On the morning of February 9, employees of the University of Copenhagen sat nervously at their computers awaiting their fate. Deep budget cuts by the government meant that positions had to be eliminated across the board. Nobody was safe from the layoffs – everyone from tenured professors to part-time employees were at risk. They knew job cuts were coming, they just didn’t know who would have to go.
By 9:15 on the morning of the ninth, 209 University of Copenhagen staff members were told to find work elsewhere.
In total, the university was forced to cut 7.4 percent of its staff, with 323 voluntary redundancies added to those who were fired.
The government’s budget cuts will force the University of Copenhagen to trim its budget by two percent a year over the next four years – around 300 million kroner annually. From 2019 onwards, it is estimated the university will need to save 500 million per year.
The impact of the new budget is significant – larger classes, fewer group lessons and less course variety. The intake of PhD students will be reduced by ten percent, and programmes such as Modern India Studies, Ancient Greek, and Hebrew will not admit any students in 2016.
Students and professors have held demonstrations and collected petitions protesting the cuts. In an article on the university’s website, Rector Ralf Hemmingsen said the loss of staff and reduction of PhDs cut “into the vital research value chain”, which will significantly affect Denmark’s research capabilities in the foreseeable future.
Furthermore, the cuts could potentially undo the university’s reputation as an international institution. Last year it dropped from 45 to 69 in the QS University Ranking, and with the loss of valuable teaching staff it is at risk of going even further down the list.
One fired professor from the humanities department, who agreed to talk to The Murmur anonymously, expressed his frustration with how the situation was handled. The university gave him no explanation for his termination.
“I find the institutional hypocrisy and lack of transparency to be very problematic. I have little faith in the objectivity of the selection process. I am aware of many extremely prestigious scholars who have been let go, professors who are objectively top researchers and internationally recognised,” he said, adding that he was concerned about the future.
Under Danish law, public employees who have been notified of their dismissal have 14 days to submit comments. But because of this procedure, professors are not allowed to comment publicly on the lay-offs.
“It is scandalous that in a modern democracy, a huge institution is allowed to target individuals and basically not be accountable for their decisions,” he said.
In Denmark, employers can lay off people and provide only general reasons for their termination. According to our source, fired staff were informed of professional or personal qualifications or difficulties in carrying out a task as reasons for their firing, the list altering in slightly varying orders.
“This is going to have deep repercussions on the quality of teaching we can deliver. It feels like people are jumping off a sinking ship. A lot of good people who can move, will move, because it is not clear what the future holds.”
Following the impersonal email, which notified him of his termination, the professor was invited to a brief meeting. He was given a folder containing information on how to use Denmark’s job portal. Other than that, the information he was provided was insubstantial.
“I find this top down management, the huge amount of power concentrated in heads of institutes, basically without any checks and balances or forums for dialogue between staff and management disturbing. There is a feeling that management acts on its own without consulting or taking into account the feelings of the employees.”
Budget cuts in recent years have already increased his workload, making it nearly impossible to carry out meaningful research, and this recent round will make the situation worse.
“There is a lot of administrative red tape. Class sizes are also increasing and the amount of individual contact is going down. I find that contact invaluable to teaching and it is very concerning that we will be doing mass teaching.”
Casper Andersen studies Modern India and South Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen. His programme is among those that will stop admitting new students this summer. Considerable investment was put into founding the programme just four years ago and students and faculty fear their work has been for nothing.
“So much investment has been put into establishing this new study, just to potentially close it down. It doesn’t make sense to close a study that has such great potential for Denmark,” he says.
Although the programme is only supposed to halt admissions temporarily, Andersen fears that the effects will be felt in the long-term.
“The risk is new students won’t have any tutors because students who are further along will be in India when they come in. The social environment will basically die,” he says, adding that if the programme were to readmit students the following year, substantial investment would be needed to reinstate tutors.
“The programme gives us a broad area of competencies that is needed in the business world and for Denmark’s interaction with the world, such as acquiring a deep understanding of India and South Asia. This degree is important for companies that are in India, both for established and growing businesses.”
Andersen echoed a sentiment reflected by many students The Murmur spoke to when he suggested that it would be better to save money by reforming the education grant, SU, rather than closing down courses. Another solution could be to allow Danish universities to collaborate to preserve smaller studies.
“The universities could say that for the next couple of years only Aarhus and Copenhagen should offer History. You don’t necessarily need to close the small studies. Closing small studies is the easy way out.”
Nathalie Kold-Hansen, a Polish Studies student at the University of Copenhagen, also defended the value of her education.
“A humanities bachelor with specialisation in a country gives a combined insight into the cultural, historical, political, and linguistic skills that other educations cannot provide. These are important skills for international negotiations in a globalised world.”
Her degree is among the many language programmes that have been cut. Graduates of these programmes often go on to work as translators and cultural mediators, careers that are harder to obtain without the language skills acquired through these degrees.
Andersen was keen to emphasise that enrolment numbers often poorly reflect a programme’s value.
“The size and cost of a study does not necessarily equal its importance.”
Associate professor Martyn Bone from the University of Copenhagen’s Department of English, Germanic and Romance Studies, said February 9 was “one of the grimmest days of my professional career”.
He has worked at the department on and off since 2000 and stresses that the dismissals jeopardize the university’s international reputation.
“We are at a level of crisis that has been unprecedented – the sheer scale of the firings. People who have tenure are being fired,” he said, adding that the lack of transparency has resulted in a sense of unease, with staff unaware of who has been cut or voluntarily made redundant.
“There has been a broader sense of crisis since around 2003, when it was also a Venstre led government, who were instituting university reforms. And there has been a constant sense that we have to cut back. So much of the money is dependent on the state – there are few alternative resources and that is the big difference with the private system. It is a big problem that we are so susceptible to the policy changes of successive governments.”
Of the eight universities in Denmark, only the University of Copenhagen and Roskilde University have had to lay off staff as a result of the cuts. Other universities, such as the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), have adopted a more conservative budget and encouraged researchers to seek funds abroad and from private foundations.
“How can state institutions like the University of Copenhagen compete with the top Ivy League American universities or Oxford on Cambridge, who have these huge amounts of money, when your money is coming only from the state, and the state is constantly cutting back?” he asked, calling the impact on the university’s reputation, ‘the elephant in the room’.
“If we are going to cut back this often and this much, at what point do we go down the British route? The only way that we can keep going and provide a quality education is to charge fees. And that goes so against the Danish welfare model.”
According to Bone, an unstable work environment could dissuade top researchers from joining the University of Copenhagen staff in the future.
“You are also going to see a brain drain. The university does have world class researchers now, but people are going to be thinking very seriously about leaving. Obviously you have just lost colleagues, working conditions are worse, what is the appeal of staying? The best people will find work elsewhere, there is no reason for them to stay.”
If the university struggles to attract world class replacements, the international perception of the university will inevitably drop, both for future staff and students.
“While the financial incentives are there, many EU students camehere to study because they saw the University of Copenhagen as an internationally renowned institution. And they expected a certain level of education. The sheer nature of the cuts is going to make them think that this is not what they signed up for.” M