Humanities at risk as Denmark ties course places to labour market

Students’ union says major report suggests that humanities degrees are ‘not worthwhile’

March 19, 2018
Little Mermaid sculpture, Copenhagen
Source: Reuters

Major reforms of higher education in Denmark could further cut the number of students pursuing humanities subjects, observers warn.

One of the key recommendations of a report drawn up by rectors, government officials, academics and business representatives is that the number of study places available in each discipline should be linked to labour market need, which critics say is the latest sign of utilitarian drift in Danish higher education.

Explaining the reforms, Søren Pind, minister for education and research, reportedly said that “we will see a scaling down of the humanities” as a result.

Toke Dahler, general secretary of the Danish National Union of Students, said that the proposed reforms were of “very great concern” and that there was “no question” that they would cut humanities student numbers further. The report suggests that humanities degrees are “not worthwhile”, he argued.

The report recommends that universities expand degree courses where labour market demand is strong – particularly from the private sector – and cut them where they lead to relatively high unemployment.

This marks a policy trajectory already well under way in Denmark. Birgit Bangskjær, chief executive of the Akademikerne, which represents groups of Denmark’s graduates, explained that since 2015, Danish universities had been docking places on courses where the unemployment rate was systematically higher than average over a 10-year period.

“That means that especially programmes within the humanities have been lowered,” she said. The new report says that, by 2016, courses that had funding cut in this way had lost about 2,000 places, with humanities hardest hit.

So, although the recommendations build on existing policy, they “send a signal to the university management that this is important”, Ms Bangskjær added.

Another controversial proposal – opposed by the Akademikerne and universities – is to reduce the power of academics and students over curriculum design. At the moment, “study groups” of students and staff nominate course managers, Ms Bangskjær explained. But government and some industry representatives who devised the recommendations want to give university leaders the exclusive power to appoint course managers, and to reduce study groups to an advisory role, she added. “There’s a risk that the university staff are not involved themselves,” Ms Bangskjær said. “We feel that would damage the legitimacy of the programme leaders.”

Another major change would give bachelor’s graduates more of an incentive to work for a few years before doing a master’s degree. Currently Danish graduates have the automatic right to continue on to a master’s in the same subject only if they start one immediately, explained Ms Bangskjær, meaning that about 85 per cent choose to do so.

Allowing graduates to return for a master’s later on gives them more flexibility, she said, although she added that the Ministry of Finance would also like to fund fewer master’s students, an attitude that the Akademikerne disagrees with. In addition, “we believe that these students who have been working between bachelor’s and master’s are more qualified to do their master’s”, Ms Bangskjær said.

Jesper Langergaard, director of Universities Denmark, said that it was still “too early to say” how the recommendations would feed into concrete changes.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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