Divided We Learn

Denmark pushes to make university students graduate on time

But the pros and cons offer lessons for U.S. and others trying to save money

This is a Aug. 27, 2012, file photo of tourists strolling the shopping street Stroeget, in Copenhagen Center, Denmark.

This is a Aug. 27, 2012, file photo of tourists strolling the shopping street Stroeget, in Copenhagen Center, Denmark.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — With its wide boulevards flanked by lanes of bicyclists commuting from comfortable homes to well-paying jobs, this elegant city seems a worthy capital of a nation with a standard of living so high it’s ranked among the happiest on earth.

But some people are unhappy in the state of Denmark.

A new government policy has brought out tens of thousands of university students, more than at any time since the unrest of the late 1960s, to protest in front of the Christiansborg Palace, where parliament meets, and on campuses in Copenhagen and in the cities of Roskilde and Aarhus.

The policy? To make them graduate on time.

Like the Netherlands, Germany, Hungary, and other countries, and a growing chorus of advocacy groups in the United States, Denmark is pushing to rein in the spiraling cost of higher education by pushing students to finish when they’re supposed to. And the backlash from Danish faculty, students, and even university administrators brings the pros and cons of this idea into particular focus.

“Behind the debate in Denmark has been a consideration of whether we lose quality if we increase efficiency,” said Lauritz Holm-Nielsen, vice president of the European University Association and the former rector of Aarhus University, the largest in Denmark. “Seen from the society’s point of view, if the graduates get into the labor market earlier, they contribute to the economy for a much longer time. So there is a tension between these two perspectives.”

Danish students, who get free tuition and a living allowance of about $1,000 a month while they’re in school, now take an average of 6.1 years apiece to finish combined bachelor’s and master’s degrees, which 90 percent of them pursue, and which the government says should take five years. Many continue to collect their benefits while enjoying what the Danes call the “fjumreår,” or the “year of goofing around–a period of leave, or during which they take only a few courses.

Related: Colleges try to speed up pace at which students earn degrees

The country can’t afford that any more, said Søren Nedergaard, head of division in the Ministry of Higher Education and Science.

“It has expanded over the years, so university students when this reform was decided were spending a year and a half more than they were supposed to,” Nedergaard said. “The conception was, this was more than enough. It didn’t need to be this long.”

Søren Nedergaard, head of division in the Ministry of Higher Education and Science, who says the government needs to save money.

Søren Nedergaard, head of division in the Ministry of Higher Education and Science, who says the government needs to save money.

He said the choice was between cutting students’ grants or speeding up the time they take to get degrees, which the government calculates will save the equivalent of $266 million and produce more tax revenue, since they’ll start working that much sooner. There are plenty of jobs for them; the employment rate in Denmark is among the highest in Europe, according to European Union statistics.

The Study Progress Reform, which has now begun to be phased in, makes universities responsible for cutting the time their students spend in college by an average of 4.3 months, and by an average of 7.6 months at the prestigious University of Copenhagen, where they now take the longest. If they don’t, the institutions stand to lose government funding.

“The time for critical thought should still be there. The universities themselves had explicitly said a bachelor’s and a master’s degree should take five years,” Nedergaard said in the ministry offices near Christiansborg. “This was seen as realistic.”

Now, if students dawdle in signing up for classes, the universities do it for them, and their progress is measured by a regular series of examinations.

In addition to protesting repeatedly in front of the parliament building and on campuses since the proposal was first made, in 2013, many have taken their one remaining legal recourse to avoid this: avoiding the exams by saying they’re sick.

“It shows how this policy is already failing,” said Yasmin Davali, head of the National Union of Students, where huge photos of the protests against the changes hang on the walls of the organization’s basement offices on Copenhagen’s Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard.

Related: States offer students an incentive to graduate: money

The reforms mean less time to decide on a major, or change one, or to learn critical thinking and other skills demanded by employers, or study abroad, or have a family, or take an internship or work in a job related to a student’s area of interest, Davali and other critics said. And taking a leave to do such things as starting businesses is likely to be discouraged by the universities, which now will be measured by, and funded on the basis of, how quickly students graduate.

