SESP Gains Danish Education Perspective from Nanna Friche

SESP Gains Danish Education Perspective from Nanna Friche

Nanna Friche

SESP is gaining new educational perspectives from Denmark this quarter from Nanna Friche, a postdoctoral researcher from Roskilde University. Since Friche is interested in the impact of institutions on students’ education, she came to Northwestern to work with professor Cynthia Coburn.

What kinds of goals do institutions have for students? How do students behave as a result of these institutional goals? These are some of the questions Friche asks as she looks at post-compulsory education in Denmark, which encompasses high school, community college and college schooling from ages 16 to 22.

For the past several years, her research has focused on vocational education in Denmark. The purpose of her current three-year study is to look at the impact of the Danish institutional framework on young males.

Friche is concerned about young males in Denmark, who are dropping out of school at increasing rates. “We’re losing boys, failing boys,” worries Friche, who says that girls in Denmark are higher achievers.

“I’m worried that the system pushes out young males that cannot find meaning and not able to complete education,” resulting in “inequality with a gender profile,” says Friche. “We get a group of young men without formal skills and resources, which makes them vulnerable in a competitive labor market, both in Denmark and globally.”

International differences in education
Like Friche, SESP professor James Rosenbaum also researches vocational education, and the two have been conferring about the differences between the U.S. and Danish systems. “That’s been really interesting, and I’ve learned a lot already,” says Friche.

In contrast with the U.S., Scandinavia has a dual training system for vocational education, where students shift back and forth between paid apprenticeships and school throughout four years. Rosenbaum is interested in considering whether the dual training system is better for students and businesses.

U.S. and Danish education systems differ in many ways. “Post-compulsory education here [in the U.S.] is much more complex and may be more confusing to navigate,” says Friche, noting that it’s difficult to see the consequences of choices. In Denmark, after age 15 young people choose either vocational or liberal arts. Their choice is largely determined by a test they take as they complete their compulsory schooling. “If they don’t pass, it may be difficult for them to enter academic programs,” Friche notes.

Promoting equality
“If you look into the choice from a social class perspective, upper- and middle-class students tend to choose the academic programs. The others are left with vocational schools,” she explains. “The status difference is a big challenge as I see it.”

“Vocational education has a lack of status and prestige, and that affects the labor market’s ability to keep up a skilled labor force because fewer and fewer students want to go to vocational schools,” Friche says. “Because of the financial crisis, the young male in Denmark doesn’t have that many choices,” due to a decrease in the number of unskilled jobs as alternatives to school.

In contrast with the U.S. where students pay for post-secondary education, Denmark has free elementary school and post-compulsory education but high taxes. However, policymakers are seeing that with free programs students “shop around” and often don’t complete programs. Friche says motivating students to complete programs by limiting the number they can start or charging fees may be more responsible.

In the U.S. college costs can affect access, but the Danish system too can create inequality, Friche says. “Even though the Danish system tries to give equal rights, it also creates inequality. Social class and gender also tend to structure education in Denmark.”

For example, in the vocational schools apprenticeships are lacking, which mainly affects males from lower-income homes. “From my perspective, a way to give back prestige and status for vocational education is to guarantee being able to complete a program with an apprenticeship,” says Friche. She contends that Denmark’s increasing dropout rate might be due to structural challenges.

Global perspective
“In international comparisons, you see trends and weaknesses of your own system,” Friche says. “It’s important for research and programs and the ways graduate students are trained to think about knowledge and societies.”

With her global perspective, Friche keeps an eye on how institutions are impacting individuals in education systems. She sees biological, cultural, institutional processes all working together and creating opportunities for different groups.

Friche will be at SESP through December, working on analysis for her research study. Most recently, on November 7 Friche’s colleagues from Denmark visited SESP for a seminar with Coburn. They discussed their research findings on education reforms in Denmark and the U.S.

After her postdoctoral fellowship ends, Friche will assume a position in January as a senior researcher at a national institution for research and analysis on municipalities and counties. She will implement and evaluate a major reform starting with vocational institutions. Her global perspective undoubtedly adds to her ability to take on the challenge.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 7/13/16