Denmark: Don’t Throw Away Your Future

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.

Goodbye Norway, Hello Denmark!

The Round Tower - Copenhagen, Denmark

Excited for the next leg of my adventure I woke up with a spring to my step. It was cold and rainy, but given my mood, I found it more invigorating than anything.  I’d picked up a cheap youth ticket for 693 NOK (about $110 at the time) via the regional budget airline Wideroe.   While I had initially hoped to make the trip from Bergen to Copenhagen by train, what ended up being a two hour flight would have taken me closer to 15 hours by train and cost about the same (possibly more).

A Lazy Traveler - Bergen, Norway

From the hostel I made the 5 minute walk to the bus stop for the airport express and found a marginally dry bench.  Once there I leveraged years of experience, and settled in for one of the things I’m famous for – a quick cat nap. From there it was a quick bus ride to the airport, during which I had a delightful conversation with an older Canadian couple, before catching my flight.

Street Scene - Copenhagen, Denmark

The trip from the airport to my hostel was easy. A straight forward metro ride to a major stop, and then a quick walk to a funky hotel/hostel. I wasn’t thrilled about the place, it was a hotel which had converted its 3 story basement into a hostel.  Despite its general lack of character, and inflated price, it did offer decent facilities and a prime location.  I tossed my bag on my bed and set out – it was time to explore the city and rustle up some food.

Jazz Festival - Copenhagen, Denmark

The first thing I noticed about Copenhagen was the people. The Danish have repeatedly been ranked as some of the happiest people in the world. It’s hard to describe but there’s an energy throughout the city which truly reflects their ranking.  They’re just down right friendly, happy and active.  I’m sure it didn’t hurt that a massive, city wide jazz festival was also going on, which meant that there was stages set up in all of the small squares and musicians everywhere.

Draft Horses - Copenhagen, Denmark

In addition to being an extremely friendly city, Copenhagen (København) is also a spectacularly beautiful one.  The architecture is a delightful mix of international styles, the streets are clean, well groomed/repaired and the city itself a mixture of streets and parks crisscrossed by the occasional canal.

Main Drag  - Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen also boasts a fantastic amount of foot traffic. Something which while initially surprising started to make more sense once I learned more about the culture.  As it turns out the Danish government imposes a 180% tax on the purchase of new vehicles.  As you can imagine, that goes a long ways towards encouraging pedestrian traffic and the use of public transport.  The locals also are prestigious bikers. The only other city I’ve ever seen that came anywhere close was Amsterdam, and though it’s a close tossup I’m tempted to say that Copenhagen may be the bicycle capital of Europe. Everyone has one, and there are bike parking areas every block which consist of literally hundreds of bikes lined up in rows.  Some are chained to something, most are not.

Bicycles Downtown - Copenhagen, Denmark

As I wandered through the city streets I couldn’t help but be impressed.  Granted, the size of Copenhagen makes biking/walking a feasible option, but can you imagine if the US tried something similar?  A 10% sales tax is grounds for excessive complaining, let alone 180%! There would be riots.  Yet the Danes take it in stride and are happier, healthier, and better off for it.  No doubt there’s an important lesson to be learned there.

Old Skyline - Copenhagen, Denmark

I mentioned that the city was a beautiful mixture of architectural styles.  The eclectic roof line int eh photo above highlights this slightly.   You definitely get a feel fairly quickly for Copenhagen’s rich history.  A few minutes walking around the old city leaves one with a solid insight into the centuries of wealth, power, architectural and intellectual might that define Copenhagen.

Candy and Scale - Copenhagen, Denmark

As I wound my way down the main market street I couldn’t help but feel my mouth water.  Every block or so there was another food stand offering delicious looking wares.  From dried apricots to Danish hotdog stands.  With a chuckle I quickly realized that in Denmark the go-to street food isn’t kebabs, it’s hotdogs.  But not just any hotdogs…

Lunch - Copenhagen, Denmark

…Danish hot dogs.  Though there were a variety of options one of the most appealing (and healthy…obviously) were the bacon wrapped hotdogs served with sweet ketchup and a bucket full of mustard all washed down with a good ol’ cocacola.  Other options included big brats served up with pickled relish-like cucumber and sprinkled with dehydrated/breaded onions.

Street Music - Copenhagen, Denmark

I picked up one…or perhaps two? Hotdogs and made my way towards a small stage set up in the middle of the square.  Once within sight of the stage I found an empty set of cobblestones and settled in to enjoy my snack, people watch, and enjoy the sound of live music bouncing off the ancient cobblestone streets and multi-colored walls of ancient storefronts.

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

From there it was time to explore a bit further before heading back to the hostel.  I was in desperate need of a nap, and had made plans to connect with a friend I’d made during my Central America trip earlier in the year. I was eager to catch up, and to get a local’s insights into the city. It promised to be a good evening.

On a final note here are two quick bits of information I found fascinating.  The city of Copenhagen, despite being a capital city and home to several of the largest shipping companies in the world, sports an inner harbor that is so clean, you can swim in it (and people do regularly).

Remember how I mentioned that the city was incredibly bike friendly? An estimated 36% of locals commute to work by bike.  Amazing!