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Fewer tracks at upper secondary level will mean academically stronger students

Rector Brian Bech Nielsen and Pro-rector Berit Eika argue in favour of fewer specialised studies packages in the new upper secondary school reform.

The government is currently negotiating a reform of the upper secondary school system. Thus far, the main focus of the debate in Parliament has been the possibility of setting a minimum required mark as an admission requirement for upper secondary education.  This is an important discussion. But it is just as important to focus on the young people who emerge from these programmes, diploma in hand. Will the reform ensure that the students who apply to university are properly motivated and have the necessary personal and academic qualifications to be admitted to and to complete their degree programmes?

From the university’s perspective, some aspects of the proposed reform are positive. And the increased focus on academic competencies and study skills is particularly welcome.

At Aarhus University, on several occasions we have argued that the academic level of upper secondary programmes must be improved.  Strong competencies in the classical core subjects such as maths, physics, chemistry, Danish and foreign languages are absolutely crucial. An they are and will remain a precondition for maintaining the high quality of university degree programmes, no matter how mundane this may sound.

And so we look forward to the increased focus on preparing students for higher education in upper secondary teaching promised by the reform. The more intense the focus on academic excellence at upper secondary level, the greater the likelihood that students will perform well in their subsequent academic careers.

For this reason, reducing the number of specialised studies packages offered at upper secondary level is important to discuss. The government proposes reducing the number of specialised studies packages to eighteen on STX and HTX programmes and to thirteen on HHX programmes. While this is positive, forty-nine different specialised studies packages is still a large number in relation to ensuring a uniformly high academic level across the board. Why not take the bull by the horns and reduce the number of specialised studies packages to a small handful? From our perspective, this would significantly strengthen core academic competencies among our upper secondary students, and it would increase the likelihood that the largest possible number of students will graduate with strong academic profiles – profiles that would give these young people optimal preparation for successfully completing the advanced degree programme of their dreams after upper secondary school.

Increased admissions to technical and science degree programmes

One of the government’s objectives with the reform is to increase students’ opportunities and desire to progress to a technical or scientific post-secondary degree programme. An objective we support wholeheartedly, in order to ensure a better balance on the labour market of the future. The proposal to make Maths B mandatory for almost all students and to add C-level science courses to more tracks represents a positive contribution in relation to improving students’ scientific literacy. However, it would not translate directly to increased enrolments in the universities’ technical and science degree programmes. Almost all of these degree programmes require Maths A.

For this reason, it will be quite interesting to learn what concrete measures will be taken to inspire and motivate far more upper secondary students to choose the most challenging technical and scientific specialised studies packages.   

Recently, the Ministry of Higher Education and Science announced a large increase in Quota 2 applications to engineering degree programmes. We have noted the same trend at Aarhus University. But the fact is that we need to admit a far larger number of highly qualified students to the subject. According to a recent report from the organisation Engineer the Future, one in three STX upper secondary schools sends fewer than one in ten students on to a scientific or technical degree programme within one year of graduation. There is certainly room for improvement here.

We are particularly interested in the concrete details of how new forms of upper secondary teaching and examination will be developed that will both ensure a focus on strong academic core competencies and at the same time motivate more students to choose the natural sciences. At Aarhus University, we have already carried out a reorganisation of our basic maths teaching on science programmes to adapt instruction to the needs of today’s digital youth – a reorganisation that has led to better exam results, greater student satisfaction with their degree programmes, and higher exam pass rates. If more upper secondary students improve their maths skills through focused, stimulating teaching, there is reason to believe that there will be a higher degree of alignment between students’ qualifications and the university degree programmes society demands.

We must continue to cultivate foreign language skills

And let’s not forget foreign languages! The ability to understand, interpret and express oneself in more than one language, both orally and in writing, is necessary on post-secondary degree programmes in all subjects. At the same time, strong foreign language skills are decisive for success on the global labour market of the future. At Aarhus University, we would also like to see more highly qualified applicants to our language degree programmes.

The proposed reform appears to promise better conditions for upper secondary students taking specialisations that include three or four foreign languages. This is good. But continuing too offer so many tracks means that choosing a ‘soft’ language profile will still be an easy option, both with regard to the level and number of foreign languages taken. For this reason, therefore, it is reasonable to question whether the proposal is sufficient to result in improved foreign language skills among Danish students.

So where do we stand? Without a doubt, it is positive that the government intends to reduce the number of specialised studies packages. But at the same time, it appears clear that the most challenging foreign language and science tracks will remain just one option among many. And so an important question remains. How will the reform ensure that more young people choose the most challenging courses?

As an institution with a major stake in the quality of post-secondary graduates, we will monitor the proposal closely. And we very much hope that competencies in core subjects, in-depth knowledge and a focus on academic readiness and all-round development will be high priorities as we enter the final round of negotiations about the reform.