Wave of Reform Crests in Denmark (The Chronicle of Higher Education 4/20/94)

The most far-reaching overhaul in the history of Danish higher education is entering its final phase. Government and university officials are putting into effect the last of a wave of reforms passed during the decade-long tenure of the sometimes controversial Minister of Education and Research, Bertel Haarder.

“I finished it all before I left office,” says Mr. Haarder, who served as minister in a succession of minority coalition governments from 1982 to 1993 and is now a member of parliament.

His higher education reform agenda was crowded. Its major elements included:

-The return of traditional decision-making powers to university rectors.

-The development of a new financing formula for universities that links the size of an institution’s budget to the number of degrees it awards.

-The introduction of a series of examinations designed to encourage higher levels of academic achievement and to weed out students who were not college material.

-The establishment of a system of external and internal evaluations to monitor and insure academic quality.

The Haarder reforms, the last of which were passed by the parliament last summer, represent the most significant changes in Danish higher education in modern times.

“Basically, we’re just trying to follow through on the changes made during the Haarder era,” says Ella Hojberg Madsen, head of the higher education-department of the Ministry of Education. “He left us quite a bit to do.”

Five Traditional Universities

Denmark has five traditional universities — Aalborg, Aarhus, Copenhagen, Odense, and Roskilde — as well as 12 other institutions offering university-level instruction. Those include the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University, the Technical University of Denmark, and a collection of business and vocational institutes. That postsecondary-educational system enrolls approximately 15 per cent of Denmark’s college-age population, or about 156,000 students, up from 119,000 when Mr. Haarder took office in 1982.

“Bertel Haarder changed the entire landscape of the Danish academe,” declares Lars Knudsen, the Deputy Minister of Research who was a long-time aide to Mr. Haarder. “He really galvanized things.”

In turn, the “Haarder revolution,” as it has come to be known here, has inspired similar reforms in neighboring Norway and Sweden. “The Swedish Minister of Education just called me for advice yesterday,” says Mr. Haarder, who still basks in his reputation as the bold reformer of Nordic higher education.

“Haarder had a vision of bringing the principles of economic management to higher education,” says Mr. Knudsen. “Of course, many ministers of education come into office with a vision. What was different about Bertel Haarder is that he had the time, the political skills, and the sheer will to bring it about.”

Feelings still run high in Denmark about the massive changes that Mr. Haarder wrought.

Says John Kihlman Madsen, dean of humanities at the University of Copenhagen: “For better or worse, he changed almost everything. He was — how do you say– a tornado.

“I don’t miss Bertel Haarder,” adds Mr. Kuhlman Madsen. “He wasn’t a normal minister. If he had been more normal, perhaps he would not have engendered so much opposition — and we would remember him more fondly.”

Ministry Has Been Divided

The ministry that Mr. Haarder headed had now been divided into separate agencies for education and research, apparently for political reasons. The current Minister of Education is Ole Vig Jensen, a former elementary school teacher from the Radical Liberal Party. He seems content to let the Haarder reforms stand and has turned most of his attention to secondary education. He maintains a much lower profile than his predecessor.

Mr. Haarder is volubly proud of his legacy to Danish academe. The philosophy of education he brought to office was, he says, both radical and utilitarian. He has little respect for the way academic business as being carried out, but he firmly believed that education existed to serve society, rather than the other way around. “Higher education was too isolated,” he says. “There was too great a gap between academe and society. I wanted to bridge that gap. But first I had to get things under control.”

Chaotic Democracy

That was easier said than done. When he took office 12 years ago, the administrative culture at most Danish institutions of higher education was chaotically democratic, a legacy of the left-wing fervor that took over most campuses here in the late 1960′s. Universities were ruled by a welter of governing bodies in which voting power was divided, in roughly equal parts, among rector, faculty members, non-academic staff members, and students. Often, nothing got done.

“For 20 years I have been fighting the notion of collective responsibility,” says Mr. Haarder. “If everyone is responsible, no one is responsible — and when I arrived no one seemed to be responsible. I was determined to change that.

“There was too much talk — and too little education going on.”

Admits Mr. Kuhlman Madsen of the University of Copenhagen: “Things weren’t very professional. Decisions were reached, but often it took a lot of time.”

Mr. Haarder introduced legislature that reduced the number of governing bodies on campuses and decreased student and faculty representation. “I wanted to return normal executive powers to the rectors — and I did,” he says.

