Universities in Denmark have reacted with dismay after the government said it would cut places for international students because too many left the country after graduation.
The move is a blow to the continental European model of subsidising higher education for overseas students, and follows warnings that “free riding” by globally mobile international students could lead to a backlash.
Between 1,000 and 1,200 English-language university and diploma study places will be cut next year, including at six of the country’s universities, among them the University of Copenhagen, Aalborg University and Aarhus University.
English-language courses – already under fire in the Netherlands for squeezing out Dutch-speaking locals – have come in for particular criticism from the Danish government because of their low post-graduation retention rate; 42 per cent of English-language master’s graduates have left after two years.
As part of a detailed report examining the financial pros and cons of international students, the Ministry of Higher Education and Science calculated that only a third of international students made a “positive contribution” to Danish public finances over their lifetime.
Tommy Ahlers, Denmark’s science minister, who announced the policy, said that while international students were useful for expanding Danish horizons, the country should not pay for the education needs of other countries.
Universities have criticised the move. Jesper Langergaard, director of Universities Denmark, said that “instead of trying to reduce the number of students coming here, we think Denmark should focus on encouraging more of them to stay here, when they graduate”.
Courses were run in English when “subjects and the curriculum demand it”, he said. He also pointed to another study by an external consultancy which found last year that international students actually made a net positive contribution of €107,000 (£96,000) on average, contrary to the government’s latest conclusions.
The cuts, announced at the end of last month, were called a “lamentable bureaucratic decision” by Sara Grex, chair of the committee for education and research at the Danish Society of Engineers. She pointed to a projected shortfall of 15,000 engineers and natural sciences graduates by 2025.
The Danish government has taken the step even though non-EU students are already charged between €6,000 and €18,000 a year. Despite this, it still says that the majority are a net financial drain.
There is no similar debate in the UK, US or Australia as international students tend to be charged the full cost of their course, or even more. Sweden and the Netherlands also charge non-European Union students substantially more than counterparts from within the bloc.
But other countries, including France, Norway and Germany, generally charge minimal or no fees to all students, regardless of where they come from. In Germany, for example, this is part of an effort to attract skilled workers, and also to spread goodwill towards the country globally.
Marcel Gerard, a professor of economics and taxation at the Catholic University of Louvain who has warned that “free-riding” mobile graduates could undermine support for such policies, said that Denmark was indeed granting a “positive externality to the rest of the world”, which was “per se an inefficiency”.
But he warned against taking too utilitarian an approach to the problem. “Welcoming international students is also a powerful tool to boost the quality of local higher education: the attractiveness of foreign students is a positive message sent to higher education community and to the industry in general,” he said.