May 17, 2009

Are Danes Overeducated?

After the American Century

A Danish newspaper recently devoted its page one lead story to the idea that people were over-educated, arguing that what the country needed was not more people with advanced degrees but less. The newspaper, whose name would translate as "The Jutland Post", generally champions right wing causes and business interests. It is never read outside Denmark by anyone and has no effect on the rest of the world. Yet it does represent the "thinking" of many of the supporters of the current government.

This "thinking" in recent years has only occasionally focused on universities, and often is quite contradictory. Here are some examples.

(1) Universities should be funded in direct relationship to how many students complete exams, but at the same time students have been allowed to work more hours part-time.

(2) Denmark should be internationally oriented and partner with foreign institutions, but visiting foreign lecturers (who used to come for two year terms) have virtually disappeared. Money for travel to conferences has decreased and the amounts given are never enough to cover expenses. Almost no money is in department budget's to invite scholars from abroad for lectures. The funding available to go on Erasmus Exchanges has been reduced and the expected length of an Erasmus visit shortened. So in practice, the university is becoming less and less international, and indeed the teaching of many foreign languages is being discontinued.

(3) The government periodically says that Denmark's future is tied up in developing expertise and in being a leader in the "knowledge economy," but the actual funding, at the level of university departments, has been either static or falling. Politicians issue press statements about how more money is being plowed into research, but there is little or no sign of this money that the faculty can see. When positions open up due to departure or retirement, they are almost never filled right away, but Deans feel that they must wait a year or more, to save money.

(4) Publications are to be more important than ever, and the highest value will be placed on books and articles that appear on a list of the best publishers and journals. However, no money is available to assist Danish universities to become the host institutions for international journals, and indeed this seems not to be even a category in anyone's mind. Pathetically, international publication means "outside Denmark" rather than raising the level of publications based in Denmark to the level that would draw scholars from other countries to publish here. At the same time, the new emphasis on publication turns out, in the awarding of "points", to reward quantity more quickly and easily than quality.

(5) Publications may be important in theory, but in practice there is less time available for publications than ten or twenty years ago. Indeed, in many institutions the teaching hours have been pushed up, the number of examinations increased, the minimal allowed size of classes increased, and the compensation given for directing doctoral students reduced. Yet while faculty have less time and fewer resources to work with than 20 years ago, nevertheless the faculty are constantly undergoing reviews and accreditation examinations. The time given to petty administration has increased year by year, taking away the time once available for research.

(6) There was a time when education and democracy were thought to be mutually reinforcing. However, the government does not seem to believe this in practice. Faculty have been gradually stripped of most power and responsibility, and power is centralized in office-holders who are no longer elected by faculty but serve other appointed officials. The faculty scarcely ever vote on anything anymore.

In short, the problem in Denmark is not that students are getting too much education, but that the universities are poorly funded, undemocratic institutions which are becoming less international and rewarding faculty for doing mediocre research, whose quality is no longer evaluated by professors but by administrators, many of whom could not write a scholarly article if their lives depended on it.

The only exceptions to this rather bleak picture are particular areas that politicians and foundations have decided to shower with money, in the mistaken belief that high quality research can be planned and controlled by outsiders. The best research, however, leads to the unexpected. A breakthrough cannot be planned. Not one of my books looked anything like its initial outline, as each developed in unexpected ways that made them better. The world's finest pure research institutions know this, and they do not try to force research in pre-determined directions.

However, none of this really matters, because "The Jutland Post" has discovered that Danes are already over-educated. If we could just reduce the number of students, then the next step surely ought to be reductions in the size of universities. Then they would teach even fewer languages, have even larger classes, reward provincial publications even more, become even less international, and focus all "research" on problems defined by non-specialists. If things go really well, the less educated population , with less personal experience with democracy, could then turn for enlightenment and guidance to "The Jutland Post."