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Three rectors look back: 20 years with 30 Danish university reforms

Reform storm — How has a 20-year storm of Danish university reform affected the University of Copenhagen? The rectors of the period, Linda Nielsen, Ralf Hemmingsen and Henrik C. Wegener, give us the inside story.

»A lot has happened since my time as rector. Nowadays, I see independence from government and from external funding as the biggest challenges facing the universities.«

Linda Nielsen was Rector of the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) from 2001 to 2005. She held the office when the controversial Danish University Act was passed in 2003.

Its 20 year anniversary is this year. And since it was adopted, more than 30 further reforms or political initiatives have impacted Danish universities, according to a summary by the Universities Denmark interest group.

The most recent is the current Danish government’s proposed reform to master’s degrees, presented at the beginning of March. It will, according to critics, cut into the university’s most important traditions if it is implemented in its original shape.

To mark the anniversary of the Danish University Act, we look back at the 20 years of the reform period seen from the University of Copenhagen’s perspective with the three rectors who have held the post in the period: Linda Nielsen (2001-2005), Ralf Hemmingsen (2005-2017) and Henrik C. Wegener (2017- the present). They each offer their take on what the reforms looked like from the inside, and how they influenced the University of Copenhagen.

»The happy times.«

This is how Linda Nielsen describes her time as rector at the University of Copenhagen. She was the last rector to be elected by way of a democratic vote among university employees, and she remembers the early 2000s as a period when changes to the university field were couched in the wish to strengthen a knowledge society.

»I think that we, during my term, showed amazing progress and openness. It was a time when the university really tried to open up, both to the press, to business, to industry, and to the international community,« Linda Nielsen remembers. She adds that during her tenure, she launched an alliance in which the University of Copenhagen formed partnerships with leading research universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Yale and others.

»It helped put the University of Copenhagen on the global stage and has meant a lot for our international reputation.«

The »happy times« also refers to the times after her term in the rector’s office, where she represented universities in the Globalisation Council, which was introduced in 2006. According to Linda Nielsen, it contributed significantly to strengthening both research and study programmes at universities throughout the country.


Even though many nowadays believe that the Danish University Act of 2003, for better or for worse, was the starting point of the radical changes at Danish universities, this was not the narrative when it first appeared, Linda Nielsen recalls.

The University Act of 2003 was about bringing the classic logic of the market into universities. It abolished, specifically, the university’s highest decision-making body, the ‘Konsistorium’ or senate, and replaced it with a Board consisting of academic staff, students, technical and administrative staff, as well as a majority of external members to ensure that Danish universities remained relevant and competitive internationally.

»Clearly the University Act meant a lot. Before that, I had become accustomed to being the chair of the Konsistorium, without having a Board above us. So when the 2003 reform came, it was, of course, a great upheaval for everyone,« says Linda Nielsen.

For many years, the self-governing university had been criticised for being weak and unable to implement changes, and the problems had to be solved by an external board. Among university staff, there was the concern that external board members would not have the necessary knowledge and respect for the university’s history, culture and traditions.

»You would think that some kind of revolution would take place when there was a Board, but that did not actually happen. I only found that the collaboration was good, and that the Board was a good listener. Of course there were times when we did not agree. But overall, it led to good dialogue and a consideration of all sides,« she says.

The reform meant that part of the universities’ autonomy disappeared. But the external board was now able to make the changes that had previously been difficult to pull off via internal channels, Linda Nielsen recalls. She emphasises that the political reforms of the ‘00s resulted in massive investments in universities.

Today, however, she speaks of her term as rector as a happy, bygone era.

»When I look back on the series of reforms and the speed and quantity of them, I find this problematic. There has been no respect for the time it takes to implement a reform, and the universities have not been allowed to absorb the changes until they have been asked to change again,« she says.

After Linda Nielsen, Ralf Hemmingsen took over as Rector of the University of Copenhagen. He was the first rector to be appointed by the new board, and according to Universities Denmark, he went through a total of 25 reforms and political initiatives during his time in office.

And before he gets into any details about how the many reforms have changed the university, he wants to define what a university is and should be:

»The university exists in a dynamic interplay with the rest of society. It delivers new knowledge, and passes on existing insights at depth. This is so young people of today can use the information they acquire at university now, and in the future,« says Ralf Peter Hemmingsen.

»It has to offer a long-term epistemological process. And it does not work if it is tied down by the limitations of the present spirit of the times. You need to have space for a free and open academic debate at all times. And it is important to uphold this understanding of the university against the reforms.«

Among the 25 reforms, Ralf Hemmingsen points to four of them that he, in particular, believes had a key effect on the foundations of the university.


