New Danish government ends budget squeeze – except for humanities

New Social Democrat administration drops annual 2 per cent saving target, but could end teaching subsidy for humanities and social sciences

October 7, 2019
Source: Getty
Choppy waters: the discontinuation of the government subsidy for the humanities could ‘mean that courses will close down, or they will have to fire academic staff’

Denmark’s new Social Democrat government has ended a five-year budget squeeze for universities, but academics fear that proposed cuts to humanities and social science funding could lead to course closures.

The new administration, which set out its budget on 2 October, will scrap annual 2 per cent cuts to university allocations.

Birgit Bangskjær, chief executive of the Akademikerne, a body that represents Denmark’s graduates, described universities as having been cut “really into the bone” by five years of financial pressure.

Jesper Langergaard, director of Universities Denmark, welcomed the end of the annual cuts. “There have been some significant and positive changes with the new government,” he said.

Mr Langergaard also welcomed “huge” new grants for green research, amounting to DKr1 billion (£119 million).

Some of this money, however, will come from funding streams for other research projects that have come to an end.

And the government has not supported the extension of a long-standing subsidy for humanities and social sciences teaching costs, which was introduced to address concerns that the disciplines were underfunded.

Removing this, Ms Bangskjær said, would amount to a 10 per cent cut in teaching funding across these fields.

“This is really, really grave, and we are quite disappointed, because we feel they haven’t lived up to their promises,” she said. “It can very well mean that courses will close down, or they will have to fire academic staff.”

Hanne Tange, associate professor in the department of culture and learning at Aalborg University, agreed. “It’s going to close programmes. We don’t know – it might even close universities. It’s a big blow,” she said.

Removing support for humanities and social sciences teaching would continue Denmark’s utilitarian approach to higher education, although it could still be traded away in negotiations over the budget with other parties. In 2018, a group of rectors, government officials and business leaders recommended in a report that student places be funded on the basis of labour market need, leading to fears of cuts in the humanities.

There is also hope that Denmark will overturn a reduction of more than 1,000 places on courses taught in English, which was announced in 2018 by the previous government. That administration had argued that too many foreign students left Denmark after graduation, meaning that the state did not recoup its investment. The concern was particularly acute regarding European Union students, who, like Danes, pay no tuition fees and receive student grants.

In its governing agreement with other parties, the Social Democrats have promised to end this cap on students attending courses taught in English. “There will be a different and more welcoming approach concerning the number of international students in Denmark,” said Mr Langergaard.

But nothing has yet been agreed because ending the restrictions would entail breaking earlier inter-party agreements limiting what can be spent on foreign students.

And complicating the matter is the new governing party’s broader hostility towards immigration, said Ms Bangskjær. “It’s not an area that has warm political feelings in the Social Democrats, but it’s what they have promised to do,” she said.

Professor Tange said there had been a “very, very swift change” since the restrictions were introduced last year, with foreign students noticeably deterred from applying.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: New Danish government ends budget cuts, except for humanities

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