Why does Denmark want to move higher education out of main cities?

The Danish government on Thursday proposed introducing 25 new higher education programmes in smaller towns across the country while cutting university admissions in the largest cities by 10 percent.

Why does Denmark want to move higher education out of main cities?
The Danish government presents its proposal for geographical redistribution of higher education. Photo: Bo Amstrup/Ritzau Scanpix

At least 10 new programmes related to welfare sector qualifications will be introduced in smaller towns as part of the plan, which was formally presented on Thursday.

In total, 25 new programmes will be introduced by 2025, according to the proposal.

The specific welfare sector qualifications are in teacher, nursing, social worker and education assistant (pædagog in Danish) training.

In order to achieve that goal, places on similar programmes in the four main cities [Copenhagen, Aarhus, Odense and Aalborg, ed.] will be cut. Additional places will also be created in other locations.

The government wants to reduce university admissions at campuses in the main cities by up to 10 percent, with a small number of exceptions.

Five new university degrees are also to be offered in smaller towns, according to the proposal.

The overarching aim of the plan is to reduce the number of students in Copenhagen, Aarhus, Odense and Aalborg by increasing the number who choose to study in provincial areas.

It would be phased in gradually from 2022, if passed by parliament.

One of the arguments behind the government proposal is that it would give a more even distribution of education programmes between larger cities and smaller towns, boosting local communities.

The University of Copenhagen’s rector Henrik C. Wegener expressed concern that the plan could “damage the quality of education and research environments we’ve sought to build for decades” and that the university could be forced to close some of its programmes.

The Danish union for students, DSF, told news wire Ritzau that moving students away from big cities would require more than relocation of degrees and other qualifications.

Cultural attractions, good study environments and suitable accommodation were among factors vital in making smaller towns attractive to students, DSF deputy chair for political issues Mick Scholtka said.

Forcing degrees out of cities could damage the quality of education and research, Scholtka also argued.

“Moving would put a distance between research and students and some researchers would not move with them, which would be a loss of knowledge,” he said.

The Social Liberal party, one of the smaller left wing parties which helps the minority government to pass much of its legislation, earlier expressed opposition to the plan.

“I think it’s deeply concerning that just after we have revoked [a legal limitation on taking a second degree or similar qualification, uddannelsesloft in Danish, ed.], the government is about to put up another barrier to young people’s education opportunities,” said the party’s education spokesperson Katrine Robsøe.

Robsøe’s comments were given to Ritzau based on media reports of the proposal prior to its official announcement on Thursday.

“Cutting places at universities in the four largest cities would deny a lot of young people the opportunity to study what they dream of studying, where they dream of studying it,” Robsøe said.

The Social Liberal party said it does support the other part of the plan, which would see 25 new courses available in provincial towns.

“We would very much like to look at introducing strong education options in more parts of Denmark because we know we need a lot of talented people, especially in the welfare sector, Robsøe said.

The Social Liberal spokesperson added that the introduction of new courses in smaller towns did not have to necessitate a cut at universities.

READ ALSO: Denmark overspends own limit on SU grant for international students

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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.