The students in a new report: The study progress reform is not going to get us to complete our studies faster

The study progress reform is intended to get students to complete their studies faster, but the students predict that it is not going to work. Instead, they expect to be more stressed, learn less and be less ready for the labour market when they graduate. This is shown by a new study from Aarhus University.

[Translate to English:] Laura Louise Sarauw (th) og Simon Ryberg Madsen frygter, at reformen kan få en social slagside. Deres undersøgelse viser, at flere studerende fremover forventer at måtte opsøge hjælp fra familie eller private lektiehjælpere for at kunne klare studierne. Det kan gå ud over studerende fra ressourcesvage hjem, hvor den akademiske verden er fremmed eller pengene er små. Foto: Ib Jensen

Updated with comments by Pro-rector for education Berit Eika (14-03-2016) and with additions on the representativeness of the fact box (03-16-2016):

The students must complete their studies faster and get out into the labour market. This was the message when a political majority when the Danish Parliament adopted the controversial study progress reform back in 2013. With compulsory registration for exams, easier credit transfer and financial bonuses for fast students, the idea is that more students should complete their studies within the prescribed study period.

About the study:

The study is part of a politically independent research project financed by The Danish Council for Independent Research - Humanities. The study is based on a comprehensive questionnaire survey among students at all universities in Denmark, in which the students were asked to assess how they will in future allocate their time in the light of the study progress reform. The replies to the survey were obtained in collaboration with a number of Danish trade unions – including those for university graduates in general, engineers, lawyers and economists – as well as a number of smaller organisations. The questionnaire was sent to 30,862 students. A total of 4,354 responses were received, giving a total response rate of 14.

The questionnaire was sent out in April 2015, a little more than six months after the reform came into force for all new students. At the time the reform had not come into force for all other students. The results of the survey should therefore be seen as a reflection of the majority of students’ expectations of the consequences of the reform.

This study is not representative for all parameters, as women and Master’s degree students are slightly over-represented among the respondents. However, due to the size of the data and the fact that respondents are evenly spread over all of Denmark’s eight universities, year groups and subject areas, the study can still have something significant to say about the students' relation to the reform.

The results of the study are presented in the report, which is only available in Danish: Studerende i en fremdriftstid – prioriteter, valg og dilemmaer set i lyset af fremdriftsreformen (“Students in a time of progress – priorities, choices and dilemmas in the light of the study progress reform”).

The reform was rolled out for all new students in the autumn of 2014; however, according to the students, it will not work as intended. These are the findings of a new study from The Danish School of Education at Aarhus University, which is based on a comprehensive questionnaire survey among 4,354 university students in Denmark. The students have been asked to consider what consequences they expect the study progress reform to have on their student life. Completing their studies faster is not one of the expected consequences. In fact, only ten per cent of the students actually expect this to happen.

Lopsided reform

"Our study shows that students are chiefly delayed due to completely different reasons than those which the reform tackles. For example, 28 per cent have been delayed due to stress, while for 26 per cent it is the result of deliberately prioritising work experience," says postdoc Laura Louise Sarauw, who was responsible for the study together with research assistant Simon Ryberg Madsen.

Many of the respondents find that the reform puts pressure on them to prioritise time and resources differently than previously. Due to the increased time constraints, 58 per cent expect to be more stressed, which can affect learning outcomes. When asked directly, 24 per cent reply that they expect to learn less. When asked indirectly, 33 per cent reply that they expect to be forced to cut down on preparation for all courses.

Students take the easy solution

"There is a general tendency for students to be more goal-oriented and instrumental in relation to exam targets. You could also say that they become more opportunistic in their approach to studying. Instead of choosing the courses that challenge them, more of them choose easier courses that they know they can pass," says Sarauw.

The study also shows that students are to a great extent concerned about what the reform will mean for their readiness to find a job. As many as 67 per cent see the study progress reform’s completion time requirements as problematic in relation to compiling a job relevant CV. For the majority of students, having a job that is relevant for their studies is the strategy they use when it comes to improving their future job prospects – but this strategy is now being challenged.

"At the time of the survey the study progress reform was so new that the study could not answer the question of what the students have actually chosen to do. But we can say that 36 per cent expect to cut down on work that is relevant to their studies. In fact, according to a survey by the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations from November 2015, 42 per cent of students with student jobs have in practice had to halve their work in these jobs following the reform," explains Sarauw. She also points out that it appears that increased number of students will give lower priority to voluntary work, internships, work placement and study abroad periods.

Adjustments to the reform will not help

After large-scale criticism from universities, students and trade unions, the Danish Parliament adopted an agreement on a range of adjustments to the reform in November 2015. Under the new study progress reform 2.0, the students will no longer automatically be registered for exams corresponding to 60 ECTS credits per academic year. However, on the basis of the new results of the study, Sarauw’s assessment is that the problems which the students point to in the reform will not be solved at all.

"The current requirement for study progress is maintained. The students must still complete their degree programme 4.3 months faster than previously. The universities have been given a freer framework and there is always the possibility that some of them will be really good at dealing with things differently. We don’t know yet, but seen in relation to how the universities are run right now, the adjustments will not make any difference," she says.

At Aarhus University, the four faculties must find a joint model for how the changes to the reform will be implemented in general. Vice-deans, heads of studies administration and AU Student Administration and Services have been working on a proposal for a joint model since January. The proposal will be sent to the student organisations, boards of studies and the faculties for consultation between the middle of March and the beginning of April. The Committee on Education will make its final decision on the model on 19 April.

Accept the fine or reduce the quality

When asked whether she can give the university some good advice on how best to deal with the study progress reform based on the study, Sarauw replies:

"Accept the fine in 2020 and focus efforts on bringing about completion by creating better framework conditions for teaching and learning. It may well be that it will take a bit longer to reduce the time to degree in this way. But as I see it, it’s the only way that we can maintain the quality of the current degree programmes."

She continues:

"There's no doubt that it requires courage, willpower and focus to ensure progress on the basis of a real improvement in the quality of education, as they’ve done at internationally recognised universities such as MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ed.) and Harvard. But what we’re currently seeing is the complete opposite. And I think that is regrettable.” 

Translated by Peter Lambourne

Pro-rector: Accepting the fine is not an option

Pro-rector for Education Berit Eika has not yet read the study, but she has looked at the overall results and thinks they are fairly consistent with the information she has regularly received from the students during work with the reform. 

"It is good to get an idea of the scope of the concerns that the students have about their student life. In general, we do not have much room for manoeuver in relation to the implementation of the reform, because the financial framework is what it is," writes Eika in an email to Omnibus.

In reply to Laura Louise Sarauw’s comment about accepting the study progress fine in 2020, she replies:

"The fact that we are working to improve the framework conditions for the students' learning is not really new. Since the first version of the study progress reform became a reality, many people at AU have been working hard and efficiently on the academic regulations and in other areas to ensure that the students’ study programmes are as flexible as possible."

She continues:

“Furthermore, they are doing so without compromising on quality. Quality is the uppermost consideration in all of this. That is why just accepting and paying the fine is not an option. Quality costs, and when you also have cuts being imposed by the Danish Finance Act and the degree programme resizing – all at the same time – then you simply cannot afford to ignore the work of reducing the degree completion time."

Translated by Peter Lambourne