Instead of having a focus on getting the best graduates, you have a focus on how do you make them the fastest,” Davali said.

It’s a conflict that speaks to the very purpose of a higher education, said Anni Søborg, vice provost for education at the University of Copenhagen, which was founded in 1479.

“We are a very old, traditional university,” said Søborg, whose high-ceilinged office is in a building even older than the university. “Here, you study. You don’t just learn and get your degree. You study. Of course, we are also interested in our students being really full-time students, and it’s true that for some of them that has not been the case. But we also need those who will seek new knowledge, and they need to be allowed to study.”

Anni Søborg, vice provost for education at the University of Copenhagen, who says students need time to study.

Anni Søborg, vice provost for education at the University of Copenhagen, who says students need time to study.

Or, as Camilla Gregersen, vice chair of the Danish academic faculty union, succinctly puts it, the universities “don’t want to become sausage factories.”

Objections such as these to making students graduate on time seem universal wherever the idea is being pushed.

“These countries are not trying to speed up the degrees. They’re simply trying to get the students finished in a timely manner,” said Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. “It’s a very common problem, and an issue everywhere.”

Related: The real cost of college? It’s probably even higher than you think

Including in the United States, where only 5 percent of students at community colleges, 19 percent at four-year universities, and 36 percent at elite private and flagship public universities graduate on time, according to the advocacy organization Complete College America. Students and their families end up paying an average of $50,933 per year at two-year and $68,153 at four-year colleges and universities in a combination of additional tuition plus lost wages, the organization calculates. All of this extra time also costs state and federal governments $11.5 billion annually in spending on public higher education and financial aid.

“We’re not advocating that every single student graduate in four years. But when the vast majority of institutions don’t graduate even half their students in four years, there’s something wrong with the system,” said Complete College America’s president, Stan Jones, former Indiana commissioner of higher education.

Already, some universities have cut the number of credits students need to graduate, and some states have changed their financial aid programs to reward those who take more courses per semester.

As in Denmark, however, critics warn of unintended consequences.

“What ends up happening is that students are shortchanged,” said Fred Kowal, president of the union representing employees at the State University of New York and part of a coalition called the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education.

“It comes back to the philosophical argument,” Kowal said: “What is the purpose of higher education? Is it simply to train someone who will be part of the labor force or is it to educate someone to be a citizen of the world? How do we find that balance? That’s the challenge. Our concern is that the emphasis is solely on, let’s get them through fast, whether they’re ready or not.

Related: The college “bait and switch”

The debate is less about education than about efficiency, “because of an economic-driven urgency, without understanding that it’s like a huge ship and you can’t just shift it as quickly as these policymakers would like it to happen,” said Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority Foundation, which represents adjunct instructors in the U.S. who, she argued, are being pressured to speed up the pace of passing students through the system. “It’s interesting but not surprising that all these things are happening in common all around the world.”

Yasmin Davali, head of the National Union of Students of Denmark, which opposes the reforms.

Yasmin Davali, head of the National Union of Students of Denmark, which opposes the reforms.

But Jones said there’s no evidence that the quality of education goes down when the pace speeds up.

“They have no way of measuring quality now, so how could they possibly know whether the quality is diminished?” he said. And as far as exploration goes, “that may be fine at Ivy League or elite universities, but most students go to community colleges or to regional or city universities,” where they may not have the financial means to stretch out their educations. “Those students are not exploring. They’re lost. You’re just wasting their time and their money or their parents’ money, and many of them will never get a degree.”

“It’s students who are in the middle of this issue, everywhere, said Davali, the Danish student union head. “I haven’t met these students who are just screwing around,” she said. “I don’t think they’re just sitting around playing PlayStation. This whole argument is really built on a myth.”

The reforms in Denmark are a threat to nothing less than the prestige of its top-rated universities, Davali said.

“That’s the argument we keep getting: ‘Come on, we have the best system in the world.’ And that’s why we are complaining,” she said. “Because we want to keep having the best system in the world.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

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