A welfare and globalisation agreement was adopted in 2006 with a number of new initiatives that had the purpose of strengthening universities, both nationally and internationally.

Among the initiatives was a target of having at least 50 per cent of all young people getting higher education, and a new globalisation council to ensure that Danish universities remained competitive internationally.

»The globalisation pool was political acknowledgement of the fact that the knowledge sector was very strong in other countries, like say China, and that Denmark simply had to catch up. This had several billion kroner suddenly being granted to universities,« says Ralf Hemmingsen.

»Some of the funding was earmarked for better laboratories, but otherwise they were not earmarked. The universities were free to assess themselves where they could be put to the best use. At UCPH, we used them for an excellence programme for selected researchers, and we things like the Maersk Tower. We also received key grants from large foundations, like the A.P. Møller Foundation that supported the Maersk Tower, and the Novo Nordisk Foundation, which granted funds to several important research centres.«

Hemmingsen believes that the massive investments of the ‘00s were wise investments. And he is disappointed with the fact that politicians have not invested in universities since then.

»It was visionary to st up a globalisation council and increase universities funding. UCPH rocketed up international rankings during this period. And it is very unfortunate that they have not followed up on it for two decades,« says Ralf Peter Hemmingsen.

»And now there is a war on; a health crisis; and all sorts of other things that make it more difficult to invest in knowledge and education. So they should have probably thought of this back in the ‘10s.«


One year after the globalisation agreement, another major reform came: the 2007 mergers.

Ralf Hemmingsen refers to them as »voluntary coercion,« because Danish universities were strongly urged to merge by politicians.

»The government wanted to link sector-based research to universities, rather than ministries. And by voluntary coercion, I mean that it was a taken-for-granted assumption, that when money was to be distributed, it was probably a good idea if you had done something merger-like,« Ralf Hemmingsen remembers.

At the University of Copenhagen, we were very careful not to merge at all costs, however. The mergers would only take place if there was goodwill on both sides and meaningful academic synergies.

»At UCPH we ended up merging with two universities, the former Danish Pharmaceutical University and the former Royal Veterinary and Agricultural College.«

Critics have pointed out how the mergers led to less independent research, but that was not the case for the University of Copenhagen, according to Ralf Hemmingsen. This was partly due to the fact that UCPH did not merge with any government research institutions.

»We only merged with other universities, and today this has helped make UCPH academically stronger. The various study programmes and sciences have been able to inspire each other academically, and this has given us greater academic depth,« says Ralf Hemmingsen.


The 2013 Study Progress Reform meant that, for the first time in the history of Danish universities, limits were imposed on how long students could be enrolled at university.

»The Study Progress Reform was the biggest reform of my term as rector. I remember how five or six thousand students protested on Frue Plads because they felt that their rights were being fundamentally undermined,« says Ralf Hemmingsen.

The reform was met with protests, especially from students. But the former rector now believes that the reform was, in itself, a logical societal intervention against long study periods.

»Before the Study Progress Reform, completion times were much longer than they are today. The average study programme completion time was about six to seven years, and Denmark lost these work years because students were at university for so long. And it has to be said that the Study Progress Reform worked. It had a significant effect on university completion times,« says Ralf Hemmingsen and continues:

»But the mindset behind the Study Progress Reform that was implemented in later reforms — in particular in the latest reform proposal — has gone too far. The quantitative logic has steamrolled the content of the study programmes, and with one-year master’s degree programmes there is the risk of a steep decline in quality. The second year of the master’s degree programme is where you go in-depth and acquire professional academic skills of the highest level.«


According to Hemmingsen, the most recent reform proposal is an escalation of the mindset that took shape during the so-called dimensioning or ‘resizing’ reform of 2014.

Here, the ministry decided to intervene and cut selected study programme places which had high graduate unemployment. Up until then these decisions were taken by the universities themselves.

»The resizing was incredibly tricky and almost impossible to implement. Degree programmes were selected from the ministry to be trimmed on the basis of their unemployment numbers,« says Ralf Hemmingsen, who emphasises that the definition of unemployment has been up for debate in almost all political proposals in the field of universities.

While graduate unemployment rates on certain academic programmes seem high, the unemployment rate usually equalizes after 12-18 months, according to Ralf Hemmingsen.

»I think that the actual financial benefits of removing student places were overestimated. There was a lot of discussion about the smaller subjects – because how much can you cut into an already small course before it becomes pointless to have it at all? Several language subjects disappeared because of this, like Polish, for example,« he says, and points out that the effects of the resizing have only begun to come into full play. This is one of the reasons why he believes that the government’s latest reform initiative addresses problems that no longer exist.

