Students meet grant reform with mix of criticism and understanding

Reform of grant system will encourage students to start university younger and finish faster while cutting amount paid to those still living with parents

Students living at home and those who take too long before starting post-secondary education stand to lose the most in the government’s reform of the student grant system (SU).

The government wants to use the reform to save two billion kroner by 2020 by encouraging students to finish their studies faster – savings that can instead be used to finance a reduction of taxes and levies on businesses in order to stimulate growth.

The reform will reduce the amount of money students living at home can receive and make it harder for students to study part time and to receive SU for longer than the amount of time their programmes are supposed to take.

The government  argues that reforming SU is necessary in order to cope with the increasing number of young people claiming the grant. According to the Education Ministry, between 2001 and 2011 the number of SU recipients rose 32 percent while SU payments rose by 75 percent to reach 18.3 billion kroner.

Danish university graduates are also some of the oldest in Europe, averaging 29 years old, while at the same time being among the slowest to complete their studies, taking 6.1 years to obtain a master’s degree, that ought to take five. 

“In challenging economic times we have to set expectations of students so that they take responsibility for their studies while we also try and find aspects of SU that are more generous than necessary in order to satisfy the principle that everyone should be able to afford to take an education in Denmark,” the higher education minister, Morten Østergaard (Radikale), stated in a press release yesterday.

Less support for less time

The most significant aspects of the reform are changes to who can claim SU and for how long.

Students starting at university are currently eligible for 70 monthly payments, equivalent to five years and ten months of support. A bachelor’s degree programme typically takes three years to complete and a master’s programme two, meaning students have an extra ten months of SU beyond what a typical university programme should take.

This extra ten months is often used by students to take on unpaid internships during their studies or to study part-time for a period.

Under the new system students will still be able to take extra time to complete their studies, but only if they started their university education within two years of finishing upper secondary school.

These students can earn an extra six months of SU during their bachelor’s programme and an extra six months during their master’s.

This is hoped to encourage students to start a post-secondary programme at a younger age. It will replace the current system, which seeks to accomplish the same goal by allowing students starting further education immediately after finishing upper secondary to multiply their marks by 1.08.

Under the current rules, SU can also be claimed by 18-year-olds who have yet to complete their upper secondary education. They can receive 1,274 kroner a month, while over those over 18 still living at home but enrolled in a post-secondary programme are entitled to 2,860 kroner a month.

The government wants to significantly reduce these rates, so that all recipients of SU still living at home receive a maximum of 2,500 kroner a month, with the specific amount determined by their parents’ income.

Sensible reforms or penny-pinching politicians?

Østergaard, who himself received SU for a total of 58 months while undergoing his studies, has faced criticism for the proposals. One teacher’s union, DGS, argued the proposals encouraged students to move prematurely out of their homes in order to claim more SU, while the union Dansk Magisterforening expressed concern that fewer students would take time off in order to take internships.

But students that spoke with The Copenhagen Post could see both the benefits and drawbacks of the reform.

Adam Roberts, 26, completed a five-month internship at the Red Cross this summer while studying for his master’s degree in social sciences at the University of Roskilde. He viewed the extra year as an integral part of university studies.

“We need the extra year because university bureaucracies do not count time spent doing internships toward your studies,” Roberts said. “My internship at the Red Cross was not accredited by the university, so I spent five months enrolled at school but not taking any classes.”

Mija Byung, who is due to get her master’s in architecture from the School of Architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts this summer, eight years after she began her studies at the age of 23, argued that many students benefit from taking their time to complete their studies.

“The five years I took off between upper secondary and university and architecture school, in which I travelled and did odd jobs and took the occasional course at technical school, was incredibly important to my development and preparation,” Bjung said. “I do not look forward to a future full of 25-year-old robots cranked out by the education system.”

Bjung added that reducing the amount of SU for students still living at home limits their freedom and increases their dependency on their parents.

Roberts, however, did not agree. He argued there were plenty of young people that did not need as much SU while they were still living with their parents.

“I am not saying I am in favour of the government’s plan. I just think it is sad that there are no stories in the media about people like me, who definitely did not need SU in upper secondary,” he said. “I definitely spent all my SU on lattes and beers.”

Frederik Trojaberg Julian, 27, currently studying techno-anthropology, found it hypocritical for the government to cut SU for students.

“It makes no sense,” he said. “Politicians should instead take a look at the pensions and rebates they receive instead of taking money from the people that are getting an education in order to secure Denmark’s future,

But Josh Meyer, a 27-year-old IT consultant who received SU for three years, argued that Danes had lost perspective about how well supported they will continue to be after the reform.

“Danish students are still the most generously supported of any students in the world,” Meyer said. “They receive free education and money to help with living costs when most people would die for free education alone.”

PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Socialdemokraterne) said during her weekly press conference today that she was proud of the reform.

“We are going to change certain aspects of SU but we are going to do it in the most gentle possible way,” Thorning-Schmidt said. “Foreigners looking at the changes we make to the way we support our students will still conclude it is a good system.”

Fact Box | Key points of the SU Reform

Students starting further education more than two years after finishing upper secondary education, will only be entitled to SU student grants for the number of years their course is supposed to take. Those starting within two years receive an extra year of SU to complete a five-year programme. (Current system: Students in post-secondary programmes eligible for five years and ten months of SU.)

Students have their SU cut off after six months of inactivity (Current system: Students have their SU cut off after 12 months of inactivity.)

By 2020 universities must reduce the length of time the average student takes to complete their programmes by 3.7 months or risk financial penalty. It currently takes students 6.1 years on average to finish a five-year combined bachelor’s and master’s programme.

Students are permitted to change post secodndary programmes up to five times. (Current system: No limit.)

The maximum amount of SU received by upper secondary and post-secondary education students living at home will be reduced from 2,860 kroner to around 2,500 kroner. The actual amount will depend on parent income.

SU will increase at the same annual rate as other government benefits such as pensions and unemployment benefits. Previously, it rose at a faster annual rate.

The reforms will earn the government around two billion kroner by 2020.

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