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The Danish minister for education — who has no education

A minister portrait — In the wake of a controversial education reform, Christina Egelund has been praised for her ability to compromise. The University Post met up with a minister who has been described by a political opponent as »the one extenuating circumstance« of the present government. She wished young people had more space to do the kind of zigzagging that make up her own narrative.

She has studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, founded a new party in parliament, and has run a campsite in Northern Jutland. If you ask Christina Egelund what the common thread is to her own story, the answer comes promptly:

»Well, it’s a complete lack of career planning.«

The Moderate Party’s Minister for Education and Research has never sat down and laid out a strategy for how her life should go. This can be illustrated by her response when the University Post asks her, now 45, to describe herself as a 22-year-old:

»The first thing that comes to mind is — no, you’re not allowed to write that — drunk,« she laughs. She lets us write it anyway. Then she moderates her response slightly:

»I was extremely curious. And probably a little bit wild.«

She remembers her own youth around the turn of the millennium as easy and effortless. It was marked by an obstinate faith in what the future holds: Freedom, prosperity and democracy ahead of us in ways that we could not  imagine, she says.

I regret not finishing my bachelor’s degree

Christina Egelund

This was just ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was then that Francis Fukuyama wrote his famous ‘The End of History’, which claimed a final victory for the liberal world order.

»This was the background of my life,« Christina Egelund says.

But she was naïve in relation to the generation of young students for whom she now represents as minister, she says:

»We have a generation of young people now that takes things seriously, and that takes their own responsibilities seriously, in a completely different way than when I was young.«

»If I had to wish anything for them, it would be just a touch of that carefree attitude that I was allowed to experience in the late ’90s.«

More zigzagging for young people

The government’s education reform has been loudly criticised by several parties in the opposition for wanting to force young people through the education system faster in order to increase the labour supply.

The question is, how does this fit with your wish to lift some of the pressure off young people’s shoulders?

»We don’t want them to do the same in less time. I think this is one of the biggest myths about the reform we have adopted,« Christina Egelund says.

The programme reform finally landed at the end of June this year and has been called a radical shake-up of universities.

Christina Egelund

Born 1977

Minister for Higher Education and Science since 15 December 2022

Studied modern literature at
Sorbonne in Paris

A former member of the Liberal Alliance party
and co-founder of the party Fremad

Ran the Jambo Feriepark campsite for ten years in Northern Jutland

Grew up in Hjørring

It will cut admissions to bachelor’s programmes and shorten, or reorganise, up to one third of master’s programmes. It will also make it easier and cheaper for students to return to university later in life for further education.

READ ALSO: Deal struck on reform of Danish universities: Here are the details

The minister emphasizes that it is precisely the government’s point with the master’s degree reform that young people should take a smaller part of their overall education early in life but return to school later:

»Those who are admitted to the shorter master’s degree programmes have a legal right to come back and study. This is a very important element.«

In fact, she believes that the government’s idea of lifelong learning will take some of the pressure off young people. It might even give them a bit of the carefree attitude that resulted in her own lack of career planning:

»The choice of education programme will feel less definitive than I think many young people experience nowadays. Because you will have the opportunity to change track, even after you finish.«

In this way, she believes, the ideas behind the reform are perfectly in line with the minister’s own zigzagging life narrative.

Not a ‘no’ to Denmark

The University Post meets Christina Egelund in her office in the Slotsholmen government quarter in Copenhagen. It is still sparsely furnished after her eight months as a resident. The walls are bare with the exception of a few unknown modern artworks in muted colours.

The works are Scandinavian, but one of the first things the minister mentions is her time in France. In the conversation, she returns to her adolescence in Paris again and again.

Whenever Christina Egelund mentions a key political experience, or describes her youth or discusses the university’s role in society, France turns up again and again.

She moved to Paris nine days after graduating from Hjørring Gymnasium. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with Hjørring, she says. She just had »a huge craving for freedom« and wanted to experience the world.

In Paris, she worked for a few years in a currency exchange. She met her boyfriend there, and they are still a couple. In the beginning, however, she still often travelled between Paris and Copenhagen and was split between the two cities.
For a period of time she was close to losing her footing, she says.

»I remember wading around here in Denmark in the rain and feeling sorry for myself.«

She therefore returned to France, and in the year 2000 she began her education programme in modern literature at the University of Sorbonne. The University Post wants to know why she did not choose to study at a Danish university.

»It was not a rejection of Denmark,« she replies quickly.

»I was, and am, really curious about other countries and other cultures. I thought France was a great country. And then I became so happy to live there that I actually ended up studying in Paris.«

Does she understand if it raises eyebrows that she is now the minister in a Danish education system, which she herself had opted out of?

