Denmark’s public schools enter a new era

Monday marked not only the end of summer holiday for the nation's public school students, but also the first day under a controversial school reform.

Denmark's public schools enter a new era
Photo: Erik Refner/Scanpix
When parents nationwide shipped their children off to school on Monday morning, they had to deal with more than just the annual back-to-school blues. This year, the most comprehensive school reform in modern Danish history hung thick in the air as students unpacked their bags and found their new desks. 
The most obvious difference schoolchildren will notice is a longer school day. Children in grades 0-3 (ages 6-9) will now have 30 hours of school each week, while students in grades 4-6 (ages 10-12) will have 33 hours per week and those in 7-9 grade (ages 13-15) will be in class for 35 hours per week. 
The longer days will be most noticeable for the youngest children. First grade students previously had a minimum of 21.1 hours of teaching each week. That increases by nearly nine hours under the reform when the two hours of available tutoring are factored in. 
Students will have more hours in Danish and maths and a daily average of 45 minutes of physical activity. The reform also includes a stronger focus on foreign languages, with students now learning English in first grade rather than third, and being introduced to a second foreign language beginning in fifth grade.
The school reform carries with it the bitter memories of a conflict over teachers’ working hours that resulted in a three-week teacher lockout in April 2013. 
At the core of the disagreement was the Danish Union of Teachers’ (Danmarks Lærerforening) refusal to sign a collective bargaining agreement that gave school leaders, rather than the teachers themselves, more responsibility for deciding teachers’ work schedules. 
With the union and Local Government Denmark (Kommunernes Landsforening – KL) unable to reach an agreement, the government stepped in to force teachers to accept the new conditions. 
Roughly 875,000 students and course participants – including over 550,000 public school students – were affected by the lockout and many parents turned sour on the public school reform as the conflict raged. 
But now that school has begun, the tone seems to have shifted. An opinion survey over the weekend revealed that a majority of parents support the ideas behind the reform. 
The survey, carried out by KL, showed that 57 percent of respondents thought their children would learn more in school thanks to the reform. A majority also supported the additional hours in Danish and maths, as well as the introduction of physical activity and tutoring help. 
“I’m very happy to see that parents support the reform in so many areas, because the support of parents is essential if the reform is to succeed,” Anna Mee Allerslev, the head of KL’s children and culture committee and Copenhagen’s deputy mayor for employment and integration, said in a press release. 
“The overall goal of the reform is to raise the students’ level. So it is great that the parents believe in the vision. And I’d like to compliment parents on the openness and curiosity they have shown for the huge change that the reform presents,” she added. 
Despite parents’ support of the individual elements of the school reform, KL’s survey still revealed a high level of uncertainty. Nearly a third of all respondents said that they felt ill informed about the changes their children will experience under the new reform. 
It’s not just the parents who feel uncertain. A survey carried out by Danmarks Lærerforening over the summer showed that about half of all public school teachers’ union representatives didn’t know what to expect out of the new school year. 
“We know that you don’t just get a reform to work from day one. But the teachers are really missing an overview over what tasks they are expected to do,” the union’s chairman, Anders Bondo Christensen, told Danmarks Radio in June.  

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English-language programmes at Danish universities face cuts

Denmark's government has agreed on a plan to significantly reduce the number of courses offered in English in the country's universities.

English-language programmes at Danish universities face cuts
Life sciences faculty hold an open house at Copenhagen University. The university is now expected to reduce admissions as part of a plan to decentralise higher education in Denmark. Photo: Thomas Lekfeldt / Ritzau Scanpix

At the end of June, the plan aims to reduce the number of English-language higher education programmes while also expanding educational opportunities outside of Denmark’s major cities.

The exact number of courses to be cut – and where they will be cut – depends on the future employment of graduates.

Cuts to English-language programmes

The reduction of English-language programmes at institutions of higher education is rooted in an effort to reduce rising costs of state educational grants (SU) in Denmark. Despite attempts to reduce SU expenses, the cost is expected to rise to 570 million kroner by 2025, far above the cap of 449 million kroner set in 2013. 

There are a number of cases in which non-Danish citizens are entitled to SU, from moving to Denmark with one’s parents, marrying a Danish citizen, residing in Denmark for more than 5 years, status as a worker in Denmark, and more.

