Omnibus prik

Rector: “I hope the politicians have satisfied their desire to reform the university sector almost ritually every year”

With the recent reform agreement, what started out as a radical and drastic intervention in the university sector has ended up being a more realistic prospect, according to Rector Brian Bech Nielsen. But it won’t be easy to identify the 10 per cent of Master’s degree programmes that have to be shortened to one year. And there are still many unknowns that will only be clarified once the supplementary agreement is in place after the summer.

Aarhus University’s rector Brian Bech Nielsen would like to see the link between one-year Master’s programmes and the number of students on career-oriented Master’s programmes removed from the agreement. Whilst in place, this link means that universities could be forced to shorten more than 10 percent of Master’s programmes if they fail to get 20 per cent of Master’s students on the new career-oriented programmes. Photo: Roar Lava Paaske

Translated by Sarah Jennings

Aarhus University’s rector Brian Bech Nielsen welcomes me to his office the day after the political agreement on the higher education reform has been announced. He’s already been able to discuss the agreement with the other members of the senior management team.

“Nobody in the management is jumping up and down with excitement about the reform, but they do acknowledge that it’s ended up being very different and much better than the original proposal,” says Brian Bech Nielsen.

“It started out as a radical and drastic intervention in the higher education sector, where up to 50 per cent of all Master’s degree programmes had to be shortened or converted to focus more on employability. That’s quite something! So I’m very pleased that the final figure has come down significantly to 10 per cent,” says the rector, who underlines, however, that it won’t be easy to identify which 10 per cent of programmes should be scaled back.

Still several unknowns

There are still several unknowns that will be clarified partly once the supplementary agreement is concluded after the summer holiday and partly once the Master’s degree committee offers its recommendations on how the agreement should be implemented in practice, which it must do by October 2024. These recommendations include which Master’s degree programmes should be shortened and which should be converted to career-oriented programmes that focus more on employability.

The agreement states that the number of these new Master’s programmes – both the shorter and the career-oriented programmes – may vary significantly across different academic areas. And that particular consideration should be given to those programmes that educate teachers for upper secondary school subjects.

With regard to reducing admissions to Bachelor’s programmes by eight per cent, the committee should consider graduate unemployment and demand from business and industry, but also smaller subjects, research environments and the distribution of programmes across the country. Another aim of these reductions should be to increase the number of students who apply for programmes that qualify them to work in the welfare sector.

It’s best to let the university sector set the priorities

The Master’s degree committee will include representatives from Danish universities, who therefore run the risk of cutting back on their own degree programmes as a result of the political framework that has been set. To this the rector replies:

“I personally think it’s best that those who know the most about the sector set the priorities. And it’s difficult to claim that anyone knows more about the sector than we do. But it won’t be an easy task. Nor will it makes us popular with those who work in the subjects that are scaled back.”

Brian Bech Nielsen would prefer not to speculate on which specific subjects will be affected.

“It’s an open playing field, which will either be narrowed down by the supplementary agreement or by the Master’s committee. I don’t know how this debate will end.”

The rector is aware that deciding on priorities may end up being unpleasant if individual universities or faculties are pitted against each other in an attempt to protect their respective subject areas.

“There are clear conflicts of interests, but I would like to encourage all the universities and everyone at our own university to stand together. We have succeeded in doing this until now. So I hope we’ll also be able to do this going forward,” says the rector, who continues:

“It’s never a good solution to let some people take the whole burden while others remain completely unaffected. We have to demonstrate understanding for each other and to be fair.”

To what extent will students and staff be involved in the process?

“It’s difficult to say at this point in time. Some decisions are difficult to involve people in; for example, we cannot ask people at the university to vote on which degree programmes should be converted. But we will of course listen carefully, canvas opinion and involve the faculties and the schools/departments. As a management team, we don’t have a ready-made plan, so everything is open – and, as I mentioned earlier, we don’t know how much will be decided by the next stage of the political process or by the Master’s committee.”

