More international students needed to plug expertise gap

Academic experts in Denmark have welcomed the prime minister’s readiness to discuss business concerns about the barriers to luring foreign talent. But they say the solution is to remove constraints on recruiting more international students from the European Union.

In her New Year’s speech on 1 January 2022, Prime Minister Mette Fredriksen said: “In the debate on governmental reforms, Danish businesses have expressed interest in making it easier to attract talent from outside Denmark. This we are willing to discuss.”

However, she warned that the government would only take in workers where there is a lack of expertise in Denmark and only for a limited time.

“We have decided many years ago that we are not going to have free immigration to Denmark. That we are going to keep to,” she said.

Academics say the solution is to admit more international students, particularly at masters level.

An ‘evident’ solution

Writing in Danish newspaper Politiken on 9 January, Chair of the Partnership for Retaining International Graduates in the Danish Workforce Professor Bente Merete Stallknecht said: “An evident solution is to offer more talented international students the opportunity to complete their education in Denmark. This is a fast way to attract a more specialised workforce.”

The Partnership for Retaining International Graduates in the Danish Workforce counts among its members leaders of the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations (Akademikerne), Danish universities, the Danish Chamber of Commerce, the Confederation of Danish Industry and the National Union of Students in Denmark.

Stallknecht, who is also pro-rector at the University of Copenhagen, said international students typically come to the country to take a masters degree so many of them would be ready to enter the Danish workforce within only two years.

Referring to a July 2021 agreement between the government and several political parties to reduce the number of higher education courses offered in English, a move aimed at reducing the number of students from European countries receiving the state educational grant (SU), Stallknecht said it had been unwise of the Danish parliament to reduce the number of international students in Denmark.

“The parties in agreement decided only to look at the costs and did not acknowledge the great incomes and other advantages that come with international students,” Stallknecht said.

Students make a financial contribution

She said research by Damvad Analytics and the Ministry for Higher Education and Science has shown that the average international graduate contributes almost DKK800,000 (US$123,000) to the public economy.

“Denmark of course shall not give the whole of Europe’s youth a free education on the SU. This has to be done wisely. But in the present situation, our advice to the government is to award more study places to international students, notably at masters level,” Stallknecht wrote.

She said forced reductions have meant that the University of Copenhagen has turned away almost 200 qualified international applicants to bioinformatics and molecular biomedicine over the past two years.

Eva Valcke, director of research, careers and relations at Copenhagen School of Design and Technology (Københavns Erhvervsakademi or KEA), which conducted a survey on how international students are attracted to internships in Denmark, told University World News that although not all international students stay in Denmark, “many of our international students either find jobs in Denmark (also due to our work on retention) or they take a masters degree in Denmark, resulting in jobs in Denmark later on”.

Retention of graduates

Mads Eriksen Storm, head of education and research policies at the Danish Chamber of Commerce (Dansk Erhverv), one of the largest professional business organisations in the country, said his organisation agrees with Stallknecht.

“We need more international students in areas where we are in short supply of specialists, such as information technology. It must be possible for the educational organisations to open up for international students if they can make more of them stay and work.”

Nikolaj Lubanski, chief operating officer at Copenhagen Capacity, which assists foreign businesses, investors and talent in capitalising on business opportunities, said: “It seems counterproductive to cut down on the number of international students when there is a record high demand for labour… and international students contribute more to the public finances than is being paid out via SU.”

Lubanski said instead of reducing international student numbers, the focus should be on retaining a higher number after graduation.

“On average, 34% are in jobs in Denmark two years after graduation. Through our international career programmes, Young Professionals in Denmark, and Greater Copenhagen Career Programme, we can at least raise the percentage to 55% to 65%. Therefore, we should invite more international students in and spend more energy on retaining them.”

Mick Scholtka, vice-president of academic affairs at the National Union of Students in Denmark (DSF), said his union has championed the role of international students for many years.

Better learning outcomes

“International students are not only a plus for the economy, but they uplift the learning experience for local students. They have unique knowledge and ways to see an educational problem that together with local students can give a more nuanced learning outcome.

“So, when Denmark is facing a lack of expertise in the workforce, international students are more than a qualified solution. Therefore, DSF is urging our government to let more international students come to Denmark and be the solution that our country needs.”

Speaking to University World News, Stallknecht said: “Our assessment is that international students benefit the Danish economy. That’s the same conclusion that was reached in independent analyses. However, we are not blind to the fact that the Danish system is very generous in terms of financial support while studying in comparison with other European countries.

“I hope the politicians will listen to us this time around, as the benefits of letting more international students obtain a degree and a job in Denmark are especially clear when recruiting specialised staff in Danish companies is as difficult as it is.”