Living Abroad

Denmark: Don’t Throw Away Your Future

Posted on / by Alex Berger

The Streets of Copenhagen

An open question to my Danish friends – do you truly want to emulate Arizona?  Because that’s the direction you’re heading.

The Study Progress Reform Talking Points

Fresh off of a recent recession and in the midst of its aftermath, Denmark is facing all of the usual debates about its educational system one would expect.  Some are complaining about the tax rate they pay and looking to scapegoat any source they can.  As usual, one of the easy targets  is education, and education funding has fallen squarely in their cross hairs.  While it is, perhaps, not terribly typical for Denmark, it is a process I’m intimately familiar with from my time in the USA and especially Arizona.

A major reason I was drawn to Denmark is because of its focus on education.  Even though I wasn’t eligible to take part, the fact that Danish students attend University for free and receive a monthly stipend of between $700-1,000 USD to survive on is incredibly attractive.  That level of commitment to education goes a long ways toward s explaining why Denmark, despite its near complete lack of natural resources, its rugged climate, extremely difficult language , and small population is an intellectual, professional and economic powerhouse. Denmark surpasses many of its counterparts which are 5, 10 or even 20 times its size.

Unfortunately, it’s painfully clear to me that recent “reforms” proposed to the Danish education system, many of which are heavily inspired by the ideological approaches which have deeply harmed American higher education over the last two decades, will have far more severe ramifications for Denmark.   Everything in Denmark is based upon one commodity: The country’s intellectual capital. In areas such as green design, architecture, or Copenhagen Suborbitals, it’s obvious.  Where it is less obvious is the country’s push for wind energy, biomedical, high tech, etc. which all  require a highly educated population with a sound intellectual foundation. Without it, the whole system falls apart. The high quality of life, standard of living, and disproportionately influential role Denmark enjoys  on the world stage is all just a few poorly thought-out moves away from ruin – and let’s face it, Danes have no interest in losing their extremely comfortable first-world status and lifestyle.

Factions of business leaders, bureaucrats, and media representatives have fallen over each other in recent months in an effort to exploit students  and the Danish education system. They have  all the usual arguments – they are taking too long, they are wasting everyone’s money, they are lazy, they need increased incentives, and of course, “Why should I have to pay for their education?”.

The tone and delivery varies slightly from year-to-year, country-to-country, but at the end of the day it’s always the same arguments.  It’s the same nonsense that was used in Arizona to slash and divert the budgets of public schools, all so that those same funds could be wasted on small pet projects, or go to independent charter schools. Schools which, it turned out, bypassed the regulations, transparency, and oversight present in the public schools and which have served as a portal for the insertion of young earth creationism, politically convenient rewrites of history, economic and political material, social status warfare, and tragically incomplete curriculum.

At the end of the day, that was all done through four basic claims:

1. Individuals  should be able to dictate where their tax money is spent  because  taxes are too high and we must cut waste.

2. Poor educational performance and/or graduation speed is the fault of insufficient rules, tests, and due to bad teachers/lazy students.

3. We already give the education system more than it needs. If they really need more money, why are they building new buildings (etc.)? They just need the efficiency of free-market mechanisms and business-minded leadership.

4. For-profit corporations and corporate models can do a better  job of running our universities.

Sound familiar?

What has resulted is the widespread increase in tuition (often double or triple-digit increases) at public universities in the US which have had to compensate for deep cuts in the government support they receive.  Plus, significant attempts to decrease research grants/funds, and a general contraction in the availability of funding support for American students.

As Denmark looks to the US for guidance and brings in “educational consultants”, it is worth pausing and asking if the green pastures and blue skies those consultants have pitched have any basis in reality.  Keep in mind that as of 2011 1 out of every 3 dollars borrowed by Americans (not including home mortgages)  went to debt tied to higher education.  The average Bachelors graduate in the US in 2013 graduated with roughly $35,200 in debt. As staggering as that may seem to Danes, it’s actually quite low as I have friends who pursued a Master’s (a rarity in the US due to the cost), and/or went on for PhDs and who have between $150,000 and $250,000 in accrued debt.

The result is that students have been forced to abandoned areas of the humanities and liberal arts – areas fundamental to an educated population and healthy society – in favor of higher paying majors. Others have foregone or radically shortened their college programs altogether at significant societal cost to the US’s well-being. All the while, the added responsibilities students take on to survive (part-time jobs, reduced credit hour loads, etc.) mean that they face slower graduation times, and have to spend more time in the system. Problems confounded by reduced budgets at the universities which lead to lower levels of guidance, reduced class availability, worse teacher : student ratios, and other similar problems.

What This Means For Denmark

Is there ample room for improvement within the Danish system? Absolutely. Do Danish students have it easy compared to some other countries?  In some ways. Do they take longer than they should to graduate?  Perhaps.  Could some reform be beneficial?  Always.

