COPENHAGEN, Denmark—Lanes of bicyclists commute along broad boulevards from comfortable homes to well-paying jobs, as others stroll through parks and gardens flanked by elegant architecture. Copenhagen seems a worthy capital of a nation with a standard of living so high that it’s ranked among the happiest on earth.

But not everyone is happy in Denmark.

A new government policy has brought out tens of thousands of university students, more than at any time since the period of unrest in the late 1960s, to protest in front of the Christiansborg Palace, where parliament meets. They also demonstrated on campuses in Copenhagen and in the cities of Roskilde and Aarhus.

The policy? To make them graduate on time.

Like countries including the Netherlands, Germany, Hungary, and a growing chorus of advocacy groups in the United States, Denmark is striving to rein in the spiraling cost of higher education by pushing students to finish when they’re supposed to. And the backlash from Danish faculty, students, and even university administrators brings the pros and cons of this idea into particular focus.

“Behind the debate in Denmark has been a consideration of whether we lose quality if we increase efficiency,” said Lauritz Holm-Nielsen, the vice president of the European University Association who previously headed Aarhus University, the largest in Denmark. “Seen from the society’s point of view, if the graduates get into the labor market earlier, they contribute to the economy for a much longer time. So there is a tension between these two perspectives.”

Danish students, who get free tuition and a living allowance of about $1,000 a month while they’re in school, now take an average of six years apiece to finish combined bachelor-master degree programs, which 90 percent of them pursue, and which the government says should take five years. Many continue to collect their benefits while enjoying what the Danes call the “fjumreår,” or the “year of goofing around—a period during which they might take leave or fewer courses than normal. The country can’t afford that any more, said Søren Nedergaard, the head of division in the Ministry of Higher Education and Science.

“It has expanded over the years, so university students, when this reform was decided, were spending a year and a half more [enrolled in school] than they were supposed to,” Nedergaard said. “The conception was: This was more than enough. It didn’t need to be this long.”

He said the choice was between cutting students’ grants or speeding up the time they take to get degrees, which the government calculates will save the equivalent of $266 million and produce more tax revenue, since those students will start working that much sooner. There are plenty of jobs for them; the employment rate in Denmark is among the highest in Europe, according to European Union statistics.

The government initiative, which in English is called the “Study Progress Reform” and is now being phased in, makes universities responsible for cutting the time their students spend in college by an average of about four months, and by nearly eight months at the prestigious University of Copenhagen, where they now take the longest. If they don’t, the institutions stand to lose government funding.

“The time for critical thought should still be there. The universities themselves had explicitly said a bachelor’s and a master’s degree should take five years,” Nedergaard said in the ministry’s offices near Christiansborg. “This was seen as realistic.” Now, if students dawdle in signing up for classes, the universities do it for them, and their progress is measured by a regular series of examinations.

In addition to their repeated protests since the proposal was first announced in 2013, many have taken their one remaining legal recourse to avoid this rule: skipping the exams by saying they’re sick.

Yasmin Davali, the head of the National Union of Students of Denmark, which opposes the reforms. (Nikolai Linares / The Hechinger Report)

“It shows how this policy is already failing,” said Yasmin Davali, the head of the National Union of Students, whose basement-office walls are covered in huge photos of the protests against the changes.

The reforms mean less time to decide on a major, or change one, or to learn critical thinking and other skills demanded by employers, Davali and other critics said. They could also detract from opportunities to study abroad, or have a family, or take an internship or work in a job related to a student’s area of interest, they argue. And the universities are likely to discourage students from taking a leave to do things such as starting businesses, as the institutions will now be measured by, and funded on the basis of, how quickly students graduate. “Instead of having a focus on getting the best graduates, you have a focus on how do you make them the fastest,” Davali said.

It’s a conflict that speaks to the very purpose of a higher education, said Anni Søborg, the vice provost for education at the University of Copenhagen “We are a very old, traditional university,” said Søborg, whose high-ceilinged office is housed in a building even older than the university, which was founded in 1479. “Here, you study. You don’t just learn and get your degree. You study.”

“Of course, we are also interested in our students being really full-time students, and it’s true that for some of them that has not been the case,” she continued. “But we also need those who will seek new knowledge, and they need to be allowed to study.”

Or, as Camilla Gregersen, the vice chair of the Danish academic faculty union, succinctly puts it, the universities “don’t want to become sausage factories.”

Objections to making students graduate on time seem universal wherever the idea is being pushed around the world. Indeed, efforts to ensure students complete their studies efficiently are increasingly common globally. “These countries are not trying to speed up the degrees. They’re simply trying to get the students finished in a timely manner,” said Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. “It’s a very common problem, and an issue everywhere.”

In the United States, only 5 percent of students at two-year community colleges, 19 percent at four-year universities, and 36 percent at four-year elite private and flagship public universities graduate within those specified time limits, according to the advocacy organization Complete College America. Students and their families end up paying an average of $51,000 annually at two-year colleges (and $68,000 at four-year ones) when they spend extra time in school, given the combination of additional tuition and lost wages, the organization calculates. All of this extra time also costs state and federal governments $11.5 billion annually in spending on public higher education and financial aid, Complete College America says.

“We’re not advocating that every single student graduate in four years. But when the vast majority of institutions don’t graduate even half their students in four years, there’s something wrong with the system,” said Complete College America’s president, Stan Jones.

Already, some universities in the U.S. have cut the number of credits students need to graduate, and some states have changed their financial-aid programs to reward those who take more courses per semester. As in Denmark, however, critics warn of unintended consequences.

“What ends up happening is that students are shortchanged,” said Fred Kowal, president of the union representing employees at the State University of New York and part of a coalition called the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education. “It comes back to the philosophical argument: What is the purpose of higher education? Is it simply to train someone who will be part of the labor force or is it to educate someone to be a citizen of the world? How do we find that balance? That’s the challenge. Our concern is that the emphasis is solely on let’s get them through fast, whether they’re ready or not.”

According to Maria Maisto, the president of a foundation that represents adjunct instructors in the U.S., the debate is less about education than it is about efficiency, “because of an economic-driven urgency,” That economic focus, she said, fails to understand that higher education is “like a huge ship and you can’t just shift it as quickly as these policymakers would like it to happen.” Adjunct instructors, Maisto argued, are being pressured to speed up the pace of passing students through the system. “It’s interesting but not surprising that all these things are happening in common all around the world.”

But Jones, who previously served as Indiana’s commissioner of higher education, said there’s no evidence that the quality of education goes down when the pace speeds up.

“They have no way of measuring quality now, so how could they possibly know whether the quality is diminished?” he said. And with regard to academic exploration, he said, although “that may be fine at Ivy League or elite universities,” most students go to community colleges or regional public universities where they may not have the financial means to stretch out their educations. “Those students are not exploring,” he said. “They’re lost. You’re just wasting their time and their money or their parents’ money, and many of them will never get a degree.”

“It’s students who are in the middle of this issue, everywhere,” said Davali, the Danish student-union head. She questioned the notion that students who take their time to graduate are just “screwing around.” “I don’t think they’re just sitting around playing PlayStation,” she said. “This whole argument is really built on a myth.”

According to Davali, the reforms in Denmark threaten the prestige of its top-rated universities. “That’s the argument we keep getting: ‘Come on, we have the best system in the world.’”

“And that’s why we are complaining,” she continued. “Because we want to keep having the best system in the world.”


This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.