In Denmark, rare disciplines are more widely known as ‘small studies’ since they are most often discussed with regards to the full BA and MA study programmes that are offered within the discipline, more so than the research staff associated with the programmes. This is primarily because small studies in Denmark are defined by the number of students enrolled in the study programme. In 2018, the Ministry of Education and Research established a ‘Small Studies Council’ with the aim to support consolidation of the small studies in terms of education offered within the rare discipline.
The council has identified several criteria that academic disciplines must meet to be considered a small study. Based on these criteria (the full list of criteria is discussed below), and on applications from the individual universities, the Small Studies Council may grant triennial financial support to the selected small studies from a designated budget, determined in the governmental fiscal act. Which disciplines receive the financial support is determined at three-year intervals. In the current period, from 2022-2024, 10 small studies from four Danish universities are identified in the fiscal act as eligible for this ‘small study subsidy’, sharing the 17,4 million DKK – around 2,3 million euros – annually. This means that the ten disciplines are each supported by 230.000 euros annually, which subsides 1-2 associate professors and/or teaching associate professors per year. But because the grant is renegotiated every three years and because the small study grant is part of the fiscal act negotiations, it is not a grant that universities can use for long-term planning - for example, regarding tenured positions.
As there are plenty more small study programmes in Denmark, most of the small disciplines do not receive this specific state support but are funded through state subsidies on the same terms as 90% of higher education study programmes in Denmark, including those identified on the fiscal act. The funding of university education in Denmark is based on a ‘taximeter-system’, where universities are allocated funds from the state based on the number of students they provide with an education. The ‘taximeter-funds’ are paid out on the basis of the number of passed exams per ‘student full-time equivalent’, which is equivalent to 60 ECTS credits in an annual cycle. This state subsidy accounts for approximately 80 % of the revenue of educational institutions in Denmark.
Presently, we are witnessing a general decrease in the number of students enrolled in the Humanities, partly due to recent governmental reforms, which cut back the student intake at humanistic study programmes, partly due to demographic factors, with smaller youth cohorts. As a result of declining student numbers, we are anticipating a future with an increasing number of study programmes with a dwindling intake of students in the Danish university sector, and one consequence of this is – due to the ‘taximeter-system’ described above – decreased state subsidies. Even though small studies in Denmark currently both increase (e.g. Korean Studies) and decrease (e.g. China Studies) a decreasing intake will affect the small studies more than larger programs, disregarding the relative annual changes in their student intake. Therefore, small studies have recently gained more attention both politically and at local universities.
As a response, the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Copenhagen has initiated a project in the spring of 2023 to meet the current challenges of rare discipline study programmes, as well as to ensure their sustainability in the future. Since the majority of the rare disciplines in Denmark are located at the University of Copenhagen, and the number currently is growing, it has been identified as an important intervention area as part of the faculty’s project of developing the educational landscape in general. The multiple reasons for this will be discussed more thoroughly in a later paragraph.
The aim of the project has been to help alleviate some of the financial and didactic challenges especially faced by the rare disciplines. Since all education institutions in Denmark are public and henceforth governed by a ministry, there are certain statutory requirements for the number of teaching hours that must be offered within a study programme. This provides a challenge for the rare disciplines, which have a very limited number of academic staff (often 2-3 tenured staff) connected to the specific programme. Since study programmes at Danish Universities are subsided per number of students, it is economically burdensome to offer the same hours at small studies, compared to study programmes that have a high intake of students. Thus, the goal of the current initiative at faculty level is to make small study programmes more sustainable financially. At the same time, new teaching formats should serve to develop and improve the didactic approach at rare discipline study programmes.
As part of the solution, one area of focus has been to research the possibilities of educational collaborations across Europe as a part of multiple new formats which will be developed to help assist the academic staff. One solution would be to cooperate with academic staff from other universities across Europe, in this case to run partly shared hybrid teaching courses, which would help to support staff at rare disciplines at the University of Copenhagen.
Therefore, through desk research, a mapping of related small study programmes at other universities in Scandinavia and Europe was undertaken in 2023 with the aim of establishing and strengthening networks between the rare disciplines represented at University of Copenhagen, their academic staff, and the institutions themselves. This aims not only to support the concrete task of teaching students at the respective universities, but also to more generally enable the rare disciplines to support each other in the realm of research, and with regards to communication and funding, thus aiming to ensure the sustainability of rare disciplines more broadly in a wide European context. Admittedly, these more strategic visions are still being developed, as they require a coordinated determined effort between universities, interest organizations, and potentially the Ministry of Education and Research, while the more concrete task of establishing hybrid teaching cooperation across universities is implementable in a myriad of ways at the local level of the study programmes.
More broadly, there has recently been directed political attention toward rare disciplines, including considerations regarding potential changes to the definitory criteria proposed by the Small Studies Council (listed below). This increased political attention to the matter is to be regarded as a success for the rare disciplines in Denmark, as this could potentially allow for positive changes to be made in terms of awareness and support. Furthermore, in 2023 a task force set up under the interest organisation Danish Universities, focusing on the current state of the Humanities and with participation of the deans from all the Humanities of Danish universities, recommended that changes should be made regarding the situation of rare disciplines. At the time of writing (January 2024), the task force's recommendations are still being finalised.
