Government is discussing reducing English-taught courses

Danish Higher Education and Science Minister Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen has delayed taking any action to reduce English-taught degrees for months, but a letter sent to the parliamentary education committee complaining about some Spanish students recruited by agents being substandard is putting pressure on her to act.

In response, Halsboe-Jørgensen said the government is discussing the possibility of cutting the number of English-taught courses significantly, and introducing a combined Danish-English degree.

The issue is politically sensitive because there is long-running political opposition to Danish financial support (SU) being used to fund European Union students in Denmark.

The letter was sent on 6 January by Tine Mathiassen, who was an invigilator last term at the professional bachelor degree first year examination in international sales and marketing at the UCL University College in the region of Southern Denmark (UCL Odense).

It was also published in Akademikerbladet and stirred interest among members of the Danish parliament, which now threatens to disrupt the balance of support between political parties for the 2013 agreement on SU for EU students.

As a result, Danish universities may once again be forced to cut back on courses taught in English, as happened in 2018, when 1,000 study places were cut in order to reduce the number of EU students eligible for Danish SU.

The letter has also raised the question of whether recruitment of international students by agents in other countries should be reduced or even prohibited, due to the lack of suitability of some of the applicants recruited.

In her letter, Mathiassen said that while preparing to invigilate the exam at UCL Odense she was called by the teacher of the group of students who told her that 17 out of 27 of them came from Valencia in Spain, and that many of them did not have a good command of English language.

Mathiassen does speak Spanish and was ready to help them through the exam, which was a first-year term project taught in English.

“The exam started next morning at 8 am,” she wrote. “The first Spanish student obviously had not read the literature and he simply did not know anything. He excused himself for the bad English. But even if the exam had been in Spanish, the results would not have been better. When the next Spanish student came in, the same happened. Many of the students had not even bought the books.

“After the exam I sat down thinking that it is a waste of Danish taxpayers’ money for us to teach a group of international students that are not interested in the subject matter. They have come all the way to Denmark getting a free education and they get the SU from the Danish government. Who is winning here?

“The students of course have the experience ‘of having been in Denmark’. That is a win for the students and a win for the professional university college. But a loss for the Danish state,” she said.

Mathiassen, who is a real estate developer in Barcelona, told University World News that she had no political motive for raising the issue.

“I am not a politician, just a former teacher and now an invigilator,” she said. “I just felt it was a waste of time for a teacher and a censor to spend a whole day on an examination, when many people did not know the subject and-or did not speak any Danish or English.”

‘Waste of money’

She said she knows a lot of employees at other Erhvervsakademier (business colleges) who share this problem. “It is a waste of money, as many of the foreign students don’t integrate with the Danish students and they don’t stay in Denmark when they are done studying.”

She claimed that many teachers are too afraid to speak up about the issue but are frustrated that many foreign students “don’t have the books and also maybe don’t understand enough English to participate”.

She questions the point of paying agents to recruit students who aren’t interested. “What value does it give Denmark? It is better to have students who really would like to be here. I just wanted to have this discussion.”

In a letter, UCL Odense told the education committee that Spanish students were composed of different groups: some recruited by agents, some ERASMUS students and some free movers. The letter also provided evidence that the students had passed recognised English language tests and also had the other qualifications needed for admission.

“There has been an unexpectedly strong increase in applications from Spanish full-time students since Brexit, which has made the Spanish students apply for studies in other European countries,” the note said.

UCL Rector Jens Mejer Pedersen explained that the UCL business academy and professional university college collaborate with agencies in 14 countries and they sign new agreements with them every year that specify what the agency must deliver and what UCL will pay.

“The Spanish full-time students are admitted via an agent in Valencia who is handling the contact with us all over Spain”, stated the letter to the parliamentary committee. He later confirmed to Akademikerbladet that 40% of the Spanish students had flunked the exam.

Hot political issue

Since 2013 and the ruling of the European Court of Justice, Denmark has had to accept awarding SU to European Union students working 10 to 12 hours a week. They will receive the same as Danes, up to DKK6,243 (US$1,020) a month. This led to an upsurge of EU students, from 300 in 2010 to 11,900 in 2019.

Now it seems the cost of studying in the UK post-Brexit may encourage even more students to apply to study in Denmark.