At the same time, Mr. Haarder streamlined relations between the campuses and the ministry by introducing the “taxi meter” principle of financing, according to which each institution automatically receives approximately half of its budget from Copenhagen. The rest must now be “earned” by producing graduates.

Before the Haarder era, Danish students proceeded through college at an often languorous, self-determined pace, interrupting their studies — “stopping out” — for occasional employment or overseas travel. Most students did not complete their first degree — which, until recently, was the master’s — until their late twenties or early thirties. The average doctoral candidate didn’t graduate until 36 or 37, according to ministry statistics.

“Students were spending too much of their time in school,” recalls Mr Haarder. “When students came out at 30 they often had children. Companies would not hire them. Our doctorates were often comically old. Over all, it was taking too long for society to reap the benefit of these students’ knowledge.”

Bachelor’s Degree Introduced

Taking his cue from the United States — Mr. Haarder studied at Wesleyan University for two years and says many of his reforms were inspired by his experiences there — the minister introduced the bachelor’s degree to Denmark. It is earned after three years of study, the master’s two years later, and the doctorate after an additional three — with as little time in between as possible.

He also did away with the notion of automatic progression through the system — or the Danish “gentleman’s C.” Mr. Haarder insisted — and persuaded a willing parliament to insist — that comprehensive examinations be administered at the end of the first year, third year, and fifth year of an academic pilgrim’s progress to help weed out slackers. “Students were forced to be eager,” says Hans Jorgen Polsen, who covered the “Haarder beat” for the daily newspaper Politiken in the 1980′s.

As part of the last major reform bill Mr. Haarder ushered through parliament in 1992, he added a new system of academic quality control administered by independent educators and professionals operating out of a national evaluation center.

Where Are the Jobs?

In many respects the reforms already have succeeded. For instance, most students, according to the Ministry of Education, are now completing their studies in record time. “Much more quickly,” says Mr. Haarder.

Unfortunately, as he also concedes, the jobs that he had hoped — and assumed — would be waiting for his accelerated graduates are not always available. Unemployment in Denmark stands at 12 per cent — in contrast to 3 per cent in 1982. “Of course, I didn’t realize that unemployment would be up so high,” says Mr. Haarder. “Who could, back in the early 80′s? But then students — if they qualify — can continue their studies. Eventually, I am convinced, the job market will catch up.”

One impressive aspect of the Haarder revolution is that the minister won acceptance for his reforms while a member of minority governments, meaning that he personally had to stitch together a parliamentary consensus for each major change. “I was always fighting,” he recalls, without relish.

There was also considerable friction with individual campus representatives. “Universities are conservative,” he says. “Every time you touch them you get a lot of problems.

“Nevertheless,” he adds, “I ended up being on quite good terms with most university people.”

Leaders of the Danish National Student Union disagree. “We have been disenfranchised,” says Thomas Nielson, a member of the group’s governing board and a sophomore at the University of Copenhagen. “Haarder took all of our power away or most of it. He made the campus a less democratic place. Students are now too scared not to pass their ‘stop tests.’ This has taken a lot of the fun out of higher education Haarder doesn’t realize that a lot of that extra experience we were getting when we ‘stopped out’ was also valuable.”

While he says Mr. Haarder was “a breath of fresh air,” Mr Kuhlman Madsen says he resents the “needlessly adversarial and polemical way” in which the former minister introduced his reforms. “He presupposed our opposition to his changes, even if we weren’t opposed,” he says.

That is a view shared by many academics and students here, who also criticize Mr. Haarder for what they saw as his favoring business schools and polytechnics over the country’s traditional universities.

No Regrets

Mr. Haarder has no regrets about his reforms. If anything, he would have deregulated higher education even more.

“There is no reason why the University of Copenhagen has to follow the same disciplinary or department rules as a pharmaceutical school,” he says. He also would have liked the evaluation center to include experts from outside the country, as is the case with a somewhat more ambitious system recently adopted in the Netherlands.

“Nevertheless, I accomplished the bulk of what I set out to do,” says the former minister. Mr. Haarder now professes to enjoy the lower-key public life of an average member of parliament. He says he is not especially interested in returning to his former ministerial post, even if, as some predict, his Liberal Party wins enough seats to be included in the next coalition government following elections in September.

However, adds Mr. Haarder, if the post were offered, he would find it difficult to turn it down.

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