»And when the politicians yet again want to cut back on university study programmes, I would say: We need to be careful not to slash humanities. Some language subjects disappeared last time that we could have used today. The world is in accelerating change, and it is important that we get educated people who know how to analyse it.«

»University policy has become high politics

This is according to the University of Copenhagen’s current rector Henrik C. Wegener.

»There are a lot of young people on higher education programmes today, and the area has become politically interesting because it is a way of approaching a very large potential group of voters.«

Just like Linda Nielsen and Ralf Hemmingsen, Wegener refers to the early 2000s as the »happy days«, where they opened up to the world and attempted to attract as many young people to Danish universities as possible.

»You could also argue that there was a blind spot in terms of the ultimate purpose of the study programmes at that time. And this resulted in tough politically-imposed limitations on the field of education in the ‘10s. And we are seeing the effects of these limitations for the first time now,« Henrik C. Wegener says.

He took over the rector’s chains of office in 2017, a few years after significant ‘braking reforms’ in terms of both the numbers of students and on outward global orientation.


In his own time, he points in particular to the cap on education programmes as a reform that tried to put an end to the initiatives to boost education from the early ‘00s.

The cap meant that it was no longer possible for a student to start a new study programme if they had already completed an education at the same or a higher level. In 2017, it was changed, so six years had to pass from your graduation to the beginning of a new programme, and in 2020 the cap was removed.

The current rector can summarise the whole thing quite briefly:

»Thank the Lord for removing the cap, which had the same effect as the Study Progress Reform – which we popularly called the drop-out reform. Suddenly, nobody wanted to complete their degree programme, because then they would be caught by the cap rule. There were a huge number of students who dropped out just before they had to submit their master’s thesis. It was completely nuts.«


In 2018 it was decided to limit the number of international students and the English-language degree programmes. The arguments in favour of the reform included that it was not financially feasible to have international students because they were entitled to the generous Danish SU student grant while they were here.

»The limitation on international students was also really bad. It would have been much better if the solution was that Denmark was not obligated to pay SU to students who did not have a Danish passport. Or, even better,« he says and continues:

»They could have decided that it is actually a really good business proposition to have international students – SU grants or not. Because if we made just a small effort to get them jobs when they graduated at university, it would generate great benefits to the economy.«


In 2022, the Danish parliament passed the so-called relocation plan, which meant that approximately 2,400 student places are to be moved away from the big cities, while 1,950 student places are being abolished. This relocation plan still applies and it means that the universities are not allowed to increase their student places in the big cities before 2030.

»The government wanted a ‘Denmark in Balance’. For UCPH it was a requirement that we relocate part of our study programmes to areas in the country where there are currently none,« Henrik C. Wegener explains and continues:

»It was easy to understand the political rationale behind the proposal, but the problem was that it was much easier said than done. Our study programmes are closely integrated, and we cannot just move one degree programme to another region without it negatively affecting both the study environment and the working environment,« says Wegener.

The University of Copenhagen opted therefore to reduce student admissions rather than setting up small regional programmes. They would not, according to Wegener, have been able to live up to the university’s quality requirements.

»It is sad that a strict limit on the number of students that can be admitted to the big cities has now been put into place. The labour market needs them, but this is the political imperative that we are subject to right now.


At the beginning of March 2023, the current Danish three-party coalition government presented a new reform proposal. It included a cut to a large proportion of the current two-year master’s graduate programmes to one-and-a-quarter years, an expansion of the business master’s programme, and an increase in the intake of international students.

The reform proposal faced criticism from many directions, and the latest announcement by the Minister for Higher Education and Science Christina Egelund is that none of the items in the proposals are definitive.

»I’m not happy with the government’s new proposal. It is a tiny plus that they want to open up to more international students, but it is next to some huge minuses. Especially the fact that they want to significantly shorten the master’s programmes,« says Henrik C. Wegener and continues:

»It shows just how eager politicians are to manage universities. And this may seem paradoxical when everyone agrees that the real societal problems are that there are not enough students on the professional degree programmes and in the business academies. Why don’t they address this instead of this constant hunting down of the university students?«

The reforms of the past ten years, and in particular the most recent initiative, have made for an exaggerated and misplaced focus on ensuring that higher education and the labour market need to be completely in sync, according to Henrik C. Wegener. He asks politicians to remember that the labour market is not as black and white as they seem to think.

»I studied food science, and today I’m rector. There is no degree programme for becoming rector, so any rector will, by definition, have been off-target according to this definition of the labour market. And that’s how it is on many of the study programmes we have today – and I don’t think we need to turn this into a problem.«