Studying in Denmark

Michael Varley reflects on his different educational experiences in Dublin and Denmark

Before coming here, I had heard that Denmark was quite a relaxed place to be. I had heard that Danes placed an emphasis on relaxation and cosiness, and warmth and light in the long winter. Something similar could be said about the education system.  It’s somewhat relaxed. 

I was surprised by the apparently light workload last semester. In Trinity, I was used to writing numerous essays throughout the term, followed by two days of written, timed examinations in the RDS. I had six courses per semester in Dublin. I have three per semester here. Here, for two of my classes, I was asked to write a portfolio of nine to eleven pages, of 2400 characters each. It took me longer than it should have to work out that this adds up to a single 4000 word essay on a topic of my choosing. At home I was at most required to write 2000 to 2500 word essays. 

The workload was technically lighter, but demanded a lot of independent effort. The essay topic and title are chosen by the student. For the third course I undertook, I simply had to submit a portfolio containing three works I had completed previously in the semester, with an academic reflection on those exercises. This was a Creative Writing course. It was a change from the usual English Studies modules I was used to, both in Trinity and Aarhus. It was, however, highly enjoyable, and a true learning experience. It occurred to me while undertaking the course that this was what university should be: mind-expanding, soul-baring, and explorative. We were encouraged to write about ourselves and our experiences. It was a welcome relief from the distanced, objective, icy stance a student of Literature is usually forced to adopt. For once I was handed the opportunity to be a Will Ladislaw. More often than not I am expected to emulate Mr. Casaubon, at home and abroad. 

“The workload was technically lighter, but demanded a lot of independent effort.”

The classes at university in Denmark are three or four hours long, once a week for each course, and are interspersed with breaks. This is in contrast to fifty minute long lectures and tutorials in my first two years at Trinity. They are akin to combinations of lectures and tutorials. The professor speaks, and encourages the students to participate, and then exercises are set for groups in the class. An emphasis is placed on group work; each class is split into small groups to discuss topics assigned by the teachers. Even if the conversation sometimes strays from the text, group work provides the student with the opportunity to get to know their neighbours, something which I suspect is not unintentional on the part of the education system administrators.

 I find some aspects of the Danish educational experience to be quite informal. For example, the professors are supposed to be addressed by their first names. I prefer to stick with the ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’ drilled into me in secondary school, partly because most of the teachers have Danish names, and any Danish word is nearly impossible to pronounce. Thankfully, all of my classes are conducted in English.

I have been studying at Aarhus University. Aarhus is Denmark’s second largest city, and is one of Europe’s hidden gems. It is a Viking age port city, with a stunning red brick, copper-roofed cathedral, several acclaimed museums and galleries, and a beautiful port area, where the city meets the North Sea. One of the most pleasant aspects of living here is the fact that it is full of students, many of whom live in dorms with shared kitchens. To share a kitchen is to see people day in, day out, on good days and on bad days. It is there most of all that I have experienced Danish culture, or a central part thereof: the simple act of sitting at the table and talking.

“It is not uncommon for a student to take two or three years out after finishing their equivalent of secondary school, and entering third level education in their mid or late twenties.”

Sometimes it seems as if the Danes aspire to comfort and cosiness above all else. This feeling of togetherness is encouraged by music and candles casually placed about when hanging out in the kitchen. Eating and drinking with one another is important in their culture. I have found Danish people are often up for a thorough discussion, that they don’t shy away from debate at the table. This might be down to the age of the students. It is not uncommon for a student to take two or three years out after finishing their equivalent of secondary school, and entering third level education in their mid or late twenties. Irish students tend to head straight into college after the Leaving Cert. One could say it is a ‘get the degree and get out’ kind of approach, and not a higher education in any sense of the term. 

By the time Danish students enter the university, they might have travelled and worked for some years, and, as a consequence, gained a little worldly experience, and a better idea of what they want to do in life. This is partly because the state is very supportive of students, and everyone enrolled in a university course is entitled to the ‘SU’ grant, which works out at around seven hundred euro per month. Thus, rent and accommodation are not the worries here that they are for students living in Dublin. This grant is, as it happens, not available to exchange students.

I should note that there is a tangible ‘Scandinavia does it best’ bias, both here in Denmark and among people I speak to about my exchange here in Ireland, possibly even here in this article. I must say that I am fond of the Danish system, but on the whole, the experience of studying here, of living here, is not that different from home.  Aarhus is famous for being innovative and experimental, Trinity is known world-wide as a centre of history and learning. I am fortunate enough to have experienced both.