Danish humanities courses pressed on contact hours as funding cut

Government accused of moving goalposts over pre-election messaging, with social sciences and business master’s also set to lose out

September 12, 2022
Person wearing viking hat in a cardboard boat sinking at a boat Regatta to illustrate the Danish humanities courses pressed on contact hours as funding cut
Source: Getty

Danish universities fear that ministerial warnings about contact hours on postgraduate courses are a ploy to justify funding cuts for humanities and social sciences courses.

A report from the Ministry of Higher Education and Science found that one in three master’s students received fewer than 10 contact hours a week: an average of 9.7 hours in the humanities, compared with 21.7 hours in technological subjects.

“Students should be guaranteed a proper number of hours and, in general, enough contact with lecturers,” said Jesper Petersen, the education minister. “Quality should be more in focus in the debate on education.”

That the ministry wants to force a conversation on contact hours may be connected to an upcoming election, which many expect to be called in the coming months.

“Everybody tries to gain the voters who are without higher education – that’s the middle ground in Danish politics for the moment, and therefore it’s often a stance you can improve by being critical of universities,” said Johnny Laursen, dean of the Faculty of Arts at Aarhus University.

But the push also coincides with government proposals to end a DKr5,000 (£585) top-up to per-student funding for some courses, introduced in 2010 after an independent review found that social science and humanities teaching in particular was underfunded.

“These things go together,” said Professor Laursen, referring to the contact hours report and the funding proposal, which would cut public funding for humanities, social studies and business courses by DKr280 million, according to an analysis by Danish Universities, the national rectors’ conference.

“On the one hand, they’re taking away money from us; on the other, they’re trying to make us deliver more,” said Lars Binderup, vice-dean for education at the University of Southern Denmark. “It’s really unfair.”

Danish universities have agreed with the government to deliver at least 12 hours of teaching and supervision each week for bachelor’s courses and at least eight hours for master’s, with those falling below that asked to explain why.

“Suddenly the minister comes and says 10 hours a week is the problem,” said Professor Binderup. “If that’s suddenly the requirement, then possibly we need more funds.”

The minority Social Democrat government needs support from other parties to get its annual finance bill through parliament, and Professor Binderup said that rather than bashing universities, the report may in fact be aimed at winning other parties’ support to make the per-student top-up permanent by showing how stretched staff are.

He said much of the political heat on the humanities comes from graduate employment rates. Enrolments have plummeted for many courses this year, but Professor Binderup said employment figures have still got worse as a post-recession surge comes through the system.

“We’re seeing the effects of the very high intakes when the politicians were pushing us against our will to take in as many students as possible, because they wanted to take people out of the unemployment queue,” he said.

Professor Laursen said his faculty at Aarhus has put a major emphasis on employability in recent years, with particular focus on digital skills. He hopes that the top-up stays, regardless of the shifting political landscape. “We want to complete that job.”

ben.upton@timeshighereducation.com

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