Concern over ruling on EU student’s right to finance

The chair of the Danish Rectors' Conference has described a recent European Court of Justice ruling on an international student’s right to financial support as representing a threat to Denmark’s student financial aid system in its current form.

The European court ruled on 21 February on the principle of equal treatment as it pertains to eligibility for student grants or loans in Denmark of citizens of other member states who have gainfully obtained employment before initiating studies.

The student had entered Denmark as a worker, but soon thereafter became a student and applied for financial support from the Danish Students' Grant and Loan Scheme, or SU.

Danish newspapers and politicians have questioned the decision, arguing that it might have severe consequences for Denmark and beyond.

Professor Jens Oddershede, chair of the Danish Rectors' Conference, told University World News that the judgment had come as a surprise:

"I find it hard to see that the Danish SU system can survive in its present form, if all European Union citizens are entitled to SU if they have worked for a limited time in Denmark,” he said.

The case

The ruling of the court is in accordance with union citizenship as defined by the European Union (EU) treaty, “on the grounds of nationality that imply that union citizens and their family members residing in a member state shall be treated in the same way as nationals are treated”.

The case involved in the ruling is that of an undisclosed citizen of an EU member state, whose nationality and sex were not given and who in the court proceedings was referred to as ‘LN’.

‘LN’ entered Denmark on 6 June 2009, having been offered full-time work at an international wholesale firm.

Before entering Denmark, LN applied to study at the Copenhagen Business School. S/he started studies there in September 2009, resigning the full-time position at the wholesale company, but has since been engaged in part-time work.

On 27 October the Danish Students' Grants and Loans Scheme rejected LN's application for financial support, on the basis that s/he had entered Denmark with the status of ‘worker’, not student.

‘LN’ objected to the decision through the appeals board of the SU, which forwarded the appeal to the state administration for examination of whether ‘LN’ met the requirements to be regarded as a ‘worker’ under Danish law.

The state administration, in a letter dated 11 December 2009, decided that ‘LN’ should be regarded as a ‘worker’ from June to September 2009, after which the status should be amended from ‘worker’ to student since ‘LN’ had entered Denmark with the primary aim of studying there.

On this basis, the SU appeals board forwarded the case to the European Court of Justice.

The court examined the law regarding study financing in Denmark and Norway, which have similar regulations for students from other countries, and the legal definitions of ‘students’ and ‘workers’ in the EU Treaty and court judgments in similar cases.

In its 13-page verdict, the court decided that ‘LN’ did qualify for financial support from the Danish Students' Grants and Loans Scheme.

Negative responses

Danish Minister of Education Morten Østergaard, who is currently travelling around Denmark and arguing student finance reform issues with students, would not comment on the ruling before it had been analysed by his ministry.

But Morten Messerschmidt, a member of the Danish and European parliaments from the Danish People’s Party, in the Danish newspaper Politiken characterised the verdict as “deeply problematic”.

“With a European Union where we have Romania and Bulgaria and a number of other Eastern European countries as members, these countries do not have the same public goods as in Denmark. The risk is that Denmark turns into a wonderland,” he said.

“Denmark could become a magnet for people speculating in receiving public support. With a summer job at the Tivoli [Copenhagen’s main tourist attraction] or as a paperboy, they can get access to Danish taxpayers' money and a first-class education, even if they are not Danish citizens,” Messerschmidt said.

Stina Vrang Elias, CEO of the think-thank the Danish Business Research Academy, told University World News: “Free education and generous public subsidies for students is far from the norm in European education policy.

“That is one of the reasons the Danish education system appeals to many students beyond our borders, and thankfully so. It is a good thing that we are able to attract talent and motivated people to live, learn and work in Denmark.

“But the recent verdict could potentially escalate the influx of foreign students, who are merely looking for someone to pick up their educational cheque,” Vrang Elias argued.

“As the coming reform of the Danish Students' Grants and Loans Scheme clearly demonstrates – we simply do not have the resources to absorb these kinds of expenses without further and perhaps more aggressive reforms”.