SU for (nearly) everybody, Euro politicians agree

Danish MEPs say there is potential for the student grant system to be abused by other EU citizens, but it is no disaster waiting to happen, they agree

Although Danish welfare may not be seriously threatened by the phenomenon known as 'benefit tourism', it is important to make sure that the country's social welfare system is not abused. This was the overarching conclusion reached by a panel of three lawmakers and a student taking part in an EU sponsored debate on Thursday.

But when it came to the discussion of what constituted abuse, and what should be done to prevent it, there was decidely less consensus.

The debate at Copenhagen's Europahuset follows recent rulings by the European Court of Justice making it easier for EU citizens to claim the SU student grant when they study in Denmark. While foreigners were originally required to have worked in Denmark for two years before getting SU, they now need only work as few as 10 hours a week while studying.

Officials in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and the UK have warned that some migrants are taking advantage of their right to move to countries with the express purpose of claiming benefits.

READ MORE: EU welfare rulings challenge benefits of open borders

A threat against welfare
“As I see it, our welfare system is not under pressure from benefit tourism,” said MEP Ole Christensen (Socialdemokraterne). “The EU rulings relating to SU for EU citizens is expected to add an additional 230 million kroner to the annual cost of 20 billion kroner. That is not something that is going to be a bomb under the budget, but of course we should be cautious and prevent that the system is exploited.”

MEP Bendt Bendtsen, a former Konservative leader, agreed that Denmark has yet to see widespread abuse. “However, I will say that giving SU to foreign students is good as long as they stay in the country after their studies. But if they leave, then we have a problem.”

He proposed requiring that students stay in the country for a certain period after they graduate. “If they leave before that, they will have to pay back their SU,” Bendtsen said.

The idea of requiring students to pay for their tuition was also debated, but no one in the panel saw that as a preferred solution.

Mette Bohnstedt, a student at Copenhagen Business School, studied at Harvard University and said she didn't want to see a situation similar in which some students had to work full-time alongside their studies.

“Remember that SU goes to foreigners that we want in the country. They have a job, they are educated. It is still limited who can get SU, so I don't see it as a problem at all. Foreign students are not a threat against our welfare and they contribute a lot to our society.”

SU is still slow to come
While the new EU rulings should make it easier for foreigners to apply for SU, it was reported in July that the University of Copenhagen office had 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, however, is two to three weeks. SU administration officials explained that it took longer to process foreign student's applications, because each one had to be evaluated individually. In addition, unlike Danish students, foreigners are not permitted to apply online, and all the application forms are in Danish.

Christensen, the Socialdemokraterne MEP, said the unequal processing times could be seen by the EU as favouring Danish students. 

“If it is true that the process is slowed down by bureaucracy, the EU court may perceive it as protectionism. We have to change that and we will.”