Opinion | What’s a Danish university diploma worth?

Linda Maria Koldau is not satifsied with the Danish universities and she does not believe that the education or the diplomas are worth a penny


How many BA and MA graduates does a society need? Not a single one if their diploma is no more than a piece of paper whose fine promises are not redeemed in the form of a well-founded education, concrete competencies and the maturity of the graduate in question.

Sadly, many of the Danish diplomas, at least in the humanities, are exactly such a piece of paper – and thus worthless. Having been headhunted from Germany to a Danish university in 2009, this was the conclusion I as a full professor had to draw after three years at that university.

My attempts to discuss the problems in the quality and methods of education with my colleagues and management led to nothing but bullying. In 2011, I eventually dared voice my criticism publicly about a masters programme in musicology where the students need not be able to read musical notation – this is a scandal even the general public understands. 

My criticism triggered a heated debate about the scanda-lously low standards in Danish university education. The university management reacted with humiliation and chicanery – until I fulfilled their greatest desire and resigned from my position as chair of musicology. After all, it was not worth wasting more of my life and qualifications at a Danish university.

My criticism was secretly supported by hundreds of Danes. But almost none of them dare speak up – they know all too well that their ‘right to the freedom of speech’ only exists on paper. I equally know a considerable number of foreign professors who, like me, were headhunted to little Denmark (which urgently needs qualified scholars) and then left the country after an extremely short period of time – disgusted, humiliated, their career often in ruins. The Danish jantelov mentality is the perfect way to keep unwanted competition out.

But it is not only foreign scholars who realise that a Danish university qualification is a questionable honour. Foreign students also must realise that in Denmark the words “university” and “diploma” by no means correspond to their meaning elsewhere.

I recently received an email from an American citizen living in Denmark. ‘Gary’ had come to the country in 2008 to be with his children, whose mother is Danish. Having gained a degree in sociology at the University of Memphis in 1982, he had gone on to have a long and successful career as an international business executive. Over the years, he had periodically lectured at American universities such as the George Washington University and the University of California, Los Angeles, and at another Danish university as well.

A person with ample business experience, a love for effectiveness and sense for detail in his work, Gary decided to study for a master’s degree at the nearby university in September 2009. 

However, on the day his thesis was finally graded and he should have received his diploma, the experienced businessman decided that he would no longer play a part in the farce that his studies at this university had been.

A year later, in March 2013, he sent me the letter he had written to the president of his university at that time:

22 February 2013

Rektor Jesper Søndergaard Ottesen [name changed]


XX Universitet


Dear Mr. Ottesen

I have received a new assessment of my thesis for the master’s degree in maritime archaeology from XX Universitet. I must therefore decline the degree. 

The diploma has no value to me because the entire amateurish process of producing, assessing and grading my thesis has been a complete joke, a farce, with no academic integrity or credibility whatsoever. For example, my well-documented concerns about favouritism in grading theses in this programme – violations of university policy – have been ignored.

The time I spent on my thesis was personally rewarding but, unfortunately, I can now only conclude it was a complete waste of time and effort. To my great disappointment, my thesis advisor proved to be incompetent, manipulative and dishonest. He has no business whatsoever guiding graduate students in the pursuit of academic excellence. 

Thus, for me, the thesis process was corrupt from beginning to end, from my ‘advisor’s’ guidance of my work all the way through the scandalous and illegitimate grading process. As a result, the diploma simply has no value.

I do not want my good name associated with such a Mickey Mouse enterprise. You can keep the diploma. To me, it is not worth the paper it is printed on – much less worthy of my good name.


Gary Y.

The letter was as liberating for me as it must have been for him. Finally somebody who dared speak openly. Finally a person with a background of excellent academic work and ample international experience, both in academia and in business life, who gives a clear and far too true evaluation of what is going on in Danish university education.

In his letter to the president of his Danish university, Gary puts his finger on crucial problems I experienced myself: incompetent academic staff, amateurish methods, manipulation, lack of integrity, lack of credibility, favouritism (the famous indspisthed or indavl that is so much stronger at Danish universities than in international academic cultures). 

My own experiences are described in the three volumes of my recently published book ‘Jante Universitet’. Many people in Denmark, Danish and foreign, have confirmed my description and added comparable experiences of their own. As far as I know, though, Gary is the only one who dared express his disgust openly in a letter to the university’s rector. Liberating indeed. 

More letters of this kind should be written. More letters of this kind should be published. As long as the scandal is hushed up and covered up with overblown DJØF-dansk jargon and useless statistical numbers, nothing will change. The public has a right to more authentic insights of that kind since it is the public that is forced to finance a useless education that undermines the economic prosperity of the country.

Are Gary and I just two foreigners who go after Danish universities because of the bad experiences we have had there? 

By no means. As I describe in ‘Jante Universitet’, there are hundreds of academic staff and students, both Danish and foreign, who feel and say the same about their experiences at Danish universities. It is no coincidence that my public critique caused such a heated debate – and such a brutal reaction on the part of the university management.

It is not individuals leading a sort of private war against an institution. It is a system that has essentially turned wrong. With generations of young people paying for it.

Gary and I may be unusual because we dare speak out. But we are by no means an exception. What we put into words is the norm at many Danish university departments. It is high time that this scandal is uncovered. And that the politicians in charge finally take responsibility for providing a high quality academic education – for the sake of Danish society and Denmark’s future. 

The author is a professor at Kiel University. A former Aarhus University faculty member, her trilogy ‘Jante Universitet: Episodes from the Life Behind the Walls’ provides a systematic criticism of the Danish university system.