Tax agreement could deter academics from going abroad

The Danish government and the Danish People’s Party struck a tax agreement in February that will introduce a residence requirement for the right to receive unemployment benefits. But the proposal has sparked outrage among academics, who say it will deter Danish researchers from gaining international experience and will damage Danish science.

When the agreement has been fully phased in, it states regarding residence requirements that members of the unemployment insurance fund – which guarantees regular income if a person becomes jobless – will need to have been resident in the Kingdom* or another European Union or European Economic Area country for seven of the last eight years to receive unemployment benefits.

The tax proposal has been strongly opposed by higher education experts, academics and students, who have presented wide-ranging reasons for their dissent.

Experts speak out

Professors Anders Bjarklev and Per Michael Johansen, chair and vice-chair respectively of the Danish Rectors’ Conference, wrote in the parliamentary newsletter Altinget that the ability of Danish research and universities to teach students at the highest level depended on the option to leave Denmark, attain new knowledge elsewhere, and return home.

If Danish researchers stayed home, Denmark would lose out on knowledge attainment. “That we cannot afford. Work through these regulations and make them so that it is still attractive for researchers to go out and obtain knowledge.

“Anything else will be an own goal for Denmark,” argued Bjarklev and Johansen.

Jeppe Wohlert, an international expert at the DEA, a Danish think-thank monitoring international research cooperation, told University World News that the new tax agreement would have a “substantial negative impact on Danish research environments”.

“Attracting international talent – whether from Denmark or abroad – is crucial for a small country like Denmark, where more than one-third of all newly appointed researchers at universities are foreign nationals,” Wohlert pointed out.

“At the same time, the academic job market for junior researchers at Danish universities is characterised by unclear career prospects, a wide use of temporary positions, and a need for more transparency in recruitment procedures.”

Fierce competition and uncertainties in this job market did not favour foreign researchers who, compared to Danish citizens, had limited networks and chances of finding work outside Danish universities, Wohlert said.

“If you add the uncertainty of not being able to pursue international research stays outside Denmark – which is an almost necessary component of a successful academic career – Danish scholars and in particular foreign nationals are left with even worse academic prospects in Denmark.

“And let us not forget that many university researchers, especially within the hard sciences, end up in private research-intensive firms. So the negative impact on academic recruitment obviously also affects the private sector.”

Large-scale academic opposition

Magistrenes A-kasse or MA, which organises 70,000 academics in the humanities and natural sciences, and several other organisations have contested the agreement and have asked politicians to review the text before parliament endorses it into legislation.

“This is not only a restriction for each individual but a great loss for Denmark,” said MA Chair Per Clausen in a press release. “This does not harmonise with the vision that Denmark [should be a country] that is thinking and acting globally: who would go to Australia or China to work if they end up being economically punished for doing so?” Clausen asked.

In an MA survey of 10,000 members, 70% of those responding said that – to either some or a high degree – they would not travel outside the European Economic Area if the new residence requirement became law. Among PhD candidates, 81% said they would stay home.

In terms of international consequences it was clear, the MA investigation concluded, that the new regulations would become a problem for MA members targeting a research career or who were married to a researcher.

One MA member wrote: “This will be a disaster for young researchers. We cannot have funding for a post-doc position unless we are planning a longer stay abroad, typically for two to three years. But now we will not have job security in a [profession] where there is strong competition for positions and a majority of non-permanent positions.”

Catch 22

Aarhus University PhD students Anette Larner and Rosanna Farbøl wrote in Altinget, parliament’s newsletter: “With the new tax regulations, young researchers are not only worse off; we are caught in a Catch 22 situation.

“To make a career and in the longer term contribute to the further development of Danish research, we should, after having completed a PhD, have a research stay of long duration abroad. But if we spend time outside the EU, in a period of a mere 13 months we are giving up the right to unemployment benefits upon returning home.”

And this, Larner and Farbøl wrote, would be the case even if a researcher had for several years paid union welfare provision fees. “In an extreme position, we in practice will be punished for having taken up a post-doc position at Princeton instead of at the University of Southern Denmark.”

Sana Mahin Doost, chair of the National Union of Students in Denmark, described as “deeply problematic” the barriers the tax agreement will kick up for efforts by universities to develop through international research, “which will consequently negatively affect the quality of our education”.

“Furthermore, this agreement will affect international students' possibilities of finding a job in Denmark after graduation,” Doost told University World News. Opportunities to remain in the country would be jeopardised, representing a waste of resources since international graduates would be forced to “use their newly-achieved skills in other countries instead”.

Exemption for scientists?

Professor Jens Oddershede, former rector of the University of Southern Denmark and chair of the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy, told University World News: “If this legislation goes through parliament the way it is formulated right now, it will present a serious problem for both incoming and outgoing researchers and it will seriously hurt Danish science.

“However, it is my impression from talking to centrally placed politicians in and around the government that they are fully aware of the problem at hand and that an exemption from this general rule will be made for scientists. I sincerely hope this will be the case.”

He would seem to be right, since on 16 March, in answer to a question in parliament, Minister for Employment Troels Lund Poulsen said it was important that the resident requirement did not undermine Danish interests or reduce international mobility.

“It is hence expected that when the detailed regulations for the residence requirements are worked out, exemptions will be given for research participation in international research projects, out-stationing of Danish citizens for the military, or Danes working in Danish enterprises that are contributing to growth and welfare in Denmark.”

* The Kingdom is Denmark, Greenland and The Faroe Islands.