However, the way to bring about these positive changes isn’t to draw from broken systems and to seek to penalize and scapegoat students.

What the system needs is more funding, not less.  What students need is a better organized administrative infrastructure that has information more readily available and which takes a more active and involved role in helping them progress through their education.

Do you really want students to graduate faster?

Then make sure that they can take a course, regardless of semester. Time and time again students end up forced to delay because a course has pre-requisites that are only offered once per year.

Do we want students to progress more quickly through their program?  Then we must start by providing full time, professional academic advisers that have an intimate knowledge of the system (not students in student jobs who typically hold the position for less than 2 years and spend half of that time learning the system).   Further, have those advisers follow up with their portfolio of students twice a semester as a mandatory part of the student’s program. These advisors should also be available throughout the week, not just on a limited once or twice a week schedule.

Do we want improved performance from the Danish students? Then we must decrease course size.  It’s amazing how much better the quality of education is when you’ve got a teacher ratio (especially at a Master’s level) of 1:10 or 1:15 vs. 1:30 or 1:90.

Want students to do better at navigating the bureaucracy of their program?  Try speeding up and cleaning up the university bureaucracy and a culture  that leads to constantly delayed deadlines, multi-month delays in announcements, decisions, and results processing.

Let’s be clear: student performance is a symptom of the problem.  It is not the source.

Taking A Little Longer Is OK

The reality is that while private interests lash out and blame students for being lazy, what they neglect is the internship culture that has arisen where Danish companies realize tens of thousands of hours of free or cheap labor per year via internship programs which often consume the entirety of Danish student’s semester course load. Even worse these programs have now become virtually mandatory for students seeking a rapid transition from educational to professional life.

As a recent MA grad I had a rather rigid 2-year deadline due to my tuition waiver.  I had to forego the option of pursuing an academic internship.  Why?  Because the internship, which was  worth 15 ECTS points, took up the entirety of a semester.  Which meant, that for me to take it, I’d have been forced to add on a fifth semester to my program.  For the thousands of students that pursue these types of academic internships, and as a result are delayed at least a semester, it’s not their fault.  In fact, it is a strength of the system.

Further, that culture of low paid or free academic internships is not possible without either A) students taking on excessive amounts of debt as is occurring in the US or B) receiving SU financial support to offset their living costs.

Another area where that extra SU money has paid off big for Denmark, is the local start-up culture.  It’s amazing how different the start-up culture and lifestyle here is compared to what my friends go through in the USA.  True, the sheer risk of failure and large financial debts my friends rack up may serve as a motivator that Danish students lack. Yet, they also have the  advantage of having a revenue source while studying that allows them to explore their passions, ideas, creativity, and to take risks which would otherwise have catastrophic financial ramifications in the US (in turn crippling many of America’s best and brightest for years). These student’s creativity  is powering both Denmark’s innovation and creative cultures.

Recent discussion  has focused on how few Danish students are studying abroad and the need for increased globalization.  A problem I have been working to explore and solve.  A lot of that comes from more flexible university schedules and a system that provides windows and opportunities through which students can take time to explore the world and experience it without harming their academic progress.

The Danish system already pigeonholes students into fairly narrow educational specializations.   Exposure to other coursework is limited when compared to systems such as those in the United States.  This in turn means that for Danes who are trying to decide where to focus their education, they have far less flexibility in exploring what the university has to offer before locking into a set track. The more that their options are limited, the more  they are cornered into a limited education.  That, unfortunately, is to the detriment of everyone those students will come into contact with.  Just imagine if more economists took anthropology and history courses.  Or if philosophy students bolstered their education with a course in evolutionary biology.

So, Denmark, do you want real solutions that will strengthen Denmark’s future? Or a few extra kroner off your taxes and the self affirmation that comes from pointing a finger at students and scolding them for their imagined delinquency?

You’ve got something special here.  Something that should serve as a model for the rest of the world and which embodies the strengths of a civilized culture that values intellectual progress. Please, don’t throw that away because of a few talking points.

About Me

A recent graduate from the University of Copenhagen, I received my degree from the Department of Humanities where I scored top marks and a perfect score on my thesis.  Drawn to Denmark by the country’s dedication to education, I studied in Denmark on an academic tuition waiver that provided me with a two year period of study.  I received my Bachelors degree in human communication from Arizona State University (One of the largest research universities in the United States) with honors from Barrett, The Honors College.  While I advocate for the benefits of pro-longed educational study, I completed both my Bachelors and Master’s degrees within the traditionally accepted period of study (4/2 years).  In addition to my academic background, I have three years of corporate experience as a market analyst, and director of research in the mergers and acquisitions industry.

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.


  • Kristian Aagaard
    November 28, 2013

    That was one well written article! I agree in every single
    Point. Thank you for being this kind! I truly hope you enjoyed studying in Denmark.
    I am going to share your words!