The trap door

The agreement that has just been announced requires universities to shorten 10 per cent of Master’s programmes to one year and to convert 20 per cent of Master’s programmes to career-oriented programmes with a focus on employability: either programmes for working professionals (erhvervskandidater) or programmes with a compulsory work placement (erhvervsrettede kandidater). These programmes will be phased in between 2028 and 2032. If universities do not hit this 20 per cent mark, they will be forced to shorten more of their Master’s programmes to compensate.

To put this figure into perspective, last year, admissions to Master’s programmes for working professionals made up less than 2 per cent of total Master’s admissions at AU.

With this in mind, to you think the 20 per cent figure is realistic, or do you think there’s a risk that more programmes will have to be shortened?

“It will be a large task, but I think it’s realistic, because it involves more than the Master’s programmes for working professionals that we currently offer. According to the agreement, we can also offer a more flexible type of Master’s programme with a work placement. And, at AU, we already have several programmes on which students collaborate with companies in different ways – on their Master’s thesis or on projects. Though it makes a big difference that these companies will now have to fund the work placement, as it means we are dependent the support of both the public and the private sector,” says the rector.

He adds that the link between the number of students on career-oriented programmes and one-year programmes is one of the parts of the agreement he had hoped would be removed.  

“We call this part of the agreement ‘the trap door’.”

Admissions reductions – suggested by the universities

Another central part of the agreement is admissions reductions, which requires universities to cut eight per cent of admissions to Bachelor’s degree programmes. This was not part of the government’s original proposal but something the universities themselves brought to the table when they presented their own reform proposal as an alternative to the government’s.

What did you hope to achieve by proposing admissions reductions as part of the negotiations?

“We don’t usually resort to using admissions reductions as an instrument. But it was clear that the political rationale behind the reform was driven by a desire to increase the labour supply and to free up funds that could be reinvested in the education sector more broadly. Reducing admissions achieves both of these aims, so we used it in our attempt to get the number of one-year Master’s programmes down as much as possible in order to protect the overall quality of our degree programmes,” explains Brian Bech Nielsen.

When reading the political proposal, the universities also got the feeling that admissions reductions would be on the cards soon anyway, explains the rector further.

“So we decided to bring it to the negotiation table straight away. Also, as an important force in society, we appreciate that reducing admissions to Bachelor’s programmes will have a positive effect on recruitment to other types of post-secondary programme.”

Reform after reform

Reducing admissions will make its mark on the universities’ budget – as will shortening Master’s degree programmes. However, the agreement also raises the taximeter subsidy with the aim of ensuring the quality of the new programmes. As well as this, it makes the taximeter increase for humanities and social science programmes permanent from 2025.

Brian Bech Nielsen has not yet been able to study the financial aspects of the agreement in detail, but he says it was never the financial side of the agreement that gave the most cause for concern. The most worrying part was the prospect of shorter Master’s programmes.  

“Now I hope the politicians have satisfied their desire to reform the university sector almost ritually every year. And that they understand that the university sector needs to be left alone for a while,” he concludes, referring to the fact that, only a year and a half ago, universities were forced to relocate or close degree programmes as part of the relocation reform.

Facts about the agreement

Shortening and converting Master’s degree programmes

10 per cent of Master’s degree programmes must be shortened from 2 academic years (equivalent to 120 ECTS) to 1 ¼ academic years (equivalent to 75 ECTS).

20 per cent of Master’s degree programmes must be converted to flexible career-oriented programmes of either 120 or 75 ECTS. The current cap of 50 Master's degree programmes for working professionals will be removed.

Graduates with a Master’s degree programme of 75 ECTS will have the option of pursuing further education and training.

Reducing admissions to Bachelor’s degree programmes

Admissions to Bachelor’s degree programmes must be reduced by eight per cent from 2025.

International students 

 Universities will be able to create 1,100 places on English-taught ordinary Master's programmes every year during from 2024 to 2028, and 2,500 places from 2029. It is the ambition of the signatory parties that half of the places on the career-oriented Master’s programmes will go to international students.

Master’s degree to start earlier

The Master’s degree programme must end a month earlier than it currently does. One way to do this is to start it earlier in the year.