Foreign students say entitled SU money is slow to come

While court rulings open up Danish grants to other EU students, long processing times are leaving some European students in a pinch

The EU seems determined to allow students from within the European Union to receive Denmark’s state-allocated student allowance, SU, but the students themselves say the money is slow in finding its way into their empty pockets.

A February ruling by the EU struck down a Danish decision that denied SU to a student who had originally come to Denmark to work before deciding to study. The EU court ruled that students from other member countries who come to Denmark to work and later begin an education are eligible for SU. The ruling allowed applications that were on hold pending the decision to be considered for eligibility by the state SU office, Styrelsen for Videregående Uddannelser og Uddannelsesstøtte.

The problem, according to many students, is that those decisions are taking a very, very long time, leaving them without funds or forcing them to work low-paying jobs that cut into their study time.

Luke Richardson is a full time master’s student from England who is studying film studies at the University of Copenhagen. He first applied for SU in February.

“I applied after being told that the amount of part-time work I was doing entitled me to SU,” said Richardson. “The people at the University of Copenhagen were extremely helpful with the forms, which are only available in Danish.”

Richardson, who occasionally contributes to The Copenhagen Post, received a letter in April saying that his application had been turned down.

“The SU office sent me a letter saying that I had been rejected,” he said. “It did not explain their reasoning, saying that I had to write to them to get the specifics. I did that, but I have still not received an answer.”

Richardson said that his counselors at the university advised him to apply again, using the February decision as his basis. In his second application he included pay receipts, a contract showing that he was working and a note from his manager. That application was sent at the end of April.

Three months later, he has not heard a word from the SU office regarding either application, and the people at the University of Copenhagen are at a loss as to how to help.

“The actual consideration of cases regarding SU to foreign citizens is not done by the SU offices at the different universities, but by the main SU office itself,” said Søren Theodor Hein Ahm, the head of SU administration at the University of Copenhagen. “We accept the applications, make sure that students are enrolled here, and send the applications on to the main office for consideration.”

Richardson said that he has been unable to contact the government SU office.

“The national office is impossible to contact,” he says. “They have a phone that either doesn’t get picked up or has an automated message saying that they cannot be reached and the student should contact their university office – which of course cannot tell them anything.”

Richardson said that one thing a person at the University of Copenhagen office did tell him was that there are currently over 600 applications from foreign students waiting to be processed at the main SU office and that the backlog could take as long as six months to wade through.

“The average waiting time for a Danish student is two or three weeks,” he said.

A head official at the SU office confirmed that Danish applications are processed quicker, but said that they are working their way through all SU applications as rapidly as possible.

“We had over 300 applications from 2012 that we carried over into 2013, pending a decision from the EU,” Dan Jakobsen, the head of the government SU office, said. “Every one of those applicants received a letter from us saying that no final judgment had been reached, pending the EU decision. After the decision was made in February, we started processing those applications in May.”

Jakobsen said that his office was solely responsible for handling SU requests from students, both from Denmark and abroad.

“The process for a foreign student is complicated,” he said. “Schedules must be checked, along with residency requirements, work histories, and legal aspects. We are the only office and we do it all. It takes time.”

He acknowledged that the online application available for Danes seeking SU was much easier to process.

Jakobsen was put off by the suggestion that foreign students applying for SU might have an easier time if the applications were not only available in Danish.

“Danish is the legal language of Denmark,” he stated. “We consider the languages of all EU nations to be equal, and it would be impossible to have applications available in all of them. We have basic information available in English on our website.”

Jakobsen acknowledged that the February decision has already increased the workload at his office. He said the decision last week by a court in Germany reducing the residency requirements a student must meet before applying for student grants to study abroad would most likely change things again, but that it was “too soon” to assess the impact.

As for Richardson, he said that the lack of SU forces him to work several jobs and prevents him from being able to focus on his thesis.

“I am frustrated that no money has come through, but I am more frustrated by the borderline archaic inability to contact the SU office directly,” he said. “I hear constantly about unemployed Danish students who prolong their studies just to get the six years of SU that they are entitled to, while some hardworking EU students from less affluent backgrounds are struggling to pay their bills at the end of the month.”

The Education Ministry has estimated that the decisions creating changes in the SU system could cost Danish taxpayers as much as 200 million kroner a year.