Danes face EU obstacle to grants reform

Plans to cut student support may be undermined by court ruling

May 30, 2013

Source: Alamy

In it together: Danish students may be joined by other EU citizens in claiming the SU grant, as per single market rules

Denmark’s student support system remains mired in confusion despite the country’s coalition government landing a deal with opposition politicians to reform it.

The agreement, struck last month, will cut about £250 million from the system, known as SU (Statens Uddannelsesstøtte, or the State Educational Support Grant).

However, the plans may be undermined by a court ruling in February that all European Union citizens in Denmark have equal rights to claim SU grants.

Neither Danish nor other EU students pay university tuition fees in the country. However, a monthly SU grant of £660 has until now been reserved for domestic students. The grant is also paid if courses take longer to complete than expected, a practice that has led to accusations of deliberate student go-slows.

The deal reached between the government and the opposition will deliver a £252 million cut while creating incentives for students to speed up their studies.

Uffe Elbæk, education spokesman for coalition member the Social Liberal Party, said the system in its current form was too generous.

“In some respects it is more generous than it needs to be, and in the given circumstances - with the [economic] crisis and with the need to ensure a sustainable educational system in the future - we cannot afford to be so generous,” he said.

“Also, Danish students are quite old when they finish their studies. On average, postgraduates are more than 29 when they [finish], and it is common to spend an extra year completing university. This makes the system expensive and delays young people’s entrance into the labour market.”

In the future, the extra year’s grant will be given only to those who start their studies within two years of leaving high school.

There will also be more demands on students to progress faster, and those who finish their studies ahead of schedule will receive bonus grants. In addition, the annual increase in the SU grant will be reduced.

Caught out by court judgment

However, opposition politicians fear that the deal does not reflect the potential costs of the system, given the ruling made by the European Court of Justice in February.

It found that EU citizens who enter Denmark to work are entitled to SU if they then decide to study.

According to Peter Pagh, professor of EU law at the University of Copenhagen, the ruling will be binding.

“All EU students who meet the criteria of being a travelling worker - as this is interpreted by the court - will therefore have the same right to SU as Danish students,” he said. “Until now, EU students haven’t received it, but since this has been based on a misinterpretation of EU law, the administrative practice will in the future be changed.”

The European Students’ Union has welcomed the ruling.

Karina Ufert, the union’s chairperson, said: “We can say that those students who are coming from other EU member states to Denmark have gained increased clarity on their rights and social benefits.

“Danish authorities and all politicians should be well aware of what they signed up for when they joined the single market. They must understand that they cannot enjoy all the benefits deriving from the market without any consequences.”

So far, the Danish government’s response to the European ruling has been to confirm that it will examine the matter in the course of the SU reforms while introducing more checks to ensure that EU students claiming SU have been working.

However, at the same time it has left the door open for further reforms, leaving many Danish students confused about the future of the SU system.

As it remains unclear whether further restrictions will be introduced to deal with the court ruling, they face a period of uncertainty over how their studies will be supported in future.

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