Minister signals openness to international students

Academics and students have welcomed recent public comments from Denmark’s higher education and science minister signalling plans to increase the number of international students accepted into Danish universities, in a move ultimately aimed at addressing talent deficits in some economic sectors.

In an interview with major Danish newspaper Berlingske on 21 October, Minister Christina Egelund said she is intending to open the doors to thousands of international students.

“We are seeing a new era,” she said. “When I sat down to examine the numbers [concerning demographic changes, with diminishing cohorts of young people], it was a wake-up call,” she said.

Egelund said the problem was at risk of tripping up Danish economic growth, the green changes needed and the future of Denmark’s welfare society.

A ‘new era’

“After several decades with a growing supply of highly educated people that has been continuously on the rise, we are now at the threshold of entering a new era and already today we are seeing a lack of people in businesses and in the public sector”, she said, using examples such as a lack of engineers, sustainability experts, as well as nurses, prison guards and welfare personnel.

Warnings about the acute shortages of skills by the Danish Chamber of Commerce and others have been reported by University World News and come in the wake of the scrapping of 4,000 study places in English taught degrees by the former government.

Calculations by Local Government Denmark (KL), the employers’ association of municipalities, have estimated that Denmark will lack 90,000 people in the workforce in 2030 and more than 40,000 of these will be in the public sector.

The Danish Chamber of Commerce has produced even more serious statistics which indicate that the gap between workforce supply and demand will be 130,000 people.

According to the minister, the 1,100 additional English taught study places each year from 2024 to 2028 and 2,500 each year from 2029 – a proposal made earlier this year – will not be enough.

“We are not ruling out the opening up of the higher education sector [for international students] in another way compared to what we are doing today,” Egelund told Berlingske.

“We are now at a point where we should be thankful every time a younger person from another place in the world looks towards Denmark. Our need is huge, and the competition for the qualified young and qualified workforce is hard,” she said.

Negotiation in parliament

Egelund said she could not provide a figure for the number of international students Denmark intends to target since this will be negotiated between the parties in parliament. However, she said some professional fields say they are short of tens of thousands of people.

She also made it clear that the country will prioritise international students in skills areas needed by Denmark.

“The gate is not going to be wide open,” she said. “Focus is going to be on where the need in the workforce is strongest.”

The minister said that the government was in agreement on the need for complementing the workforce through experts and students from other countries, and that these challenges have to be addressed.

What is pending is agreement around the issue of the Danish SU (state educational grant) to members of other European Union countries. A majority agreement in parliament in 2013 imposed a ceiling on SU expenditure to students from outside Denmark.

“Every one of the political parties are singing with their own voice and when we are discussing these issues, there is not great disagreement. But when concrete proposals come up, then disagreement is visible.

“Hence I cannot lean back and say that now we shall open the doors of our higher education sector in another way … What I can say is that I shall contribute to finding a solution,” Egelund told Berlingske.

Shortage of IT experts

Professor Kaj Grønbæk, head of the computer science department at Aarhus University, told University World News he was happy with the minister’s plan to open up to more international students. But the enrolment would have to be “significantly bigger” than the 1,100 per year in 2024 and 2,500 from 2028 to mitigate the backlog of IT-professionals alone.

“We have witnessed such a backlog in Denmark for many years now. In 2016 the estimated backlog in 2030 was 19,000 IT professionals; in 2021 it was estimated to be 22,000 and here early in 2023 it was estimated by the EU to be 200,000, boosted by the demand for AI-based solutions,” he said (in Danish), quoting figures from IT Watch.

“With a decreasing cohort of Danish students, and at the same time trending application patterns prioritising social sciences and health studies much higher than technical and natural science-based IT-educations, we see little hope of solving the backlog of IT specialists with Danish students and graduates,” Grønbæk said.

“In fact, we have had 1,000+ vacant study seats in IT education in Denmark for several years. Thus, IT bachelor education programmes all alone could enrol the 2024 quota of 1,100 international students if we were allowed to,” he added.

However, Grønbæk said he was pleased to see a shift towards opening up for more international students. “This is a promising change in educational politics in Denmark. We are ready at the universities to take advantage of new international student quotas,” he said.

“This year we had a record high enrolment of 46 international students on our full degree masters programme in computer science at Aarhus University, a 75% increase compared to the previous year. We are convinced that we could double our computer science masters graduate production in a few years’ time if we were allowed to also enrol international students in our bachelor programmes,” he said.

Mads Eriksen Storm, head of education and research policies at the Danish Chambre of Commerce, also welcomed the comments from Egelund.

“We think that attracting international talent through our strong educational sector is a clever way to support the labour market,” Storm said.

Jesper Langergaard, director of Universities Denmark, agreed that it was “very good news”, saying: “We need more international talent on our campuses. Foreign students enrich our education sector, and the presence of diverse cultures and talents benefits the national students as well.

“On top of that we need international talent in order to meet the demand from employers in Denmark in the coming years in light of the declining youth cohorts.”

Natasha Hougaard, president (and board member) of Polyteknisk Forening, the student association at Technical University of Denmark, also welcomed the proposed increase in international students.

“In 2025 we will need 6,500 engineers in Denmark's workforce. International students can help fill the void and they come with knowledge from beyond the Danish borders which is invaluable. So I look forward to more international students being accepted because we need them to solve the tasks of society,” she said.

Making international students feel welcome

Dr Susan Wright, professor of Educational Anthropology and chair of the Circle U European University Alliance at the Danish School of Education at Aarhus University, said the minister’s comments represented a “massive and positive change from previous governments’ message that foreigners were unwelcome and Danish tax-financed education was for Danes”.

She said repairing the “reputational damage caused by de-internationalisation over recent years” would require a number of steps.

These included recognising that an international student brings with them 12-15 years of previous education, paid by their own country or family, which is a ‘free gift’ to Denmark – a value not included in the Ministry of Higher Education and Science’s analysis of the costs and benefits of paying SU to European students.

She said the government would need to help international students find student jobs that facilitate their integration into the Danish labour market and society.

It would also need to ensure that qualifications taken by international students are internationally recognised. “Amongst the proposed changes to masters programmes, only the two-year candidate degree fits the Bologna Process, which is widely adopted across the world,” she said.

Wright said international education did not mean simply using English to pass on technical knowledge. “It is important to create international learning environments” to ensure international students feel welcome, she said.

“Fortunately Denmark still has its educational experts who can assist Danish universities in recreating the carefully designed curriculum, pedagogy and classroom interaction that involve all students in a shared exploration of the technical and social challenges facing Denmark and the world.

“This not only equips Danish and foreign students to work in Danish companies with a global reach; it also enables Denmark to continue ‘punching above its weight’ on the world stage as Danish graduates of international programmes work in organisations concerned with the climate crisis, humanitarian values, development, peace and diplomacy,” Wright explained.

President of the National Union of Students in Denmark (DSF) Esben Bjørn Salmonsen told University World News that while he welcomed the move, it was “strange” that the government failed to stay in one direction. “[It is] closing down places and then opening them up again. But at least this is a good decision,” he said.

“There should be a focus on both creating good bachelor and masters programmes in English. There needs to be a more international focus in all of the study programmes,” Salmonsen said.