Euro visions: Radical in Roskilde

Jim Dickinson travels to Denmark and finds a university still implementing the radical vision it was established with in the 1970s

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Just like this year, the 1972 edition of the Eurovision Song Contest took place in the UK, because the country that had won previously were unable to host.

Monaco wasn’t wartorn, of course, just too small – so the circus came to Edinburgh, where the Usher Hall saw eighteen countries battle it out, including the New Seekers “Beg, Steal or Borrow, Luxemburg’s eventual winner “Après toi” from Vicky Leandros, and… no song from Denmark.

The Danish broadcaster had been out for a few years, viewing the contest as a little too conservative and thin to bother dabbling with – and not fitting the radical spirit of the time, which had seen the public vote to join the European Community that year, and the government establish some exciting new experiments in higher education.

Two institutions known as “university centers” were created over two years – one in Aalborg 1974, and one two years earlier in Roskilde, a twenty minute drive to the East of Copenhagen. The idea was move away from old ideas of academic-controlled courses and give students considerably more influence and flexibility in their learning experience.

A new kind of university

Three approaches marked them out from their traditional counterparts:

  • A number of faculties previously been taught in separate institutions – such as natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences – were be integrated with other disciplines.
  • There was to be an experimental curriculum, kicking off with an interdisciplinary “basic course” in the first year designed to expose students to multiple specialties.
  • The new curriculum was to be “project-oriented,” with students completing degree programs through a series of projects – like designing a bridge or examining the social consequences of a factory closure.

And what’s fascinating is that while many of the associated aspects of radical politics surrounding the experiment have now faded in favour of established patterns of social democracy, the basic bits of the educational approach have both survived and spread at Roskilde – which today has around 10,000 students and around 500 academic staff, and leads with a vision of interconnectedness:

The world is connected. And contributing to a sustainable future requires that we understand the contexts in the world as well as take part in them. Roskilde University will contribute to this by being an open network of knowledge with pioneering interdisciplinary research as the catalyst.

We strengthen our research and our study programmes by connecting the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences, technology and health sciences, thereby challenging academic boundaries. Because when we push the boundaries of what we know, build bridges and develop relationships, we create coherence and progress in a complex world.

As with Twente, with a staff-student ratio of approx 1:20, some would have concerns about teaching quality in pockets beneath that average, so it’s worth a detailed look at the undergraduate structure.

We’re still talking a basic three year, 180 ECTS credits – and the interdisciplinary introduction to the field of study being followed by optional modules in the second and third years aren’t a million miles away from that offered in many UK universities, albeit that first year at Roskilde is undoubtedly broader than most.

Less choice, more options

There are only really five degrees on offer here at undergraduate level – Bachelor of Humanities, Humanities-Technology, Science, Social Science, Natural Sciences – which means that (for example) the Humanities programme is described as follows:

The humanities area is about investigating, understanding and explaining how we as human beings think, feel, act and express ourselves in interaction with the culture and historical time we are part of.

In the first year of the programme, you will work interdisciplinary with the humanities. In four basic courses, you will receive instruction in linguistics, literary analysis, communication, modern media, philosophy, philosophy of science, history, cultural studies, pedagogy and psychology. It provides you with knowledge of key humanistic concepts, theories and methods that you can use regardless of which specialisation you choose.

You go in depth with the areas you find interesting in your project work, where you choose which issues you want to work with. Then from the second year, you begin to specialise in two bachelor subjects. You can choose from a wide range of combinations – either with both subjects within the humanities, or with a subject from social sciences or natural sciences.

But as well as the “don’t narrow down too early” thing, what’s really striking is the project work. As well as what we might regard as familiar 3 x 5 ECTS credit modules per semester with lectures, seminars and assessment, 15 credits each semester are obtained through interdisciplinary project work that integrate the competencies obtained through the other modules:

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Nils, the humanities student that I got chatting to at the campus’s impressive (entirely) student run cafe bar back in January, was glowing about the approach:

The professors teaching the classes at other universities feel a need to make their little modules this or that, practical or applied as well as grounded in theory. Here they don’t have that pressure – half the time we’re learning about three areas, and half the time we’re learning about how to apply more than one subject with other students and sometimes other people, like a company or a school in the city.”

It also happens to be a structure that has considerably lower delivery costs than we might typically see in the UK, and stronger “belonging” aspects – with the efficiencies of interdisciplinarity and project work partly deployed on dramatically better support for skills in those project areas (actually supporting students with teamwork or project management theory) and project coaching (as distinct from general academic support).

That is then all backed up with something we’ve seen across Europe – a student-led scheme that ensures that every student is allocated a student “tutor” who has worked throughout the summer to give students a great start – beginning a few weeks before the start, and continuing throughout the academic year.

Tutors introduce students to both the academic and social life at the university, focussing on building social capital before the programme begins, with each trained in intercultural communication to ensure that the university’s other focuses on widening access and internationalisation result in educational benefits for students rather than social silos.

They also cover off sexual misconduct and other types of PSHE work that England’s universities will shortly have to scale up.

As with the Netherlands, we’d have to assume that the country’s relatively generous student finance system helps students become more immersed both in the academic and non-academic aspects of student life.

But there is something particularly impressive about the way in which structurally separating out practical application from theoretical underpinnings allows both a much more efficient degree programme structure, and one that feels much more immersive than many students are enjoying in the UK.

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