Decision to cut international student numbers backfires

The political agreement between the government and the right-wing Danish People’s Party to cut the number of international students by 1,000 is forcing masters degree programmes taught in English to close, with severe consequences for Danish students on those courses.

The headlines in two articles in Danish newspaper Information on 17 November spelled out the impact of the cuts: "Danish for stupidity" and "Danish People’s Party wants fewer foreign students. So now universities are closing down popular courses."

These courses are in climate change, biotechnology, financing and innovation and IT – all of which are in great demand in the Danish workforce. In some other courses the language of instruction has been changed from English to Danish.

"Is it not much more costly [for Denmark] to reduce the number of both Danish and international candidates in fields for which there is a great demand in Denmark?" the newspaper asked.

Jesper Langergaard, director of Universities Denmark, the Danish rectors’ conference, commented to University World News: "This shows some very unfortunate consequences of the ministry’s actions. Instead of reducing the number of international students at Danish universities, our focus should be on how we can be better at retaining them in Denmark after graduation."

EU anti-discrimination rules

The reason why Danish students are affected is that under European Union anti-discrimination rules it is not possible for Denmark to prevent students from other EU countries being admitted to programmes. So locking them out also means that Danish students cannot join those courses.

Aalborg University is closing down seven courses and Aarhus University is closing two with 400 study places. The University of Copenhagen is accepting 120 fewer masters students in the natural sciences and Copenhagen Business School will cut 400 places in financing, innovation and leadership.

The Technical University of Denmark is not having to reduce any study places, but cannot open up new masters courses, even if there is great demand.

Minister of Higher Education and Science Tommy Ahlers said that the reduction has been made due to “the need for a healthy balance between the international students coming to Denmark and those who stay on, contributing to society after their graduation. And this is not the case now, when only one third of the international students from the English-taught degrees are staying on and working in Denmark”.

The Information articles triggered a large number of comments from readers, with the issue further polarising the Danish community. A large number of Danish People’s Party sympathisers defended the right of Denmark to protect its welfare benefits since there has been a significant increase in Danish student financing (SU) due to migrant workers having the right to Danish SU if they do not work more than 10 hours a week.

Alarm over populist influence

This ability of the Danish People’s Party, which is not in government, to influence migration issues so significantly is alarming political parties in other Nordic countries, not least in Sweden, where the ongoing wrangling to form a government has not succeeded in two months since the general election, mainly due to differences in opinion over how much influence the populist Sweden Democrats should have after receiving 18% of the vote.

The Danish People’s Party has worked systematically though the European Affairs Committee in the parliament, where it has seven out of 37 members, but also through interventions in parliament.

Its latest and most successful question was addressed to the minister of higher education and science on 7 November, reminding Ahlers of an agreement made between the political parties in 2013 after a ruling of the European Court of Justice that when a ceiling of DKK437 million (US$66 million) has been paid out to migrant workers from the EU, the agreement should be reworked.

Ahlers then said that the reduction of 1,700 students attending professional colleges would be followed by a reduction of 1,000 students at universities in 2019, which would bring the outstanding debt below the agreed ceiling in 2021.

Before this intervention, the European Affairs Committee addressed three questions to Ahlers in parliament in late September. One asked if it was possible that children of migrant workers who have never lived in Denmark could still be eligible for student funding from the Danish SU. Ahlers confirmed that this was possible, which hit the newspaper headlines.

After this the minister was asked to calculate if it was possible for migrant worker students from Eastern Europe to receive more money in payment of grants and loans from the Danish SU than they could expect as a minimum salary in their home country.

Benefit exportation claims

Minister Ahlers presented a well-documented calculation for the parliament, stating that this was the case in 21 out of the 27 other member countries of the European Union, adding more fuel to the fire stoked by "Danish welfare-benefit exportation" claims in the press.

Earlier this year, on 13 April, the so-called Unity List of 37 members of the Danish parliament signed a proposal to the parliament for a "temporary closing down of foreign student funding by SU”, stating that a precondition for a non-Danish citizen to receive Danish student funding should be that there is an agreement on a levy between Denmark and the countries of the SU recipients.

This proposal was not endorsed by a majority in parliament, but still kept the momentum going for the right-wing party’s attempts to discredit the SU loans given to international students.