»It was not a rejection. But yes, I understand. It’s true that I don’t have experience of the Danish education system myself.«

Open to the world

Even though Christina Egelund does not know the Danish university system from the inside, she still believes that she brings something valuable with her from her time abroad.

»I have an eye for the outside world, and I insist that we in the Danish education sector must have an openness to the world. You can also see this reflected in the university reform we have just made,« she says.

Here she is talking about the 2,500 English-language study programme places that will be created from 2024 to increase the number of international students.

READ ALSO: Three rectors look back on 20 years with more than 30 Danish university reforms

If she had to point to a place where Christina Egelund has clearly left her footprint in the final reform, it is precisely there, she says – in the awareness of the world outside Denmark.

This international outlook is also something that her colleague in the Ministry of Education, the Social Democrat minister Mattias Tesfaye, points to when the University Post calls him.

Christina Egelund has previously mentioned the collaboration with him in very positive terms. And he returns the compliment:

»She is deeply interested in French enlightenment thought, history and philosophy,« he says.

»It happens only quite rarely in politics that someone stops in the middle of a conversation about money and legislation and so on, and asks: How does this link back to the French Revolution?«

But Christina Egelund does this kind of thing, says her ministerial colleague. They do however have different views on the big picture.

»Well, I think Germany is at the heart of Europe – and that France is just a suburb,« Tesfaye laughs.

»But we don’t quite agree on that, Christina and I.«

A Minister of Higher Education who has no education

Christina Egelund grew up on a five-star luxury campsite (it wasn’t called glamping back then) called Jambo Park near Fårup Sommerland in Northern Jutland. After her years in Paris, she returned to run it with her parents.

Despite her lack of career planning, Christina Egelund seems to be content with most of her life choices. But there is one thing she regrets.

It’s not something she displays prominently, nor is it clear on her publicly available CV. She has studied modern literature at the Sorbonne University for three years, which is the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree.

In this way, I am not a good role model for young people

Christina Egelund

It is only when this question is formulated directly that she says that she never finished her study programme.

»It’s embarrassing,« she says. »I regret that I did not finish my bachelor’s degree.«

The reason, she says, was that her French boyfriend got a job in Canada. She decided to go with him, and the plan was that she would then complete her own studies ‘by correspondence’ so-to-speak, she says.

»I never got round to it. And this was just good old-fashioned stupid.«

She does not rule out the possibility that there may be something about the university that she does not understand or cannot understand.

»I certainly cannot relate to the joy of getting a graduation diploma. Because I’ve never tried that.«

She laughs again.

»In this way, I am not a good role model for young people.«

Something many politicians don’t have

One of Christina Egelund’s political opponents is education and science spokesperson for the Socialist People’s Party, Sofie Lippert. She offers a different, and somewhat surprising perspective, on the minister’s lack of education.

»I think it has given her something that many politicians actually need more of in relation to the education system – humility,« she says.

»There are many politicians who have attended a Danish university who believe that everything still looks the same as it did 20 years ago. Christina is not under this illusion, and for for good reason. Because she does not know how things were back then. So I actually find that she is genuinely interested in seeking out new information.«

The minister herself speaks of something similar:

»I have made so much more effort to learn things along the way,« she says. She only faced the Danish education system when she was offered the position as minister for the area in 2022.

She has never being confronted with her interrupted study programme. And she does not think people in the sector will judge her for her lack of education papers.

»But I cannot know what people think behind closed doors.«

A soft spot for the humanities

According to Christina Egelund, the university needs to maintain a constant balance. A balance between, on the one hand, educating people to meet the needs of society, and on the other hand, of safeguarding a classical education.

There is a risk that this balance will tip in one or the other direction if you lose sight of it, she believes.

»If you don’t achieve that balance, it can really do damage.«

The minister wants to therefore also sing the praises of knowledge and academia for the new generations »for the tradition’s own sake,« as she says.

»There is this idea that students mill around the humanities studying mysterious things that have no value to society,« she says, and shakes her head.

»And this is completely unfair. And I would like to get rid of some of the myths that have been at the root of this humanities bashing.«

Do the humanities have a special place in the heart of the minister as she herself has a humanities background, the University Post asks.

»A huge place in my heart,« she exclaims.

»Yes, it really does.«

This is not something however, that they will get to experience at the Faculty of Humanities. At least not when it comes to deciding which study programmes to shorten, or where student places are to be cut.

»I’m not going to interfere with that. There is also something called the arm’s length principle,« the minister stresses.

Doodles on a small scrap of paper

In the wake of the reform of the education sector, several of the government’s opponents have praised Christina Egelund – especially for her willingness to compromise during the process.

The reform ended up being passed with a broad majority after the most unpopular elements of the proposal had been toned down.

