New Danish government keeps ‘harmful master’s experiment’

Broader coalition arrives without answers on a missing DKr300 million for humanities and social sciences, as universities prepare to debate lifelong learning reforms with a “gun pointed at us”

December 17, 2022
Denmark parliament
Source: iStock

A controversial plan to shorten humanities master’s degrees has survived Denmark’s change of government, with universities facing wider uncertainty over a missing funding top-up for the disciplines.

The second cabinet of prime minister Mette Frederiksen was sworn in on 15 December, after a November election triggered by her decision to cull all of Denmark’s 17 million mink over Covid-19 fears.

The replacement of the Social Democrat minority government with a majority coalition means the departure of education minister Jesper Petersen, who irked many in the sector when he criticised low master’s contact hours in the humanities and then proposed to cut 35 per cent of programmes to one year.

In his place is Christina Egelund, a largely unknown quantity and member of the Moderate party, the smallest of the three coalition partners, which was founded in June this year.  

Universities Denmark, which represents the sector, was dismayed that the plans to shorten master’s have been kept by the coalition. In a statement welcoming Ms Egelund, it nonetheless described the “very radical proposal” as “an experiment that risks harming the whole of Denmark”. 

“There is no evidence that business demands university graduates with shorter degrees, and no nation has been strengthened by lowering education levels,” said Brian Bech Nielsen, head of the body and rector of Aarhus University, adding that he hoped universities would be invited to discuss it.

The Danish Chamber of Commerce previously told Times Higher Education that it did not back the plans and that Denmark’s two-year master’s better prepared graduates for work by allowing time for internships.

Anne Binderkrantz, a political scientist at Aarhus, said Ms Egelund’s business background might make her more sympathetic to such arguments. “She may be open for some modifications, maybe also in terms of which university programmes will be one year and two year. The university sector knows we need to be constructive,” Professor Binderkrantz said. 

Bodil Damgaard, associate dean for education at Roskilde University, told THE that behind the proposals to shorten master’s were both an anti-intellectual populism and legitimate and longstanding worries about readying universities for lifelong learning. 

“Maybe we as a sector should have started thinking about this earlier. Now it feels like we have a gun pointing at us. Cutting a year of the MA programmes, I think that’s probably not the solution, but I think it’s fair we do something,” she said.

Dr Damgaard said that by engaging with the proposal, rectors might have some hope of steering which programmes were shrunk, although that would be a “massive fight among the universities”, with each hoping to protect the programmes that matched their profile.

In 2010, the Danish government introduced a so-called “taximeter lift” – an annual grant of around DKr300 million (£35.2 million) designed to improve teaching quality in the humanities and social sciences. It did not appear in the last government’s 2023 budget, and Professor Nielsen warned it would “expire in a few days”. “This must be the first task on the new minister’s table.” 

He said it was also “positive” the government’s programme included plans to attract more international students. The last government decided to reduce the number of English-language programmes over concerns about the cost of educating non-Danish European Union students, who it framed as a drain on the economy.

“At a time of labour shortages, we need to see international students as the asset they actually are, when both costs and revenues are taken into account,” he said.

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