Danish institutes of higher education to see significant cuts in student places from next academic year

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UPDATE (29 June 2015): The Danish government reconfirms ‘dimensionering’ initiative. Here in English; here in Danish (with further links at the bottom of the page.)

UPDATE (evening of 4 November, 2014): Perhaps the sit-in worked – at least in part! 🙂 Since I published the post below early this afternoon, changes to the ‘dimensioning’ initiative have been announced by the Minister of Higher Education. Rather than reducing student spots only in Master level courses, dimensioning will now involve cutting student places in Bachelor programs first and then in Master programs. The old version of the plan would have, in effect, gone against what Danish law says – that all Danish students who finish a Bachelor degree have the right to pursue a Master degree – because it would have squeezed those who graduate from certain Bachelor programs out of a chance to do a Masters due to reduced student places at the higher level. Moreover, international students would have been shut out of certain Master degree programs altogether because the law does not apply to them, so the Masters programs would have been filled by Danish students, whom the universities would have been legally bound to admit. The new plan is that 3,500 places at the Bachelor level will be removed during the first few years of the policy’s implementation, followed by 2,400 Master places – and that the full implementation will be realised by 2020, rather than by 2018. Another big change to the plan is that rather than certain disciplines being forced by the government to cut places, institutions will be given the freedom to pick in which programs to make the reductions. (This updated information was taken mainly from politiken.dk’s story on the topic, ‘Universiteter og minister er enige om ny plan for nedskæringer,’ published today, 4 November, 2014 at 16:30. A big thanks, too, to a contact at a Danish university college.)

dimensioningDanish university students (and young people from other EU countries who study here) are some of the most privileged in the world. Not only do they not pay tuition to attend university, they also get a monthly stipend from the government to help with living expenses while they study (up to 5,839 kr./month before tax). The expectation is, of course, that graduates will find gainful employment related to their studies before or soon after finishing and begin to contribute to the social safety net from which they have just benefited.

sophie carsten nielsen
Sophie Carsten Nielsen, Minister of Higher Education
Student sit-in at the new AAU building on Rendsburggade yesterday

According to the Danish government, this model is not working as well as it could be. The government claims that there is high unemployment among those who graduate in certain fields of study and, as a result, wishes to cut down on the number of available student places in universities across Denmark in those areas, while boosting the number available in others. The total number of places will not go down; rather, there will be a shift in places from certain study programs to others. The inititative, announced at the end of September by Danish Minister of Higher Education Sofie Carsten Nielsen, is called ‘dimensioning’ and is one of – if not THE – most talked about topics on campuses nationwide at the moment. Indeed, from 9am yesterday to 9am today, students around the country participated in sit-ins on their campuses to protest the move.

The government argues that the percentage of unemployed graduates is too high, especially among those who pursue a degree in the humanities or related fields. Here is the list of programs in which the government has identified unacceptable levels of post-graduation levels of unemployment, i.e. 7.5 to 10 percentage points above the average rate:

Humanities (Master degree in…) Technical and natural sciences
International business communication, English Master of science degree in biology
International business communication, German Master of science degree in geography
International business communication, Spanish Master of science degree in mediology
English Master of science in engineering degree – Product and technology design
German Master of science in engineering degree – Architecture
Danish Master of science in engineering degree – Industrial design
Applied philosophy Master of science in engineering degree – Urban design
Information science Health-related
Learning and change processes Master degree in sports technology
Culture, communication and globalization
Music Social sciences
Music therapy Master degree in History
Tourism Master of social science in international studies
Humanities (Master of IT in…)
Interactive digital media
Information architecture
Experience design
IT, learning and organizational change

Dimensioning will involve reducing the number of students in these programs, including those at universities, maritime institutions, business academies, and university colleges, by roughly 4,000 nationwide over the next three years. In 2015 spots in these disciplines will be reduced by 1,300 and in 2016 by a further 2,600, with the goal of 3,950 places fully phased out by 2017. (This was extended to 2018 last week.) In contrast, engineering and teacher training programs, for example, will see an increase in the number of available spots.

While it is unclear exactly how this will affect AAU (the president of the university was meeting with the Minister yesterday in Copenhagen), the impact is expected to be significant. At least 13 programs of study at the university will be hit by a total reduction of approximately 560 student places from now until 2017. According to a professor in the English department, the administration were aware the cuts were coming and preemptively decided to cut 220 spaces, which was the proportion they felt matched AAU’s share of the whole. However, this was evidently not enough. Negotiations continue.

Naturally there has been a great deal of anger and indignation on the part of professors and students, especially those affected directly by the cuts. Some critics accuse the government of fishy statistics, based on calculations taken too early in new graduates’ job search and outdated unemployment numbers. Critics also point out that Dansk Industri, a huge lobbying organization that has argued that there are too few engineers in Denmark and too many humanities students, has been involved in setting higher and higher employment benchmarks for the humanities, which, perhaps to Dansk Industri’s chagrine, have been consistently met. They accuse the organization of being behind this latest effort to push students towards studies that lead to jobs in sectors that are sorely lacking in qualified candidates, e.g. engineering.

As a US citizen, my first reaction to this issue was naive and, well…not exactly thought through. How could they just demand cuts in student places, I thought. Then my husband kindly pointed out that this is not the US, where students pay (a LOT) to go to university and the government has no say over programs and student numbers in institutes of higher education. No – this is Denmark, where the government pays and the universities are state-funded. The government, as a result, has a very vested interest in what happens to those graduates it pays to educate (and partially fund after graduation if they do not find work, through the a-kasse system). OK – I get that. But with my expat hat on, I must also ask: if there are so many highly qualified foreigners living in Denmark without work or who are under-employed, maybe the government and Dansk Industri could put more energy into improving job chances for those who already have degrees (especially those who live outside the Copenhagen area) and a little less in cutting spaces in popular higher education programs. Perhaps there are not enough foreign engineers either in Denmark, but I have spoken with my share of those who are having a hard time finding a job here in Aalborg. Engineers are already at the top of the ‘positive list‘, which consists of professions that lack qualified candidates in Denmark and puts potential immigrants on an accelerated path to a work visa. That is a start. But I think more could be done. This is putting it far too simply, but why not let Danish students study what they want and hire some more non-Danish engineers?

Read more here about the ‘dimensioning’ policy (all in Danish) – brief description and links to further information.


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