that I don’t understand in terms of being woke, gender identity, and so on. And personal careers also play a major role today. The focus was somewhere different with the students of the time.«

University — a personal project

If you ask Ditlev Tamm, the focus on your own career and your own life has become a focal point of students’ lives.

»Students nowadays are interested in finishing university and getting a good position. They are not in the same way concerned with learning for the sake of learning or for discussing societal affairs. There is nothing that separates university students from other young people nowadays,« he says.

Ditlev Tamm also points to the school-like changes that have shaped universities in recent years, as Professor and Centre Director Marlene Wind pointed out in a Danish news media Politiken earlier this year. Her experience was that students nowadays perceive university as a continuation of upper secondary school:

»Over the past 10-15 years, universities have become more and more like upper secondary schools. The young people refer to themselves as pupils, use the term ‘classes’ for their study programme subjects, and perceive the teaching as something that is solely oriented towards passing an exam,« Wind said to Politiken in February 2023.

This shift in mentality, which is new according to several older professors, makes students less inclined to think in terms that create commitment to the surrounding society.

»Students have become both less critical and less independent. It’s about getting your degree – not questioning society. There is no romantic student atmosphere like there has been at other times in history,« says Ditlev Tamm.

A self-absorbed, linguistic disaster

The fact that the university has become a personal project is clearly evident in the lack of support for the humanities. And, in particular, the declining interest in the language subjects, Ditlev Tamm says.

»A few years ago, the language subjects English, German and French were huge. But they don’t have the same attraction to young people anymore. It’s very sad. Catastrophic, actually,« he says.

The number of new students admitted to language programmes was at a record low this year. Only 545 students have been admitted to one of the major language programmes this autumn, a drop of 102 over the year before.

The rebellion nowadays takes place via small-scale activities and to a lesser extent via large-scale physical occupations, as we saw during the student rebellion days. The students' rebellion is there – we just need to look in the right places
Noemi Katznelson, Director of Centre for Youth Research, Aalborg University

»Language learning is much more important than most young people realise. We need people in our society who can speak foreign languages and can communicate foreign cultures with all their literary, political and historical traditions. But all that is lost in the interest in yourself. For me, it’s become a bit self-absorbed.«

You simply can’t call yourself a humanities student if you can’t speak German or French, according to Ditlev Tamm. He does not believe that you get the same information, and the subtle nuances from reading texts that have been translated from indigenous languages into English.

»Being able to speak other languages doesn’t have the same quality about it nowadays. Material values and personal success are what lend you status.«

The world will not save itself

It is not true that students are not engaged in society today, according to Henrik Vejre, who is professor at the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management. He has taught at UCPH since 1991 and now mainly teaches on the study programmes for natural resources and landscape architecture.

»I can certainly recognise that there has been a ‘schoolification’ of students, and that they may have become more focused on getting a good job and achieving personal success. But among my students there are also many who are at university because they want to save the world from a climate crisis,« he says and adds:

»We have truly wonderful students today.«

Throughout his years at the university, Professor Vejre has found the students to be both energetic and committed, but he also points to something else.

»I notice that the students’ academic level has changed in some ways. They are, for example, worse at mathematics than they were 30 years ago. But they are better at all the social stuff – getting group dynamics to work and things like that,« says Vejre and continues:

»My experience is that students today make very conscious choices about where they want to study, and what knowledge it is that they want, because they want to use it for something specific. And the majority of the students I meet are people who really want to go out and make a difference.«

Death of the cake rotation

The clearest change that Henrik Vejre has noticed in students nowadays is their involvement in the social life at the university. Just like Lars Bille, he remembers how student life flourished in the 90s, and he has seen how it has slowly withered.

»I think this has happened as a direct result of all the reforms in this area. The students have simply become more focused on what they need to do, and have therefore less time to party and organize events with each other,« he says.

»A completely banal example is the bring-a-cake rotation. When I started teaching in the 1990s, there were always students who took the initiative for students to take turns bringing a cake to class. This kind of thing has completely gone today.«

The professor also finds that students are far more reluctant to go on the annual joint study trips than they were 20-30 years ago.

»We go, every year, on a field trip with the natural resources students. And once upon a time, the students always took the initiative for us to go out for a social get-together on the last night. They never do that anymore. Now it’s always us, the instructors, who say ‘we’ll sit down at this pub later, and you’re welcome to participate’,« says Henrik Vejre.

If he were to give a quick characterization of today’s students and the change he has experienced, he thinks the reason is that the students are under »a hell of a lot of pressure to complete their studies.«

»You used to spend almost unlimited time writing a thesis. But now there are frameworks and rules that whip students through the system faster. So I understand very well that they are under pressure.«

Stressed reform students

Noemi Katznelson is a professor of education and history and director of the Centre for Youth Research at Aalborg University. She has been affiliated with various universities as a researcher since the 90s.

She recognises Henrik Vejre’s impression that the students’ mentality has changed as a direct result of all the reforms that have been implemented at the university over the past 20 years.

The students of today are simply ‘reform’ students, she says.

»Back in the 90s, universities were a place where there was space for difference. You could pretty much study whatever you wanted, for as long as you wanted. The discourse in the university area was far more oriented towards what you happened to want to do, and less purposive,« she says.

She herself remembers a specific episode from her first days as lecturer at the university, which illustrates the changes in the way of thinking.

»I was supervising a group of master’s thesis students, and when we were coming to the end of the process, I asked the students if they had thought about what they were going to do after university. They were, after all, about to enter the labour market,« she says.

»They were all outraged by the neoliberal thinking that was the premise of my question. How did I even get myself to ask about the utility of their education, as if this was even important?«

This kind of dialogue would be unthinkable today, where the views on education have changed significantly, according to Noemi Katznelson.

»There is, nowadays, more focus on what you need your education for. You can’t just feel passionate about a lot of different study programmes, you have to have a plan. It’s not enough just to be a student anymore. You should preferably have a job that is relevant to your studies. Education is not in itself the way to a good working life – it is just one part of it.«

Youth rebellion is student rebellion

More than 20 political reforms over the past 20 years have had the purpose of pacing students out on to the labour market faster. This has narrowed down the options that you have within the educational system, and this has an impact on where it is that students fight their battles, according to Noemi Katznelson. That’s why we should be careful not to conclude that students aren’t rebelling and engaging with society today, she says.

»If you compare the students to the student rebellion of 1968, there is not much going on among students today. But I think we need to look elsewhere nowadays. Students are now a much more diverse group, and their commitment is likely to be found in other places,« she says.

A student’s primary identity is not necessarily being a student. It is made up of many different things – student jobs, volunteer work, social communities. This also means that rebellion among young people does not necessarily take place under the auspices of their study programmes.

»In the 70s, we transitioned from an elite university to a mass university. This means that students no longer have a clear common identity, but are a more diverse group. This also means that the rebellions we see are ‘youth’ rebellions rather than ‘student’ rebellions.«

One sign of this trend can be found in the climate movement The Green Student Movement, which in the spring of 2022 changed its name to The Green Youth Movement.

The professor emphasizes however that students clearly express a criticism of their educational institutions.

»Among students today, you certainly find students who are critical of a lot of things. They criticise the number of lessons on their study programmes. They are critical of the knowledge presented on the syllabus, they criticise their instructors’ use of language, and they are enormously committed to both the climate debate and human rights,« she says and adds:

»But the rebellion takes place via small-scale activities and to a lesser extent via large-scale physical occupations, as we saw during the student rebellion days. The students’ rebellion is there – we just need to look in the right places.«