Parliament agreed upon a limit of DKK441 million (US$72 million) to be awarded in SU to this group in 2013. This was exceeded in 2018, and is now projected to reach a DKK201 million (US32.8 million) deficit in 2023 unless the government intervenes.

In a press release on 30 November last year, Universities Denmark demanded that the government change EU students’ eligibility to Danish SU.

Chair and Vice Chair of Universities Denmark, Professors Anders Bjarklev and Per Michael Johansen, said: “The solution of increasing SU-funding to EU students in Denmark is not to force the universities to teach in Danish so that EU students cannot apply, because Denmark and the universities need international students. The solution must be to make the EU understand that Danish SU is not a right that EU students can demand.”

Political crossfire

The overdraft has led to repeated questioning in the parliament over recent years with several interventions in 2020, notably by the Liberal and the Danish People’s parties, saying it was a scandal that the minister had not taken action on the issue.

On 22 January Jens Henrik Thulesen Dahl from the Danish Peoples’ Party pressed Minister Halsboe-Jørgensen by asking: “How many Danish higher education institutions are assisting international students in finding jobs in Denmark so that they can qualify for SU?”

He also asked if the minister is taking action on agent recruitment, as certain institutions are using agents to recruit international students because the schools are getting funded for each student they admit.

Minister announces changes

Minister Halsboe-Jørgensen told Akademikerbladet that she would ask UCL for clarification (which UCL ahad already sent to the parliament on 13 January). She also said that a significant reduction in the number of English-taught courses is now being discussed.

“It is wrong to address the educational tasks this way,” she said. “Higher education institutions have a responsibility towards society and the main focus should be to contribute with well-qualified youths. Instead, one is now using funds for agents in Spain that are bringing young people to the country that do not master the language of instruction,” she said.

Asked if she thinks that the use of agents should be prohibited, Halsboe-Jørgensen said that in view of the ongoing discussions on limiting the number of degrees that can be taught in English where students from abroad can be admitted, a further regulation against using recruitment agents would not be needed.

She also told Berlingske Tidende on 25 January that the government is discussing with the other parties the introduction of a combined Danish-English degree at the university colleges first, where students like the ones the Spanish Valencia agent had recruited would not be eligible. “And then we will have to look at the universities,” she said.

The opposition parties are already starting to plan for the government releasing money from SU to European Union students to other political priorities. In December six political parties in opposition signed an agreement to allocate DKK2.5 billion (US$408 million) for upgrading the police in the years to come, with DKK83 million (US$13.5 million) to be taken from the funds now used to give SU-support to EU students studying in Denmark.

International students needed

Johan Hedegaard Jørgensen, president of the National Union of Students (DSF) representing 150,000 students, told University World News that the government and a large majority of parties in parliament are keen to reduce the amount of student stipend (SU) that goes to European Union-European Economic Area students.

“In the National Union of Students in Denmark we think that this is a shame, as international students are a boon for both the study environment and the economy. We firmly believe that every student in Denmark should have equal rights, therefore we strongly oppose the government plan for closing down English-speaking courses.”

Rector of Roskilde University, Professor Hanne Leth Andersen, who is also chair of the educational committee of Universities Denmark, told University World News: “It is difficult to imagine university education not having a clear international dimension, which means both building on international research and experience, offering an international study environment, and being open to international students – be it full degree or exchange students.”

She said in 2019 Danish universities had to cut 1,000 places for international students, which was complicated, since universities could not predict whether a student in an English-mediated programme is Danish or not.

“Our intake does not discriminate on nationality. Therefore, at Roskilde University we introduced a stricter criterion on English language skills, and most universities had to change some programmes from being taught in English into Danish,” she said.

“We have pointed to the fact that Danish companies need highly skilled labour, including students with international background and experience who know Denmark from their studies. Therefore we focus very much on the degree of retainment of the international candidates in Denmark, and on the fact that the investment is paid back to society though tax rates and creation of new jobs.”

She said there is collaboration between Universities Denmark, the Confederation of Danish Industry, the Danish Chamber of Commerce, Akademikerne, and the National Union of Students in Denmark on this issue.

She was not aware of agents being used by the universities.