Question mark over future of Danish foreign student policy

Experts divided over whether centre-left but anti-immigration Social Democratic Party will continue, scrap or enhance current policy restricting foreign student numbers

June 19, 2019
Source: Getty
Popular support Mette Frederiksen’s Social Democratic Party received the highest share of votes in Denmark’s national elections

Victories for the centre-left in Denmark and Finland are set to pave the way for increased funding for universities, but it remains unclear whether Danish institutions will still be shackled by cuts to humanities and international student places.

Denmark’s Social Democratic Party, which took a left-wing stance on welfare but ran on an anti-immigration platform, received the highest share of votes in the national elections earlier this month and has been trying to form a coalition government.

Meanwhile, Antti Rinne, the leader of Finland’s Social Democratic Party, this month became the country’s first left-wing prime minister since 2003. The SDP is in a coalition with four smaller parties.

Danish universities have faced annual 2 per cent declines in funding since 2016, but the Social Democrats pledged to “stop the savings” in its election manifesto. Finland’s new government has also promised to boost budgets for universities and universities of applied sciences.

However, higher education problems in Denmark have gone beyond funding in recent years. Universities in the country have been forced to close degree programmes and switch the medium of instruction from English to Danish in response to a policy reducing international student places.

Since 2015, the number of places on humanities courses has also fallen in response to government policies aimed at improving the country’s employment rate.

Jesper Langergaard, director of Universities Denmark, said he expected the new government to “stop the reduction [in] international students” – despite the fact that the Social Democrats promised to “introduce a ceiling on how many new non-Western foreigners can come to Denmark in one year” – and to take a broader approach to enrolment in different disciplines at universities.

“We are very positive and looking forward to cooperating with a new minister. We have had four different ministers the past four years; now we hope for more stability,” he said.

However, others are unconvinced that the new government will make dramatic policy changes.

Jasper Steen Winkel, director of communications at the University of Copenhagen, said that the Social Democrats “would lean towards not altering” the current policy on international student places but might be pressed to shift this stance if they formed a coalition with the Danish Social Liberal Party, which has “a strong agenda around opening up the borders for people with knowledge”.

He added that the lack of funding for and perceived value of the humanities was more a “global challenge” rather than a Danish party political issue, so policies in this area were unlikely to change significantly under a new government.

Hanne Tange, associate professor in the department of culture and global studies at Aalborg University, said the Social Democrats believed that “too many [overseas students] study for free in Denmark and then return to [their] home countries upon graduation”, meaning that they might support a stricter immigration policy, together with the right-wing Danish People’s Party.

And while the Danish Social Liberal Party has pledged to invest in education and to increase internationalisation, including lifting the cap on the number of international student places, the party seeks to continue the policy of restricting admissions to universities in some disciplines, which has already led to the closure of a number of humanities programmes around the country, she said.

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