Humanities master’s to be shortened under ‘radical’ Danish plans

Demand and quality questioned by businesses and universities as reforms leave majority of STEM courses at full length

October 3, 2022
Denmark, in a rush, student
Source: iStock

Universities and businesses in Denmark have been knocked sideways by government plans to compress the length of some postgraduate programmes from two years to one.

The reform would halve the length of 35 per cent of master’s degrees, with the squeeze being applied most heavily in the social sciences and humanities, which would see 70 per cent of programmes compressed.

The changes, designed to “prepare the students better for the labour market” in the words of the education minister, Jesper Petersen, would leave 90 per cent of medical and 70 per cent of natural sciences and technical courses untouched at two years in length.

“What kind of understanding of those programmes is that?” asked Hanne Andersen, rector of Roskilde University, linking the uneven disciplinary squeeze to long-standing pressure on the arts and humanities by recent Danish governments.

“It is quite a thing to change an education system which is part of Bologna and has quality in it, to think you can take away one year and it will be better,” she said, referring to the intergovernmental process that has helped standardise three-year bachelor’s and two-year master’s across Europe.

She said one-year humanities master’s would be “less attractive” to students and would also be out of step with what companies want, citing a consultancy study commissioned by the Danish Engineering Association that predicted a shortage of 16,000 social studies graduates by 2030, versus 13,000 for engineering, technology and IT.

“We don’t think that we could put genuine quality into a four-year university education,” said Jesper Langergaard, director of Danish Universities, which will represent the country’s eight universities in talks with the Ministry of Higher Education and Science about the “very radical” proposals.

“I have difficulty seeing [how] the ones who have difficulty getting jobs after five years [will find it easier] after four,” said Mads Eriksen, head of education and research policy at the Danish Chamber of Commerce.

He said one of the strengths of the current Danish system was its longer master’s programmes, which better prepared graduates for work by allowing time for internships. “It’s actually the balance between theory and practice which is challenged with this proposal,” he added.

“If you’re going to do a good Sunday roast, you cannot just put it in the oven on 500 degrees and [hope] it will be ready in 20 minutes,” said Mr Langergaard. “It takes time to prepare a good meal, and it takes time to get quality in education.”

In addition to the new one-year master’s programmes, the government wants vocational master’s, which allow 25 hours of work a week alongside studies, to be available for all subjects.

While the proposals were greeted with shock by many, they come after a government-appointed reform commission recommended “a fundamental rethinking” of Danish master’s programmes.

The seven-strong commission panel, which included five academics and the chair of the national accreditation council, said new postgraduate options were needed, noting that almost all bachelor’s students continue to their subject’s respective master’s course, which they said are best suited for training researchers or high-level specialists.

“It’s a bit hard to hear the minister say on national television that we are only educating for research,” said Roskilde’s Professor Andersen, adding that universities were not collectively consulted on the “massive” reforms.

ben.upton@timeshighereducation.com

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