Minister under pressure to cut English-taught courses

Denmark’s Minister of Higher Education and Science Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen is coming under increasing pressure from opposition parties to reduce the number of European Union citizens being awarded student financing (SU).

One component of SU is a grant and the other a loan. EU citizens are entitled to both, provided they work 10-12 hours a week.

At issue is the amount of funding given to EU students who work part time (10-12 hours per week). In 2018, SU was awarded to 11,900 such students who work at a cost of DKK513 million rising to DKK520 million (US$82 million) in 2019.

The pressure has been building since the minister was challenged in parliament in August about what measures the government is going to take and it intensified this week as a number of party leaders called on the minority government to fulfil a promise to review the situation once a benchmark figure lower than the current amount had been reached.

“It is exactly further reductions of the English-taught courses that has to be the solution to reducing the increasing expenses to SU for international students,” Jens Henrik Thulesen Dahl, education spokesman for the Danish People’s Party, told Magisterbladet back in August.

“This is an acute problem that we have to attend to as soon as possible. Danish taxpayers’ money should be used to educate Danish youth and not youth from all over the EU. I will encourage the government to take this utterly seriously and to start to find a solution,” he said.

Then, on 29 September, Education Spokesperson for the Conservative Party Katarina Ammitzbøll told Berlingske Tidende: “Never have there been so many students from other EU-countries with SU in Denmark and never have they received so much funding. It has never been the intention that Denmark shall take over other countries’ higher education burden.”

A day earlier, the leader of the 2015 splinter party from the Conservative Party, Pernille Vermund of The New Right, said on Facebook: “Danish taxpayers’ money should not be used as pocket money for international students.

“Our welfare society is grounded on civil solidarity between Danish citizens. We will again pose a proposal in the parliament [as they did in 2019 without getting a majority] to stop payment of SU money to foreigners. We hope that the other opposition parties will join forces, otherwise their indignation is just a bluff.”

On 29 September, Thulesen Dahl added that he had proposed the introduction of a principle of accumulating welfare rights, “so that foreign citizens are not entitled to Danish SU provision immediately”.

In August, Halsboe-Jørgensen told MPs that the number of EU-European Economic Area (EEA) students working part time – known as ‘mobile workers’ – had increased from a mere 300 in 2010 to 5,100 in 2014 and 11,900 in 2019. According to EU law as decided by the European Court of Justice in 2013 they have the same rights to Danish SU as Danish citizens.

Political compromise

In a compromise between the parties in parliament, in 2013 an agreement was reached that the SU awarded to students working 10 to 12 hours a week from EU-EEA should be in function until the total cost per annum had reached DKK442 million and then it would be reviewed in parliament.

These working students receiving Danish SU accounts for approximately half of all EU-EEA citizens receiving Danish SU, the reason being that several other categories of students, such as children of immigrants, are entitled to Danish SU which was awarded to 22,200 EU-EEA citizens in 2019, a total cost of more than DKK900 million.

An added bone of contention is that 5,857 of EU-EEA citizens who had received Danish SU as of 2019 and graduated in Denmark had not started to repay their SU and 2,700 of them were no longer living in Denmark. The latter owe DKK332 million in un-repaid SU debt and Denmark has not found any workable way to make them pay back their loans.

Former Minister of Higher Education and Liberal party MP Venstre Ulla Tørnæs asked the minister how she will ensure that the SU expenses do not increase further. She told BT: “The government is sitting on their hands not doing anything. What will the minister do so that the agreement of a limit for the SU to working EU-EEA students is not further exceeded? She has not come forward with one single proposal.”

The row over the SU is linked to the cut in English-taught courses at professional university colleges and universities introduced in 2018 by the government, which was controversial because these measures hit both universities’ international work and their prioritised science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses.

The proportion of international students receiving SU for English-taught courses was 13% in 2013 when the European Court of Justice ruling was given, and increased to 37% of the students at English-taught courses in 2018. This was why English-taught courses became a target for a measure that could reduce EU-EEA students receiving SU.

Under pressure

Minister Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen is under strong pressure from the opposition in parliament where the liberals and conservative parties have joined forces with the right-wing populist parties that have always opposed EU citizens having a right to Danish SU, which they say is a ‘welfare export’.

As the basis for forming the present minority Social Democratic government, with only 48 representatives in parliament out of 172, a ‘statement of understanding’ was signed in June 2019 between the Social Democratic party and three other green-socialist parties which together have 91 seats in parliament. It includes a pledge to work to remove the limitations on establishing English-taught degrees at universities and university colleges.

How does Denmark benefit from EU students?

Jesper Langergaard, director of Universities Denmark, told University World News: “We cannot deny that these expenses have exceeded the cap that, unfortunately, was politically agreed by the parties in Folketinget [the Danish parliament]. It’s a lot of money we are investing in foreign students, so the political attention is not unexpected, either. However, all analysis of this issue shows that it is, in fact, an investment with a net positive return. The proportion of students that stay in Denmark pay the way for those who leave.”

He added that Denmark benefits from foreign students in the longer run. “That’s why we urge the politicians to think beyond the one fiscal year and think of the future. We need these talents in Denmark, we all benefit from having them here.”

Dorte Sindbjerg Martinsen, a professor of political science at Copenhagen University told University World News that she had investigated the claims of welfare tourism together with Gabriel Pons Rotger using a unique dataset.

“I don’t have figures specifically showing that Denmark is benefiting from receiving EU students even if they have Danish SU. But we have previously shown that the EU workforce in general are net contributors to the Danish welfare budget.”

Martinsen said the problem of ‘welfare tourism’ has been raised by several politicians across Europe, with some arguing that immigration from other EU countries can create a burden for welfare systems. But Martinsen and Rotger had shown in a recent study of the impact EU immigration has had on welfare spending in Denmark that, between 2002 and 2013, EU immigrants made a ‘significant positive net contribution to the country’s public finances’.

The Finance Ministry has since confirmed that, in the last published analysis, of 2016, the total net contribution of immigrants from EU-EEA is calculated to be approximately DKK5.6 billion or DKK26,000 per person. For people in the age group 25-64 the average contribution is DKK75,000.