Could Denmark scrap SU grant for postgraduate students?

A commission set down to recommend budgeting reforms to the Danish government has advised the government change from a grant to a loan system for postgraduate (Master’s degree) students.

danish students
Postgrad students in Denmark should be given loans rather than grants to fund their studies, a new commission has recommended. File photo: Philip Davali/Ritzau Scanpix

Under current rules, the basic living costs of all under- and postgraduate students (Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees) are covered by the state student grant, statens uddannelsesstøtte, commonly referred to as SU.

All Danish nationals attending full time higher education are eligible for the grant, which does not have to be paid back. Citizens of other EU countries can also qualify for the monthly grant if they fulfil certain criteria.

But the provision for postgraduate students could be scrapped and turned into a loan of up to 12,500 kroner, should the recommendations of the Reform Commission, (Reformkommissionen), which submitted its first report to the government on Wednesday, become reality.

Savings made by the state through such a change should be reinvested in education, the commission said, meaning the move would not be seen as a spending cut on education, the head of the commission, Nina Smith, said at a press briefing on Thursday.

“We are proposing more and better education. Not less education, if anyone should have the silly idea of interpreting this as such,” Smith said.

“This is an investment exercise, not a cost cutting exercise,” she said.

Graduates with Master’s degrees earn more on average during their careers than other groups, meaning they have better capacity to pay back loans, the commission argues.

Critics of the proposal have said that it could discourage people from underprivileged backgrounds from pursuing higher education or could reduce the overall level of education in Denmark.

The decision on whether to move forward with the commission’s recommendations rests with political parties.

In its report, the commission states that “SU for postgraduate students is the only social benefit that generally benefits those who earn the most during their lives.”

SU was originally introduced in Denmark to remove financial obstacles to higher education for people from underprivileged backgrounds.

It has seen the number of young people taking higher education in Denmark increase over the years to almost one in three currently.

The commission wants to retain SU for undergraduate (Bachelor’s degree) students or those taking vocational qualifications.

Under current rules, students following Master’s degree programmes can draw a combined SU grant and loan of around 8,500 kroner per month, of which the loan element constitutes approximately 3,000 kroner.

The commission’s recommendations, if followed, would restructure this by making the allowance entirely loan-based but increasing the available total by 4,000 kroner.

That would not diminish the possibilities for studying at postgrad level for students from less privileged backgrounds, according to the commission.

“We conclude that, in reality, this is positive in relation to social mobility. There are no indications that, once you get to the Master’s degree starting line, SU has any effect on social mobility,” Smith said.

“On the other hand, we know that the quality of Master’s degree programmes is very important for social mobility,” she said.

No studies exist into the effect of SU on social mobility, according to the commission, which said it expected a positive effect if money was invested on improving study programmes.

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EXPLAINED: Why Denmark has changed rules for upper secondary school allocation

A new agreement has been reached for a model on how students applying to Danish upper secondary school (gymnasium), are allocated their place, according to the Ministry of Children and Education.

EXPLAINED: Why Denmark has changed rules for upper secondary school allocation

Gymnasium is upper high school in Denmark and is similar to sixth form in the United Kingdom or senior high school in the US.

Parties behind the gymnasium agreement, which was made in June 2021, to change how students are allocated a place at upper high school, have agreed to tweak the model after criticism from the Social Liberal (Radikale Venstre) party.

Students in larger cities who don’t get a place at one of their four applied upper senior schools will now be allocated an alternative place based on transport time rather than it being a lottery (lodtrækning in Danish).

As part of the agreement, the transport time has been reduced from 60 minutes to a maximum of 45 minutes. 

If there is no space for the student at a school within the prescribed 45-minute transport time, the region may increase the capacity of the school where the applicant will have the shortest transport time, the agreement states.

According to the Ministry of Children and Education, the change will give young people a greater chance of getting a place at their local high school and have a shorter distance to travel. 

The government, the Socialist People’s Party, the Social Liberals, the Red-Green Alliance, the Alternative and the Christian Democrats are in agreement over the rule change, giving it a majority in parliament.

The new model for getting a place at gymnasium

In June 2021, a new agreement was made about how students were allocated a place at upper high school. This was to ensure smaller schools could be sustained and that those schools in the cities had a mix of students from different backgrounds. Students request a choice of four schools but they are then allocated based on criteria.

According to the agreed model, there are two categories for how admission is given; one for schools in and around cities and one for schools in less populated areas.

For students living in and around large cities, the application process will involve looking at the parents’ income, so students in each school come from a range of high, middle and low-income homes.

In the initial 2021 agreement, if there were too many students in an income group, they would be allocated a school by lottery. But now, if there are too many students in an income group, they will be allocated a school based on transport time.

For those students living outside cities, the transport time to the upper high school would be the factor assessed.

In addition, the largest upper high schools will have a tighter limit on how many students they can admit, while there will be minimum threshold for the number of students in small upper high schools. This is so all upper high schools will have at least three classes per year, corresponding to 84 students. Waiting lists will also be scrapped.

The agreement has been met with a mixed response. Kirsten Skov, principal at Marselisborg Gymnasium in Aarhus, told DR News that it is not fair on the students to not be guaranteed a place at their local gymnasium and potentially have to travel.

Ole Heinager, who heads several high schools in the west of Copenhagen was also against the plans. 

“We really want a different composition of students. However, I doubt that it helps to send 30 percent of the students from [northern, affluent district, ed.] Gentofte down to us….There will be a cultural clash, because not all our students can afford to go out to lunch at a café every day. The problem here is that the algorithms do not take into account the human factor”, Heinager told TV 2 Lorry.

However the principal of Herlev Gymnasium, Jan Vistesen told DR News that the new model would ensure schools like his have a more even distribution of pupils from different backgrounds.

“We have 40 to 50 percent of students from ethnic backgrounds other than Danish, and that, we think, is too much”, he said, explaining that it was difficult to integrate the students of different backgrounds when there was such a high proportion of them in each class.

According to the ministry, 84 percent of all applicants will still get their first choice of upper high school, compared to 90 percent with the previous model.

The political agreement has become a bill, which was tabled on 31st March. It has not yet been adopted, but is scheduled to be considered in June and implemented in 2023/24.

Earlier this month, the right wing Danish People’s Party decided to leave talks over the agreement, saying it no longer supported the changes. This means that if there is a conservative majority after the next election, it is likely that the rules will be completely changed.