So why do Eastern European students head West to study?

Mette Ginnerskov-Dahlberg, who is researcher at the department of sociology at Södertörn University in Sweden, has through several scientific publications launched a new narrative of why students from Eastern Europe want to go to Western Europe to study.

In 2017 she co-wrote the article: “Between international student mobility and work-migration: experiences of students from EU’s newer member states in Denmark” in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, discussing why, since 2009, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of students from EU’s newer member states who enrol as full-degree students at Danish universities.

In March 2021, she published an article in the Palgrave Macmillan Handbook of Youth Mobility and Educational Migration, “Inherited Dreams of ‘the West’: Eastern European Students’ Paths to Denmark,” in which she argued that Eastern European students are often attracted by the fee-free access to highly ranked universities, arriving with dreams of creating better lives for themselves, and of accumulating Western educational capital.

She related that previous studies have suggested that student mobility is not given to everyone but has to be learned and socialised.

And based on students’ explanations, she is pegging this learning to how their parents have “handed down” a positive narrative related to travel to their post-communist children, looking at crossing borders as an intrinsic value that was denied to themselves during their upbringing in the communist post-1945 Europe with closed borders.

She draws on an ethnographic study among Central and Eastern European masters students at a Danish university to explore some of the factors that make students from post-communist countries pursue an education in Denmark.

Her analysis further suggests that the students’ educational mobility and choice of study destination should be understood in relation to a dominant meta-narrative of ‘the West’ – a progressive place offering a superior mode of existence – that has been cultivated throughout their upbringing.

She highlights how the wanderlust of these students is rooted in a complex process that starts long before they themselves begin to think about studying abroad.

In July, Ginnerskov-Dahlberg is publishing a book summing up her analysis, Student Migration from Eastern to Western Europe, to be published by Routledge (ISBN: 9780367520731).

Here she “deploys a novel approach to the subject by drawing on insights gleaned from a longitudinal study of masters students pursuing an education abroad and their multifaceted post-graduate journeys. Thereby, she brings their narratives to life and highlights the changes and continuities they experienced over a period of seven years, fostering an understanding of student mobility as an activity enmeshed with adult commitments and long-term aspirations”.

Using Denmark as a case study of a host country, Ginnerskov-Dahlberg analyses the trajectories of these students and situates their experiences within the wider socio-historical context of Eastern European post-socialism, and the contemporary dynamics between EU and non-EU citizens in the welfare state of Denmark – reflecting issues playing out on the global stage today.

The book is promoted as a valuable resource for students and scholars of migration and mobility studies, as well as human geography, sociology, higher education, area studies and anthropology.

University World News has published several stories since 2012 on how Denmark have experienced a vast increase in the number of students, notably from the Eastern European member countries of the EU, coming to Denmark as migrant-workers working up to 10 hours a week and then being eligible for Danish student support which is the most favourable in the world.

University World News asked Ginnerskov-Dahlberg to elaborate on her conclusion that students coming from Eastern Europe realise their parents’ “wanderlust” – from the days when they were blocked from crossing borders behind the Iron Curtain in the post-1945 Communist area.

Mette Ginnerskov-Dahlberg said she reached this conclusion by carefully analysing the students’ narratives as presented to her during seven years of longitudinal ethnographic fieldwork.

“It was striking that many students talked about how their parents would have wanted to engage in international travelling during the period of Communism and that they consequently were highly focused on encouraging their children to take advantage of possibilities of travelling today.

“Obviously, this is not the only reason why students from Eastern European countries study abroad, but the perspective serves to highlight the complexity that underpins Eastern European student migrants’ mobility.

“In the public debate in Denmark, there is a tendency to discuss Eastern European students’ motivations for pursuing an education in Denmark as a question of economy (ie free education and the possibility to obtain the Danish study stipend), but there are many more nuances to their decision.”

Denmark is presently at the point of a political negotiation between the Social Democratic party and the opposition parties to reduce English-taught degrees in order to stem the influx of “migrant-students”, as reported by University World News. This will in particular hit the smaller higher education institutions in the districts.

Ginnerskov-Dahlberg is critical of these political measures. “International students make a great asset to a small country like Denmark in many ways – both when it comes to creating interesting and high-quality environments at the universities and also to tackling the shortage of qualified labour faced by Danish companies.

“In the book, I show that many Eastern European students arrive in Denmark with the intention of staying in the country on a long-term basis and that they work hard to find jobs in the country following their graduation.”

What advice would she give to Eastern European students considering moving to Denmark to study for a higher education degree?

“In my upcoming book, I accentuate how many students, especially from EU countries, have a difficult time making ends meet in Denmark and struggle as low-skilled workers alongside their studies.

“One piece of advice I would give to students considering study in Denmark is that Denmark is a very expensive country to live in and that it can be difficult for students to find ‘study relevant’ jobs alongside their studies.

“Thus, if possible, try to think of viable ways that you can finance your studies abroad in advance, to avoid ending up in a very stressful situation.”