Pact on international students may reduce numbers by 25%

A majority of political parties in Denmark have agreed to support measures to move international student places out of the four major cities to other parts of the country.

Controversially, they also agreed that one of the main ways to fund it would involve a separate agreement to reduce the number of courses taught in English at higher education institutions – notably professional colleges and business academies.

The political agreement (in Danish), reached on 25 June, is complex, consisting of 89 bullet points and a separate “Agreement on the reduction of English-taught higher education.”

Support for the agreement has been fuelled by concern over the growing number of students from the European Union and European Economic Area (EEA) countries supporting their studies with Danish student grants (SU).

SU funding of international students has already increased significantly and is expected to increase to DKK570 million (US$91 million) in 2025, far beyond the agreed limit of DKK449 million (US$71.6 million) that was built into the so-called ‘SU-agreement’ in 2013.

In the agreement just concluded, one objective is to reduce the numbers studying for English-taught degrees where only a limited proportion of the graduates obtain work in Denmark upon graduation.

International student numbers cut

The agreement to move study places out of the four major cities has a total funding frame for the years 2021-28 of DKK2,736 billion (US$436 billion), of which 41% will be recovered by cutting the funding of English-taught degrees and SU to EU and EEA citizens.

The reduction will be achieved gradually between 2021 and 2025 and reach a yearly estimated reduction of DKK230 million (US$36.5 million) in 2026, which will be permanent each year thereafter.

The impact on international student numbers will be partially offset by the protection of 650 study places at business academies. But University World News analysis suggests numbers will be cut by an estimated 25% overall.

Pressure from the Danish People’s Party

The 25 June agreement is the result of ongoing negotiations between the political parties since 2019 when Mette Frederiksen was elected prime minister for the left-leaning ‘red bloc’.

Notably the far-right Danish People’s Party has strongly opposed the expansion of the number of international students from the EU and EEA countries and has sent a large number of questions in parliament to Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen, minister for higher education and science.

Jens Thulesen Dahl from the Danish People’s Party on 18 June asked her if Denmark, according to EU regulations, can have higher education that is taught in Danish free from tuition fees, while courses taught in English can have tuition fees like it is in the Czech Republic.

On 22 June he asked her what concrete measures she would take to ensure that the Danish language is strengthened as a scientific language and whether she would introduce a requirement to pass a Danish language test before being admitted to an English-taught course in Denmark.

However, stakeholders in higher education have warned that a reduction in international students would harm Danish industry and society, as predicted by a working paper on university reforms, “De-internationalisating Danish higher education: Re-framing the discussion,” by Susan Wright and Matej Zitnansky, which is discussed in an hour long YouTube programme: “Cuts in English-medium education? What is the future of international higher education in Denmark?”

Cuts at business academies and professional colleges

The reductions in English-taught degrees are directed towards business academies and professional bachelor degrees. At these higher education institutions 72% today are English-language students and only around one out of five (21%) find work in Denmark upon graduation.

The political parties will spare business colleges and professional bachelor degree courses that have succeeded in educating English-language students for work in Denmark and for higher education that has a unique character or is of importance for the regional work market. They agreed to protect 650 study places from the reduction in English-taught study programmes for this purpose.

Eleven professional colleges and business academies that are exempted from the cut are listed in the agreement. They educate students in technology, design, IT and media studies and are all situated outside the major cities.

The political parties behind the agreement also agree that there is a huge task ahead to strengthen the employability of students who graduate from an English-taught degree.

An annual amount of DKK50 million (US$7.9 million) will be set aside from 2025 to be paid as a reward each year to those higher education institutions that succeed in getting higher proportions of English-taught graduates into work.

Currently only 26% of English-taught graduates are in employment two years after graduation.

The institutions will be set targets to achieve increases in rates of employment of English-taught graduates – by 5% in 2025, 7.5% in 2026 and 10% in 2027.

The signatories to the agreement concur that it should still be possible for students at the business colleges and the professional university colleges to participate in student exchanges as a part of their degree. They also agree that it should be made easier to study in English-taught subjects at the Danish-taught business colleges and professional colleges and that this should be worked into the legislation.

International students ‘contribute positively’

However, Professor Susan Wright, professor of educational anthropology at the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University and director of the Centre for Higher Education Futures, accused the government of thinking in very narrow terms about the cost of grants for European students in comparison to the percentage that find employment in Denmark after graduation, whereas the ministry’s own cost-benefit analysis showed that international students, even including those who leave upon graduation, contribute positively to the economy.

She told University World News: “It is even more worrying that the government is now intervening in higher education institutions to determine and list which courses can be exempt.”

She said a series of meetings that brought together Danish higher education stakeholders, along with academics and students, was unanimous that the issue should be reframed to take into account the combined educational, social and economic benefits of international students.

“The closure of English-medium courses might bring down the number of European grant holders, but it excludes all other international students too. There are numerous examples of how international students raise the standard of education and the breadth of debate available for Danish students,” Wright said.

She also warned that the government has set very steeply rising targets for international students’ employment.

“Many more students wish to stay and work in Denmark but encounter barriers, even though Danish industry needs their expertise and finds it far better to employ graduates who have developed academic and social networks in Denmark than to try to recruit from abroad.

“Higher education institutions are working extremely hard with industry and other stakeholders to overcome these problems in the labour market and society – and limiting the number of international students is not a solution,” Wright said.