    • Alex Berger
      November 29, 2013

      Thanks Kristian! Great to hear it resonated with you. Really appreciate the feedback!

  • Jesper Juhl
    November 29, 2013

    Wow! Just wow!
    I’m amazed by the degree of clarity your article is written with. You have a level of understanding of the danish educational system that by far outrank that of any individual I have ever met. The educational system, in it self, is hard to wrap ones head around. But you make it somehow seem simple and straightforward. I will recommend all my friends to read your article.

  • Casper Rasmussen
    November 29, 2013

    If only the danish politicians would read this and take it to heart, there could be light at the end of the tunnel. Instead of looking at the big picture and thinking 10+ years ahead, the political system is built up in a way that rewards short-sightedness. Green numbers on the bottom line at the end of the term is a very persuasive way to gain voters, even if the choices made to change red into green will harm the country and all of us in the long run.

    In my opinion this is an amazingly accurate analysis which I will share with anyone interested. Probably those not interested too, as they really should be.

    • Alex Berger
      December 3, 2013

      Appreciate the comment Casper. I agree, it really is a difficult challenge: how to figure out how to re-structure political systems so that the candidates are willing and able to not only make decisions that have short term benefits, but also embrace those which are necessary for long-term payoffs and success.

  • Ian C
    December 5, 2013

    I’d be tempted by your argument that “a little longer is OK”, but truth is that even when compared to their peers in Europe, Danish students still manage to have the all out record for the amount of time taken for them to complete their educations (I believe the average number is about 6-7 years for an education that is originally scheduled for 5).

    And as an educator myself, I’m not sure past a certain arbitrary point – how much of this time is actually ‘value creating’ in some way or other, intellectually, spiritually, developmentally or otherwise (you pick). I’ve seen quite a number of examples – and overall, I wouldn’t say I’m quite convinced of this argument.

    There is some merit, albeit a little bit romantic that “taking their time” somehow magically makes them more creative, innovative and useful to society and themselves in the larger scheme of things. Nevertheless, I personally think the far simpler explanation is more probable – that many are just using school as a tool for prolonging adolescence and delaying facing adult realities. Good news is that with good decisions, Life is equally as developmental an experience as higher education will ever be – in some cases probably even more so.

    Finally, I’m not sure that the guidance is coming from consultants in the Anglo – American world … its coming straight from the economic reality – where queues of young graduates are unable to participate in the first rung of the ladder of life because they don’t have the skills to be employable (I’m assuming that’s what they want too, and I don’t think I’m too far off with this one).

    Danish educations, however “rigourous” and “intellectual” they prides themselves to be, has some significant problems keeping with the times – prefering to defend the status quo in romantic notions that frankly are based more on social fantasy than stuff that is empirically verifiable. I have not come across any studies that show that people who take 9 years to complete their educations are any more skilled, mature or well equipped to handle the world than the ones who finished on time in 5. And this should probably be an empirically verifiable fact if the arguments are to hold merit – we have vast array of practical and intellectual tools from economics, public policy to psychology for verifying whether any of these hypotheses hold water. Just that I’m not sure that many in the academic establishment would like to use their coveted tools to verifying this in a rigorous, data-driven way. I suspect (speculation) its because … its not really going to turn out well when put under the scientific microscope, from whatever lens you put on it.

    In conclusion, I have to say that I agree with you that Denmark has a remarkable system which invests in minds, which has largely paid off until now. But its going to take reality in much larger doses from now if they’d like it to hold together for generations to come – the rest of the world is not waiting for them to get their act together.

  • Lars
    November 15, 2014

    A friend just showed me this website, so my comments might be somewhat out of date.
    Having lived abroad for a number of years, it amazes me that people in Denmark are pushing for more business like standards in society. Gone are the days of shops closing at 18:00 hrs except for one evening a week, closing early on Saturdays, and no Sunday shopping. If you need something outside those hours, you could go to a døgnkiosk (like a 7Eleven) where they’d be happy to help you out, but for a higher price. Banks did not carry on past 15:00 hrs. Where I live now, the 24/7 365 approach has been the norm for at least a decade, and everybody suffers. Not that anyone is ready to admit that, but society has taken a hit through the loss of quality jobs, and quality time within individual family units.

    As for how long it should take to finish a university degree, I think that should be up to the individual student. Here, in a land of rapid progression, a couple of scenarios exist. Many young people race through their education, get their expensive Master’s degrees, hopefully find a job in the area of study, and then discover that their degree alone does not entitle them to a wage high enough to pay back their student loans. The other scenario, is the students, who actually get a well paying job, but cannot live up to expectations.Their whole adult life has consisted of 6-7 years at an educational institution that didn’t prepare them for dealing with a very important business asset: people with experience. A Master’s degree on it’s own does not a manager make. Thus it’s important for post secondary students to get out and see the world from time to time even if it means that they finish their degrees later than the best case timeline forecasts.


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