According to Mattias Tesfaye, the success can partly be attributed to the fact that Christina Egelund herself was involved in the entire process, he says. One incident took place just before the reform is to be presented, and he thinks it offers a good description of who the minister is.

I like it when it takes more than ten seconds to explain a human being. And this is Christina Egelund

Mattias Tesfaye

Tesfaye explains how the ministry had provided hundreds of papers with talking points, figures, and facts about the reform that the minister could draw inspiration from for her speech.

»And just before the press conference starts, I am suddenly aware that she has written down what she wants to say with pen on a small piece of paper.«

Many other ministers, Tesfaye believes, would have come forward and read slavishly from four densely written pages that they had not authored themselves.

»But not Christina. She stands there with her own doodles and has it all in her head. She does not change into some kind of talking office cabinet.«

Her colleague has no doubts as to what the incident says about the minister.

»I think it says that she’s able to stay true to herself in the role, even though it can be very overwhelming to become a minister for the first time.«

It could also illustrate, the University Post speculates, that she had not fully understood the seriousness of what she was implementing?

»No,« Tesfaye protests. »It illustrates that she doesn’t let herself be dragged into things. She wants to stay in control.«

Didn’t want to be promoted

Her former party colleague, Simon Emil Ammitzbøll-Bille, can also report that the minister is someone who likes to choose her own direction.

The two of them left the Liberal Alliance Party and founded the party Fremad in 2019. It was disbanded one year later.

He remembers in particular when Egelund was political spokesman for the Liberal Alliance and a new group chairman had to be selected. He and the other party leaders had agreed to give her the post.

»So I called her, and I tell her that she should be group chairman instead of political spokesman. And she just says: ‘I don’t want to do that.’’«

If she had a choice, she would rather be political spokesman than group chairman. Ammitzbøl-Bille was amazed, he says:

»What are you saying? I thought. Here I am calling and telling you that you have been promoted to the finest post outside being minister. And you say you don’t want it? That can’t be right.«

The rationale, as it turned out, was that she thought it would be a better platform to be political spokesman than group chairman.

»It was more fun, there was more access to the media, what do I know,« Ammitzbøl-Bille wonders.

»It was brave, and it illustrates that she is prepared to fight for these power vacuums that arise. It is a necessary quality to have if you want to be in top politics.«

Egelund ended up persuading the party leadership that she could keep the post of political spokesman at the same time as she became group chairman.

»So the operation was a complete success,« laughs Ammitzbøl-Bille.

The government’s extenuating circumstance

The former party colleague is not done praising the minister:

»And then she’s just really funny, too.«

»If she’s got a good impression of someone, she always says that they’re ‘really good company,’’« says Simon Emil Ammitzbøl-Bille.

»But you know what? That’s exactly what she is. She’s really good company.«

Egelund’s weakness is the government that she is a part of. She is actually the mitigating circumstance

Sofie Lippert

It seems that most people who cross the minister’s path get to like her. This goes for all the people who the University Post approached for comment.

And several of them emphasize at the same time her competence and interest in her field.

»Christina is a person who cares about things that happened more than a fortnight ago. And for books that are more than 20 pages long,« says Mattias Tesfaye.

»I like this part about growing up with parents who run a campsite in Northern Jutland. And then turning into this Francophile and liberal before ending up as education minister. I like it when it takes more than ten seconds to explain a human being. And this is Christina Egelund.«

Sofie Lippert of the Socialist People’s Party agrees:

»She’s good at doing politics. When you say that about people, it normally just means that they are good at keeping afloat on top of the scandals. But that’s not what Christina is good at. She’s good because she cares about the content of the politics she does.«

This is not least because she has respect for the field of her own ministry, Lippert believes.

»Even though there were many of us who didn’t think that one-year master’s degrees were an excellent plan, Christina’s launch of the idea showed a much greater respect for academia than there had been in the past,« she explains.

None of them suggest any of the minister’s weaknesses. Sofie Lippert puts it like this instead:

»Christina Egelund’s weakness is the government that she is a part of. She is, actually, the one mitigating circumstance.«

Lifelong learning for the minister

The University Post spoke to Christina Egelund about her poor knowledge of the Danish education system before she became minister, and her regrets about not completing her bachelor’s degree in Paris.

First we have to see if I can get admission to university at all

Christina Egelund

She has launched an educational reform which emphasises the option to return to university later in life. And she herself emphasises how important this element is in the overall reform that she has rolled out for the universities.

So one final question springs to mind:

Would she herself return to the education system at some point? Maybe finish her education at a Danish university?

»Yes, I would really like to do that,« she replies. If so, she would like to study on the history of ideas programme. Then she laughs:

»But first we have to see if I can get admission to university at all.«