The reduction is targeted at English-language programmes where few English-speaking students find employment in Denmark after graduation, according to Denmark’s Ministry of Education and Research. 

Among the targeted programmes are business academies and professional bachelor programmes, where 72 percent of students are English-speaking and only 21 percent find work in Denmark after completing their education. 

However, programmes where higher proportions of English students enter the Danish workforce, and those that have a unique significance on the regional labour market, will be exempt from the reduction. This amounts to 650 education institutions around the country. 

In 2016, students demonstrated against cuts in SU. Photo: Emil Hougaard / Ritzau Scanpix

The agreement also establishes a financial incentive for institutions that graduate English-speaking students who remain to work in Denmark.

According to a June 10 analysis from consulting firm Deloitte, EU students who receive higher education in Denmark contribute an average of nearly 650,000 kroner to Denmark’s public coffers over a lifetime. 

However, the report notes, a student’s positive or negative contribution depends on how long they stay in Denmark. Although students who leave Denmark shortly after graduating constitute a cost to the Danish state, the analysis found that the contribution of students who stay in Denmark to work offsets the cost of those who leave.

The analysis expressed concern that reducing opportunities for English-language higher education could “have a number of unintended negative consequences,” including deterring students who might stay in Denmark to work from moving in the first place. There’s also the risk that it will become more difficult to recruit foreign researchers to Danish universities, which could impact education quality, the analysis claims.

The UCN professional school in Thisted is expected to open one new training program as a result of the decentralisation plan. Photo: Henning Bagger/Ritzau Scanpix

Decentralisation of Danish education

The plan to decentralise higher education in Denmark not only expands educational opportunities outside of Denmark’s major cities, but it also aims to reduce enrollment in higher education within major cities by 10 percent by 2030 (but not more than 20 percent).

For example, a law programme will be established in Esbjerg, a medical programme in Køge and a veterinary programme in Foulum.

Minister of Education and Research Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen said the goal was to offer students educational opportunities regardless of where they live within Denmark and strengthen the economy outside of major cities. 

However, the Danish Chamber of Commerce, Dansk Erhverv, expressed concern that the decentralisation plan doesn’t factor in labour demands within Denmark’s major cities.

Mads Eriksen, head of education and research policy at Dansk Erhverv, said it was “unwise” for programmes to reduce acceptance rates to in-demand fields in that particular city. 

“They are trying to solve a problem with labour in the countryside, but at the same time they are creating labour problems in the cities,” Eriksen said. “The English-language programme cuts are far more aligned with the demands of the labour market.”

Denmark has utilised unemployment-based admission for higher education since 2015. Programmes whose graduates experience unemployment consistently 2 percent higher than average are subject to a 30 percent admission cut.

Eriksen thinks it shouldn’t be a matter of reducing admissions across several universities by

“For example, we have five philosophy education programmes in Denmark, each of which have high unemployment rates among graduates,” Eriksen said, referencing a recent Dansk Erhverv analysis

He would prefer to see resources concentrated into making a couple of those programmes the best they can be and closing the rest, versus reducing admissions in all five programmes. “We have to be ready to close programmes that continue to have high unemployment, not just reduce them.”

In 2018, the University of Southern Denmark closed one English-language program and converted two from English to Danish. Photo: Tim Kildeborg Jensen / Ritzau Scanpix

Opposite impacts on provincial institutions

Gitte Sommer Harrits, vice chancellor at VIA University College, shared concern that although the decentralised education aspect of the plan aims to increase the number of students at provincial universities, the reduction of English-language programmes is likely to have the opposite effect.

A report from the organisation Akademikerne in early June found that international students have played a significant role filling educational institutions outside of Danish cities. Nine of the 10 educational institutions with the largest proportion of English-speaking students are outside the country’s largest cities. 

The University of Southern Denmark in Sønderborg has the highest proportion of international students; 40 percent of its 628 students are not affiliated with Denmark or other Nordic countries. 

While significantly larger with nearly 37,000 students, Copenhagen University has 5.2 percent international students.

Already in 2018, the University of Southern Denmark closed one English-language programme and converted two others from English to Danish after the Danish government ordered universities to reduce the number of international students.

Harrits said she found the possible closure of English-language programmes drawing international students to provincial areas to be puzzling when paired with the intention to decentralise education.