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Education Voices | Improving terms and conditions in higher education through collective bargaining in Denmark

by Tunae

Tommy Dalegaard Madsen is the Chairman of DM’s Sectoral Board for Vocational Colleges, Vocational Academies and Maritime Education. DM represents 75,000 academic professionals in Denmark, and it is the most representative trade union in further and higher education. In this interview for Worlds of Education, he shares his perspectives on social dialogue and collective bargaining in Denmark, reflecting on the outcomes of the most recent negotiation in the sector.

Can you briefly explain what is the Danish model of employment relations and the role that unions play in negotiations for the further and higher education and research sector?

When you are engaged in teaching and research in Denmark, you are predominantly a public employee. There are, of course, a much smaller number of privately employed teachers and researchers, but not to a great extent, as there are no private educational institutions in Denmark.

As a result, collective bargaining plays an enormous role in ensuring good employment and salary conditions for publicly employed teachers and researchers. Trade unions negotiate with the employer on behalf of the members. In DM, we have a very participatory process with our members and trade union representatives in the workplaces. Together we identify the challenges the collective agreement must help to answer and we do this in due time, well before the negotiations start.

Recently, a new public sector agreement was signed with the government. Was this round of negotiations any different from the past?

All rounds of negotiations have their own narrative. For example, the previous round of negotiations took place during the Covid-19 pandemic. We met for negotiations online and in an atmosphere of great uncertainty about what the future would bring in terms of challenges for the economy, working environment and conditions for education in general.

On the employee side, during the negotiation in 2021, we showed a strong sense of shared responsibility for the uncertainties we faced, and we also reached an agreement with an economic framework that did not match the salary development that came on the private labor market. In addition, there was an energy crisis because of Russia’s war against Ukraine, which caused inflation to explode. Therefore, our members had a very high expectation that these collective bargaining negotiations would ensure a real improvement in terms of salaries. In the area of teaching and research, salaries were clearly members’ priority, which, unlike large parts of the rest of the public sector, we do not always see. Good working conditions are traditionally very important to our teachers and researchers, and improvements to them are usually a high priority.

To explain why this agreement only runs for two years, it must be seen in light of the fact that the inflation crisis is not fully under control. That is why one does not dare to count on long-term economic forecasts.

What were the key union demands this time and how satisfied are you with the outcome of the negotiation?

As I said, our highest priority was salaries, and therefore we are satisfied that the agreement has ensured a wage growth of 8.8% in total. Already this year, on 1 April 2024, our members received a salary increase of 5.9%. On 1 April 2025, they will receive an additional 1.7% increase, and we agreed to have a special extra negotiation in 2025 concerning salaries, in parallel with negotiations being held in the private sector.

Having such a large part of the increase implemented early in the period was important to us because of inflation. We worked to ensure that members quickly get more money in their pockets.

We have also agreed on an improvement in the regulation scheme, which ensures that negotiations on wages in the public sector follow developments in the private sector. It has been crucial for us to make sure that when salaries in the private sector rise, salaries in the public sector follow suit. This is the only way to attract competent workers to the public sector.

Were there specific advances benefitting women in the sector?

Part of the agreement relates to parental leave. It has been agreed to increase the right to pay for the partner (father and co-mothers) by 3 weeks during the period of absence after the 10th week after the birth. This means that the partner now has the option of taking an additional 3 weeks of parental leave during this period. Correspondingly, the number of weeks for adopters is increased by 3 weeks in total.

It is a positive improvement that provides more flexibility and support for parents in the early phase immediately after birth.

The agreement also includes an increased right to pay for parents where the child has only one parent at the time of birth (single parent) with 10 weeks in addition to the weeks they are entitled to today. The same applies to adopters when the child has only one parent at the time of reception.

It is very positive that we have now secured several weeks of paid parental leave for partners (fathers and co-mothers). We know that salary plays a big role in whether both parents – and, in particular, fathers and co-mothers – also take parental leave, and we expect that even more people will use the entire earmarked parental period when full salary rights are increased in the state sector.

To what extent does the agreement also cover workers facing the most challenging conditions in the sector?

In Denmark, the higher education system is highly internationalized. In this negotiation, we have ensured that researchers and teachers with foreign education, who have a PhD degree and who are employed in positions requiring a PhD level at universities, higher education institutions and research institutions, will in the future be placed in the same salary course as their colleagues with a Danish master’s degree (5 years degree) and a PhD degree. After this, placement in the salary process takes place in the same way as for holders of a Danish master’s degree, even if you only have a 4-year master’s degree prior to your PhD degree.

We are also working to improve conditions for PhD students. We have ensured that it will be possible to have their employment period extended on account of extraordinary circumstances which could not have been foreseen and cannot be the responsibility of the student in question. This is a need that we know exists and finding a solution can be decisive in terms of the student finishing the course or not. This is why it was important to have this new option for extension.

And finally, the collective agreement now covers part-time teachers and external lecturers at vocational colleges, business academies, and maritime education. Previously, the terms were set unilaterally by the Danish Employment and Skills Agency. The agreement means a number of concrete improvements to their terms, for example in connection with pay during sickness, maternity, and children’s first and second sick day.

Finally, the agreement contains an improved wage rate for teachers paid per teaching hour at business academies who teach on selected courses.

Looking at the future, are there new areas or pending issues that you hope to cover in the next round of negotiations?

Digitalisation in higher education is an area that requires attention. In this negotiation, we have agreed that the central agreements (e.g. the Cooperation Agreement) must be reviewed so that they better support local discussions on the implementation of artificial intelligence. This must be done to ensure that workers are well informed about both opportunities and risks.

And in connection with this, I think it will be a crucial requirement in future negotiations that teachers and researchers must be able to influence how AI is designed, developed and implemented in the education sector.

In addition, I would expect that our members will, to a much greater extent, demand greater flexibility in organizing their own work. This could imply expectations of more flexibility as to place of work – on-site or remotely for some types of tasks. Likewise, elements that can improve work-life balance will certainly also be expectations for the next round of collective bargaining

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