Universities Denmark: The government still cannot say which problems will be solved by providing less education

There are major problems with many degree programmes in Denmark. But it’s difficult to see which problems will be solved by making degree programmes shorter.

By Brian Bech Nielsen, rector at AU and chair of the Rectors’ Conference at Universities Denmark.

We can see some good points in the government’s proposal, but we cannot reconcile shorter degree programmes with quality and business relevance.

A major reform of higher education. This is how the government describes its political plan that it presented on Thursday 2 March. But we still lack convincing arguments for why we need a reform that involves shortening degree programmes.

We acknowledge that there are major challenges with many degree programmes in Denmark. Not enough young people are applying for vocational and professional programmes to qualify for jobs that society needs, and many young people are left with no qualifying degree at all. But this reform addresses none of these challenges.

Having looked at the reform in its entirety, we find it difficult to see which problems will be solved by making Master’s degree programmes shorter. Shortening degree programmes will not benefit Denmark; it will compromise the quality of university programmes and weaken their connection to business and industry. I’ll get back to this shortly.

Generally speaking, we have yet to see examples of how a nation can become richer through less education.

Serious compromise of quality

There are parts of the reform that Universities Denmark considers positive and can support. We are keen to further develop our degree programmes and the way we do things.

So we would gladly help to develop more flexible Master’s degree programmes for working professionals, where people can be employed in a company alongside their studies. We would also like to welcome more international students and create more international Master’s programmes for working professionals.

We welcome the proposal to improve opportunities for upskilling through lifelong learning. And we are pleased that the proposal emphasises the need for universities to be involved in shaping the reform. Thank you for the invitation, which we gratefully accept.

But let’s return to the proposal to shorten the Master’s degree programme, which is the main focus of the reform. This proposal is so extensive and drastic that, in many fields, universities will struggle to provide “research-based education at the highest international level,” as it is formulated in the University Act.

Regardless of how many extra hours or how much more feedback we offer, shortening a large proportion of university programmes by one year will amount to a serious compromise of quality.

Why should Danish university programmes be changed to the radical extent proposed by the reform? Are universities detached from the real world? Are students lazy? Do universities have minimal contact to business and industry? Do universities primarily educate people for the public sector? No, this is simply not the case.

A quick update on the reality in 2023. All Danish universities collaborate closely with business and industry. Students complete their degree programmes in less time than ever before.

New, flexible education reforms have been introduced which enable students to alternate between work and education, and universities primarily educate people for the private sector. The unemployment rate among university graduates is 3.3 per cent – the lowest level since 2008 – and there is a severe shortage of graduates on many of our programmes.

Shorter programmes will weaken our relevance to business and industry.

In its proposal, the government claims that it would like to strengthen ties between university programmes and business and industry. It’s difficult to understand how shorter programmes will achieve this.

A one-year Master’s programme will require that students spend a lot more time on each university course. This won’t leave any time for work placements in companies. Studying abroad and collaborating with companies on a Master’s thesis will also become a thing of the past.

It will also make it very difficult for students to have a student job alongside their studies, which over half of students have today, and which is often their way into a graduate job. And there are almost no students who will find it easier to work if we shorten their degree programme.

But can’t the students simply work faster and learn more in less time? No, this is not how education works. Knowledge cannot be forced or compressed or learned at turbo speed. It must be absorbed, processed, challenged, assessed, and put into perspective.

Acquiring core competencies requires immersion, and it takes time to cultivate the skills to put them into practice. And, in a time of declining student well-being, wouldn’t most people agree that students are already under enough strain?

Expertise takes time. The two-year Master’s programme and the Master’s thesis are crucial to ensuring that students attain a high academic level. In-depth expertise is necessary for students to be able to acquire and apply new knowledge independently, and this is a skill that society and Danish companies expect and demand from experts and knowledge workers.

Dialogue is the way forward

As I said, there are some parts of the government’s proposal we can endorse, but we cannot reconcile shorter degree programmes with quality and business relevance. Shortening programmes will give young people – our shared future – poorer opportunities, and this will make Denmark poorer.

We sincerely hope that political negotiations will stop in order to listen to employers, listen to students and listen to universities.

Dialogue and involvement are the way forward to strong and positive reforms that will benefit Denmark.

This article was published in Altinget on 3 March 2023.