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‘Kids learn how to behave’: What you think of Danish schools

We asked our readers in Denmark for their impressions of the country’s school system.

'Kids learn how to behave': What you think of Danish schools
Photo: Ida Guldbæk Arentsen/Ritzau Scanpix

Denmark's schoolgoers performed relatively poorly in science subjects compared to kids in other OECD countries in a recent global education ranking.

In the Pisa education ranking, Danish teens ranked higher than the average for OECD countries in mathematics and reading, meanwhile.

Danish education is often seen as an effective and healthy model, in which the well-being of pupils is primary, but recent years have seen changes and reforms implemented, challenging the whole system, as we have reported in the past.

We asked for your experiences with the school system in Denmark, and what advice you would give to foreign residents. Thank you to all who got in touch.

“(My) kids are happy to go there, they learn how to behave, to take care of the environment, and many practical things,” wrote one reader, who gave her name as Aurelia.

Danish schools promote a “free way of thinking” with “happy teachers and students”, she added.

“If you don't know something you can ask for more explanation,” she said.

Comparing to schools in Romania, Aurelia also praised Danish schools for avoiding a focus on “theoretical information that you don't use.”

But she also felt that schools in Denmark could be “more clean and (it should not) be mandatory to bring food for lunch”.

Denmark was also praised by one of our readers for its relatively accessible private schools.

READ ALSO: Why Copenhagen is the cheapest city in Europe for international schools

The concept of the state letting parents decide to send their child to a different school of their choice that is outside the state system and in return paying 70-80 percent of the fees, is a great one,” said Alan Dunwiddie.

Government subsidization of private schools helps make Denmark the European country with the lowest maximum costs for international private schools, with little variation in prices, lending weight to Dunwiddie's comment.

But education can promote “a very Danish-centric, ‘Denmark is wonderful’ mindset to impressionable young minds”, he also said.

Others praised Danish education for its teaching style.

There is no excessive emphasis on “book knowledge” and good focus on “social effectiveness and creativity”, Kapil Sharma wrote.

Schools are “good at giving feedback if (a) kid is suffering due to an issue”, Sharma added.

Those views were broadly agreed with by another reader, Juan Pablo.

“(Schools) let children be children. (They) pay more attention to social connection, not the academic study. Students are normally very relaxed in the school,” he said.

However, discipline can be lacking in schools, in Juan Pablo’s view.

“Sometimes it is very noisy,” he wrote.

What advice do you have for foreign residents whose children are to attend school in Denmark?

“See what kind of person the headteacher is. Talk with the teachers and try to have a tour before enrol your child. Many schools offer special Danish classes for foreign students”: Juan Pablo.

“Visit many schools and kindergartens if you plan to send your kid to public school. Assess the situation and keep questions ready. Proactively ask about the growth of your kid”: Kapil Sharma.

“Private school is a godsend… It allows you to make the choices and, in my experience, has better quality, more motivated teachers”: Alan Dunwiddie.

READ ALSO: Should Denmark allow fewer young people to graduate upper secondary school?

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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.