There are multiple reasons for why a mapping of rare disciplines in Denmark (with an outreach to Scandinavia, and Europe) has been initiated at the University of Copenhagen. The mapping project strives towards directing positive attention to rare disciplines, as well as to further connect the academic staff of the respective rare disciplines to colleagues and peers around the continent. This is done to create a more stable foundation around the otherwise fragile constellations of the rare disciplines and their associated study programmes.
As pointed out, Danish universities have in recent years experienced a declining number of students enrolled in the Humanities. Since having fewer students complete their education leads to less resources granted in terms of public funding, as described above, the declining intake of students affect the number of tenured staff at the rare disciplines which can prove a significant challenge to sustaining the existence of the study programme, and in the worst consequence the national presence of the discipline.
Partly to meet the resource-based challenges – beside the wish to further enhance the academic excellence of the rare disciplines – there is now an increasing interest in expanding cross-country education collaboration, which serves as another main impetus for the mapping project. Many of the rare disciplines in Denmark already have strong international research networks, and there is a general curiosity in expanding the cooperation into the educational realm as well, for students to be introduced to an international research environment and gain a deeper and broader insight into their discipline.
Beyond potential benefits to research and education for the rare disciplines, the wish to retain the highly unique knowledge that the academic staff possess is another main reason for the recent attention given to them. Deep, research-based understandings of languages, cultures, and historical and societal contexts across the world are concentrated in these rare disciplines, and could be lost on a national level, should the study programmes connected to them disappear.
A final reason worth mentioning here is the value of having a wide spectrum of disciplines represented at the university to embrace and offer a diverse range of knowledge of the world. More broadly, there is great public value in sustaining and promoting the rare disciplines, since much of the research and education being offered within these disciplines is of high importance in understanding our increasingly interconnected and globalised world, as well as in relating the knowledge of specific regional and cultural contexts to global challenges such as the green transition, the ethics and utilisation of artificial intelligence, and a shifting geopolitical landscape.
For scientific fields – and specifically study programmes within rare disciplines – to be recognized as small studies, and in this case to receive the small studies subsidy through successful application, they must meet the following criteria, which have been identified by the Small Studies Council within the Ministry of Education and Research. The full list of criteria from the commission of the Small Studies Council indicate:
Many of the German Kleine Fächer are also rare disciplines in Denmark, however there are, due to the size of the country, far fewer disciplines in Denmark. Also, in contrast to Germany, rare disciplines and the associated small study programmes in Denmark are to be found only within the Humanities. As mentioned above, 10 study programmes receive the governmentally funded small studies subsidy, but the small studies are not limited to these. At the same time, the criteria of a maximum of 20 students enrolled at BA-level and 10 students at MA-level necessarily means that there is a dynamic aspect to the amount of study programmes that would qualify as rare disciplines on a yearly basis. However, at the change of the year 2023-2024, the small study programmes in Denmark are as follows*:
Apart from the local and national reasons explained above, as well as the outlined potential benefits from cross-national educational collaborations between rare disciplines, there are other clear potential gains from developing and expanding networks between rare disciplines in Europe.
One clear advantage from increased collaboration would be the increased visibility of rare disciplines in an effort to promote and preserve them via European networks. Coordination of research and education partnerships would be enabled, and a concerted effort to spread awareness on the issue of the rare disciplines would be advantageous in enabling them to meet the various challenges they are facing in the different countries. Creating a European narrative around the rare disciplines as unique and highly competitive from an academic perspective could serve to potentially gain funding, or through other means find paths towards a more sustainable reality for rare disciplines in the future. The ongoing project shows a willingness at faculty level to enhance their visibility, and to create a positive narrative that could eventually attract more students or support from a higher level, either politically or cross-nationally.
It must be emphasised, however, that cross-national collaboration even with its potential benefits, some of them described here, also comes with significant challenges, whether related to cooperation concerning research, education, communication or in other areas. Coordination across countries can prove challenging, as different educational and political systems in the involved countries could be a barrier which would have to be overcome. Structural differences in the study programmes – in terms of hybrid teaching courses – would need to be handled to enable these types of didactic approaches and adhere to different types of European educational systems and traditions. Temporal divides in terms of study progression and annual education planning are other identifiable challenges for rare disciplines in certain types of collaboration. Having said that, there are such clear potential gains for rare disciplines to increasingly look towards Europe in terms of initiating and embarking on different projects to promote collaboration. One could imagine the European Universities Alliance as a possible framework for embarking on such collaborative ventures. A united European endeavour could provide benefits to both education and research, as well as more broadly to the financing of rare disciplines, and communicatively to the visibility of and awareness around rare disciplines on a European level. Achieving these potential gains would assist in sustaining the rare disciplines, and thus in securing and promoting high quality research and education that is valuable in understanding ourselves, each other, and the ever-changing globalised world we live in.
Magnus B. Dam Olesen holds a Bachelor’s degree in European Ethnology and a Master’s degree in Cross-Cultural Studies from the University of Copenhagen. He currently works as Project Coordinator for the development of small disciplines at the Faculty of Humanities, and for the development of practice integration in education at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen. As part of the project to develop small disciplines, Magnus has mapped disciplines and study programmes at universities across Europe related to the small disciplines at the University of Copenhagen. This mapping aims to aid in the process of establishing educational partnerships between small disciplines at the University of Copenhagen and other European universities.