Eskimology course faces big freeze

Image caption Eskimology faces an uncertain future in the only university teaching degrees in the subject

There are going to be no students starting an undergraduate degree in Eskimology this autumn, for the first time in almost a century.

What is believed to be the world's only degree in Eskimology and Arctic Studies, taught at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, has stopped admitting new students after cuts to higher education funding.

An official at the university said that this was a "freeze". It is unclear if he was making a pun.

The university intends to admit students again in 2017.

But with further cuts expected, and the government encouraging universities to prioritise courses with large numbers of students, Eskimology faces an uncertain future.

Image caption These Eskimology students are following a unique course

Yet Eskimologists are refusing to go down without a fight.

The subject might bring to mind igloos, ice fishing, the North Pole and Pingu.

But they say studying the Arctic has never been more relevant, because of the region's rapidly melting ice sheets and increasing interest by governments and extraction companies in mining its natural resources.

Image caption Eskimology students examine the changing culture and economy facing Greenlanders

The subject was introduced at the University of Copenhagen in 1920 to teach students about the language, history and culture of communities in the Arctic.

These communities are now called Inuit rather than Eskimo, but the academic discipline has remained as Eskimology.

Social and political issues affecting Greenland, such as mining and climate change, are a big part of Copenhagen's undergraduate and master's courses in the subject.

The focus is on Greenland because of Denmark's colonial history in the country. Students come not just from Denmark and Greenland, but the UK, France, Poland and north America.

Eskimology's student intake was suspended after the government's January budget asked the university to find savings of £52m.

Image caption Fish being dried in Ilimanaq, one of the oldest settlements in Greenland

This led to more than 500 job losses and a new focus on subjects that cater for a large number of students. A number of smaller subjects were frozen or abolished entirely.

Universities in Denmark are funded by the government and free to Danish students, but the cuts could force them to rethink their purpose.

Should they focus on teaching more vocational subjects that are in demand by employers, or should they continue to pursue knowledge for its own sake?

Yet an Eskimologist at Copenhagen says the subject has never been more relevant.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Understanding an ancient culture: An Inuit mother and daughter in Alaska in the 1950s

Greenland's melting sea ice sheets, calls for its independence from Denmark, and the international interest in its mineral, oil and gas resources have led to governments and extraction companies coming to Copenhagen's Eskimologists for briefings.

Frank Sejersen, one of three Eskimology professors at Copenhagen, is studying how Greenlanders should respond to the advances of large international mining firms wanting to extract its resources.

More stories from the BBC's Global education series looking at education from an international perspective and how to get in touch

Greenland achieved a degree of self-governance from Denmark in 2009, including extraction rights over its vast mineral and oil resources. Since then, Greenland has been besieged by offers from companies in Russia, Canada and Norway.

Image caption The small town of Maniitsoq could become the site of an aluminium smelting plant

Many Greenlanders want to accept these lucrative offers, but Prof Sejersen's research urges them to be cautious.

"Our research group has found that Greenland would need a huge number of mines to meet their expectations of more economic independence from Denmark, and even then the money raised should not be spent but invested for the long-term to avoid overheating the economy," he argues.

"We are also studying how to make sure unskilled Greenlanders also benefit from the growth of the mining industry, and what effect this industry might have on social equality in the country."

Image caption Greenland has become the focus of attention for mining companies

Eskimologists at Copenhagen have received more requests than ever from foreign embassies and companies interested in the Arctic.

"They want to understand the politics of the region, whether Greenland will become independent from Denmark and what effect this might have, and how climate change will affect the dynamics of the region," says Prof Sejersen.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption An Inuit carpenter photographed in Canada in 1910

"We give these briefings for free - it is part of our role as a government-funded university.

"The cuts we are facing in the coming years are extremely high and we don't know how they will hit or where or when."

But he insists that with "so many things happening in the Arctic", Eskimology can be "at the forefront of Arctic research".

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption There has been an Eskimology course at Copenhagen for almost a century

Tine Pars, the rector of Greenland's only university, says the existence of Eskimology at Copenhagen has improved relations between the two countries at a time when Greenland is considering becoming independent from Denmark.

"We have had a lot of collaboration with Eskimology and Arctic Studies at Copenhagen University over the years," she says. "These academic collaborations have been good for research and teaching, and good for both countries."

Image caption Eskimologist Frank Sejersen says the subject has great contemporary relevance

Copenhagen is the only university in the world where Greenlandic, the national language of Greenland, is taught as a foreign language.

This means Greenlanders who only speak Danish often come to Copenhagen's Eskimologists to learn the language of their country at university level.

When the government cuts were announced in January, media and politicians in Denmark and Greenland called for Eskimology to be saved.

Image caption The department says there is more work to do to keep the Greenland flag flying

Prof Sejersen says his department's study of the relationship between Denmark and Greenland may even benefit other countries with their own independence debates.

"Greenland's transition from colonial governance to self-determination has been made in a friendly and productive way, and foreign embassies have come to us for advice about how they can replicate this in their own country," he says.

The arrangement means that Denmark is a member of the EU but Greenland is not.

If another referendum on Scottish independence is called in the next few years, perhaps Theresa May will ask an Eskimologist for advice.