Denmark excluded from international cooperation by short masters programme

Technical University of Denmark

Column by Karin Markides, Chair of DTU’s Board of Governors. Published at Altinget on 30 March 2023.

“We are part of an international world where people, knowledge, and education move across borders, and to assert itself in this global context, Denmark needs to be an open country.”

These were the words of the Danish Minister for Higher Education and Science, Christina Egelund, when she presented a new education reform proposal at a press conference on 2 March. The proposal includes a goal of attracting 2,500 more international students to Denmark in 2029. It is an important goal, as international students build valuable bridges between Denmark and the rest of the world, and at the same time are very good business for the country. At DTU, where I chair the Board of Governors, the latest analysis shows that on average, an international graduate contributes DKK 3.2 million to the Danish economy over 13 years.

However, if we look at the larger context in which the goal is to be met, it becomes clear that there a number of problems with the proposal. Though the government says it wants to attract international talent to areas where the industry demands highly specialized labour, it also wants to shorten half the country’s master’s programmes to four years. How are these two things compatible? Why should an ambitious German or French student choose a study programme in Denmark that is one year shorter than those offered in other EU countries? And what consequences will it have for industry and Denmark’s competitiveness that we offer shorter educations than the rest of Europe and—as many fear—produce less skilled graduates?

Competitiveness weakened in the Netherlands

Rather than speculate about the answers, I’d like to draw attention to the Netherlands, which in the past has tried to implement a four-year master’s model.

This happened in 1982, when all university programmes in the Netherlands were made into four-year programmes. Ten years later, a comprehensive evaluation report of the scheme led to the decision being overturned for the country’s engineering programmes. In 1995, a fifth year of study was added to the most demanding engineering programmes, and a few years later the remaining engineering programmes followed suit.

As for the reasons for this political u-turn, the evaluation report stated that the engineering students took far too long to complete the otherwise short programmes because the curricula were over-packed. The four-year model simply didn’t match up to the complexity of engineering studies, and the Dutch society had to pay dearly for students staying in the education system for far too long.

This resulted in a deterioration of the graduates’ skills, documented through interviews with 40 companies in the Netherlands, and—just as worryingly—a significant drop in the Netherlands’ international competitiveness.

Wrong strategy to go it alone

The Dutch precedent should prompt deeper consideration of whether a four-year educational structure is the right way to go for Denmark. When I look within my own ranks, namely at DTU’s engineering programmes, it seems wrongheaded to implement this model, since DTU already has a 3.5-year BEng vocational programme that gets 89 per cent of graduates in work within a year of graduating.

With a four-year master’s degree, Denmark would not only be making the same mistake as the Netherlands, we would also be going it alone in relation to the other European countries which, since the 1999 Bologna Declaration, have worked together to create comparable educational programmes across national borders. This has been done based on a 3+2 model, in which the three years are bachelor years and the last two are master’s years. In fact, most countries under the Bologna cooperation do not recognize a four-year master’s degree as fully equivalent to a five-year one. This is shown by documents accessed from the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science.

Based on the Dutch example and the global reality we live in today, there is therefore reason to fear for Denmark’s productivity, competitiveness, and economy if the plans for the four-year master’s programme are implemented. If the government wants to facilitate a mobile and dynamic knowledge network where Danish graduate students are attractive workers for both the Danish and international job markets, and where international students choose Denmark, it should change its strategy:

Create higher education programmes that stimulate local, national, and international prosperity by inviting collaboration. Don’t make the mistake of designing programmes that close in on themselves.

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