Aarhus candidates sing ode to internationalism during university debate

City council candidates say foreign students key to city’s internationalisation. Foreign students themselves say they are more interested in things like jobs, transport and discrimination

Ten minutes into a candidate’s debate on a recent Tuesday night on the campus of the University of Aarhus, a student, who identifies herself as Victoria, rises to address the assembled at the front of the crowded room. 

She has questions about infrastructure and immigration policy, but first, “I really want to address one question to Lotte,” she says, turning to the candidate for the Social Democrats, a 27-year-old graduate of Aarhus University named Lotte Cederskjold.  “Who mentioned, ‘when you go home’, addressing internationals. What if we don’t want to go home?” 

There’s a gale of appreciative laughter, beginning a lively and wide-ranging debate premised on a rare reversal: five candidates for Aarhus city council, and almost the only Danes in the room, responding to questions lobbed in a medley of accents about what their parties will do for them.

Will they make it easier to get to the city’s far-flung airport? Will they increase the budget for the city’s language school? How will they end discrimination against foreigners in downtown nightclubs

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The event, held by the university’s Student House, was one of the few opportunities for candidates to address these potential voters.  

Next week, EU citizens, and non-EU citizens who have lived in the country for more than three years will be able to vote in local and regional elections around the country

In Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city, this often means foreign students. Nicknamed the country’s “youngest city”, one out of six residents of central Aarhus are students, and 10 percent of the city’s approximately 50,000 students are non-Danes. 

A part of the vision
Tonight the room is crowded with about 60 attendees, but a similar event held four years ago for voting foreign students was poorly attended, said Anne Thorø Nielsen, executive manager of the Student House. 

But the makeup of the city has changed since then – in the past five years, the number of foreign students has doubled, from 2,500 to 5,000, she says.

Hey, haven't I seen you before? (Photo: Fred Bonatto)

What has also changed is the kind of students at the university, she says. Many are not just on exchange, but full-degree students, often enrolled in master’s or PhD programs that last at least two years. The university, as well as the local business, architecture and journalism schools, all offer English full degree programs. 

“The number of international students has grown explosively in the last ten years,” Nielsen said. “The city has become much more aware that there is an international population here that needs to be addressed. And I’m not talking about an immigrant, or refugee, population, I’m talking about people who come here as knowledge expatriates. They’re here voluntarily.”

All five candidates, assembled from Radikale, Venstre, Socialdemokraterne, Socialistisk Folkeparti, and Konservative, took pains to emphasise the role that foreigners play. 

“We’re all interested in keeping bright-minded young people in Aarhus, it’s good for the economy and it’s good for the city,” said Jan Ravn Christensen of the Socialist People’s Party, in one of many odes to internationalism throughout the night.  

And for the current city council, such internationalism has been hailed as a vision of growth. It is part of plans to attract foreign businesses, raise the status of the university, and gain cultural cache, including winning the title of European Capital of Culture 2017.

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The students are asking about infrastructure, job opportunities, and the country’s immigration rules, which the candidates emphasise is under the domain of parliament. 

“I want to talk about what we can do in Aarhus, supporting you guys, for getting education, staying here after your education,” says Theresa Blegvad, a Venstre candidate.

Integration, integration … and jobs
When, and how, foreign students should integrate raises more debate – especially in a city where the debate over integration is focused on immigrant communities living in council housing in the Gellerup and Braband neighbourhoods, not highly-educated foreigners living in the city centre. 

But these students make up a substantial chunk of Denmark’s immigrants: in 2012, 19 percent of the residence permits granted were for study-related activities, according to immigration data released by the Justice Ministry this summer. 

More than half of the permits granted that year – 54 percent – went to EU and EEA citizens.

Radikale candidate Jakob Lavrsen explains his campaign platform to the audience (Photo: Fred Bonatto)“What interests me most is integration,” says Sarah Thedens, a marketing master’s student from Germany. 

She came to the debate to learn more about the Danish system, but was most struck by the debate around access to Danish language classes. She says she is learning the language because it helps her get around in daily life, and also helps her connect with Danish classmates. 

Chiara Peccini, an Italian master’s student, says she also thinks integration was the most important topic on the table, and even though she arrived in the country in September, she plans to vote. 

“I think it’s really cool that I can just come here and vote, and I have the right to do that, and I want to do that – I think it’s a right and duty,” says Peccini. “I want to participate in the society life.” 

Dario Fè, an Italian PhD student who has lived in Denmark for a year and a half, found it “strange” that people can vote in local elections so soon after arriving. But since he has the opportunity, he said he is trying to make an effort to understand the political system, despite what he says is a lack of material in English. 

“It’s very important to understand the candidates’ programmes, because your vote counts the same as someone who has been here for 20 years and will be living here for the rest of their lives,” he says. 

Fè’s biggest concern was the job market. In a year and a half he will finish his PhD, and then he hopes he can find a job – in Aarhus.