Cold logic that kills learning

June 30, 2000

A punishing bureaucratic formula and outdated system have led to crisis in Denmark, says Marlene Edelstein

In common with much of the faculty of humanities at Copenhagen University, the English department, where I have taught for some years, is about to be sacrificed to a bureaucratic fantasy.

STA (Studiearsvoerk) is the ratio between the number of students and the number of exams passed in a department. It is the index by which funding is distributed among university departments; those whose "production", or STA, is unsatisfactory are penalised by having their budget reduced. Quality is measured in terms of quantity. The concept was introduced in higher education four or five years ago but is only now being applied with the full force of economic logic.

Dumbing down is obviously a temptation; whether that term can be fairly applied to the revision of the rather conservative syllabus that is under way remains to be seen. As the endeavours of younger members of staff to update the study of English have been met with scepticism, it is likely that the compromise reached will be a slimmer version of the present model. However, it may be feared that even the most radical reform would only partially alleviate the problem, which is largely structural.

Danish university departments do not select their own students, and they have no say as to the type of entry qualifications they consider desirable. Places are allotted by a central authority on the basis of the average grade in the student's upper secondary school exam, a process that broadly follows a crude version of the free-market economy: the greater the demand, the higher the price. One consequence of this system is that many students, unable to obtain a place to study their preferred subject, begin their studies with their second or third choice and drop out as soon as a more attractive option presents itself.

Another characteristic of the Danish system is that the syllabus is defined not in terms of courses but of categories of exams: in principle, students need never attend classes and may present themselves for examinations whenever they feel the urge. (When approached recently, the faculty rejected a request for a ruling that would make it more difficult for students to defer sitting their exams.) Students may also take each exam up to three times, so the small feckless minority will put the first try down to experience. And since little individual supervision or guidance is provided, it is easy for students to get off to a bad start and have to redo a semester or two. As fees are not charged, it goes without saying that this is an extremely costly system, especially as Danish students receive the highest grants in Europe.

These are the circumstances in which, understandably enough, the universities are being asked to increase their efficiency. But rather than tightening the selection procedure to recruit more committed students and reform the higher education constitution, which is clearly wasteful and outmoded, the state authorities have opted to demand increased STA. The faculty's immediate reaction to the STA deficit was that a job freeze should come into effect, and the consequences are devastating. The Russian department, for example, will not have a single full-time teacher of literature in the next academic year; and after the imminent retirement of Erik Hansen, who holds the chair of Danish language, the position will not be filled. No professor of Danish language at Copenhagen University!

In my own department, not only will the majority of part-time teachers be sacked this summer and all short-term contracts be phased out, but the future of young teachers who have not yet attained tenure is nerve-rackingly uncertain. In fact, the proposal that they should be let go when their three-year contracts terminate instead of their jobs being converted to tenured positions militates against the faculty's avowed aims of lowering the average age of the teaching staff, appointing more women and working for a greater international profile. In the English department, the over-60s are heavily represented and all the full-time non-tenured lecturers whose positions are threatened are women who have made internationally recognised contributions within their fields of research.

Four senior members of staff have offered to retire in order to save the jobs of their younger colleagues, but it is not certain that the faculty will regard these retirements as a satisfactory compromise. Furthermore, there are signs that some of those who volunteered to go are regretting their quixotic gesture of generosity, and both the university and the academic union will defend their right to remain in their jobs until the age of 70.

By 2002, teaching hours will be reduced by about 50 per cent compared with 1999 levels and workloads will be heavily increased, which can hardly be STA-enhancing.

The situation is demoralising, produces paranoia and is inimical to original research. Unless the powers that be rethink their Swiftian budget model, the deterioration of staff/student ratios will transform the department into a necropolis, the principal sufferers being those least responsible for the present crisis - committed, diligent students and progressive, productive scholars.

Marlene R. Edelstein is an external lecturer in the department of English at the University of Copenhagen.

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