The decision to reduce international student numbers in Denmark is “sad” and “doesn’t address the very real issues” faced by industries in the Scandinavian state, according to the head of the country’s leading university.
Henrik Wegener, rector of the University of Copenhagen, told Times Higher Education that cuts to the number of English-language study places would result in a “levelling-off” of European talent coming to Denmark.
Last year, the Danish government announced cuts of between 1,000 and 1,200 university places for international students, arguing that too many left the country after graduation. The focus of concern was on students from the rest of the European Union, who are allowed the same privileges as their domestic peers – they do not pay tuition fees and are given generous study grants, which, in 2019, total about £725 a month.
“There was a feeling that the growth of European students was too fast,” Professor Wegener said.
However, because Danish universities cannot discriminate against European applicants in the admissions process, their response has been to close degree programmes altogether and to switch the medium of instruction on others from English to Danish.
“Right now the instruments implemented to deal with one problem – namely, the welfare state paying very generous stipends to its students – somehow get in the way of actually using the fact that young people are mobile and willing to come and study in such a cold place as Denmark,” Professor Wegener said.
The epidemiologist warned that the move would leave Danish businesses’ call for more highly educated employees unanswered.
“[There is] a huge request from our industries and companies to produce more and faster, and the most rational way to do that was to invite [young people with] bachelor’s [degrees] from the rest of Europe to come and do their master’s and go out and take a good job,” he said.
Professor Wegener added that the Danish government was now reluctant to approve new master’s degrees taught in English. This, along with the already announced reductions, would ultimately constrict opportunities for Danish students because universities would be forced to cap the number of places on degrees that are most sought after by international students, he said.
“We do not teach in English only to be attractive to international students. We mainly teach in English to make our Danish students as useful as possible for their future employers,” said Professor Wegener, who has led Copenhagen since 2017.
“Small nations with a lot of international contacts obviously need a highly educated workforce that speaks other languages than, for instance, Danish, which is mastered by just about 5 million people in the world.”
Efforts to address Denmark’s skills gap include proposals to link the number of study places available in each discipline to labour market need. Speaking last year, Søren Pind, who was then higher education minister, reportedly said that one consequence would be “a scaling-down of the humanities”.
But Professor Wegener questioned whether short-term labour market demands were a reliable predictor of longer-term skills needs.
“For the university, it’s always challenging to let something as short-term and also unpredictable as labour force demand dictate something that takes much, much longer – that is educating young people to the highest level,” he said. “We try to argue that our candidates are not just something that is in demand, they are also creating the future labour market in their own right.”
When asked if the recent policy changes reflected increasing hostility towards immigrants or the academy in Denmark, Professor Wegener said he was doubtful but did acknowledge that support for the reforms “comes from the parts of the political establishment that would be seen as anti-globalisation or at least more sceptical towards those trends”.
Professor Wegener also lamented the UK’s decision to leave the EU. The UK is Denmark’s most important research partner after Germany, and the most popular study-abroad destination for Danish students.
“The uncertainty is terrible, and it’s so frustrating to see all those collaborations that have been developed over decades now between universities in the UK and northern Europe – research collaborations, but also student mobility – somehow come to a halt,” he said.
Professor Wegener said that he hoped that an agreement over the UK’s exit from the EU would be swiftly followed by new arrangements for research collaboration and student exchange.
“Universities are extremely resilient and can withstand a lot of turbulence and external uncertainty, so I’m sure we’ll find some way out of it,” he said. “But of course, imagine what we could have done if we had spent all the energy we’re now spending on Brexit to address real global challenges that are maybe more important than dealing with these political issues.”