The lost generation: Denmark’s systematic failure to hold onto the foreign talent it educates

Most students tend to agree that the country is a good place to live and work, but question whether it really wants them to stay

Denmark is attracting more and more international students each year – studies indicate that the number has shot up a whopping 38 percent in the last four years alone.

While popular rhetoric paints international students as an unnecessary burden on the system, a study of 6,000 foreign graduates (1996-2008) by think-tank DEA revealed a completely different picture.

DEA found that each international student, regardless of whether they decided to stay and work in Denmark, would contribute a net increase of 27,000 kroner to Denmark’s economy.

However, other studies indicate only 30 percent stay in Denmark to look for a job.

Broken systems and dreams
The cost of living, systems that do not work and language barriers all contribute to making it hard for students to find a foothold in this country – and it’s costing both sides dearly.

The Weekly Post sat down with some students to examine what they – and Denmark – could be doing to ensure a greater number of international graduates stay in the country, and create a better overall experience for international students.


Rina Yahya
United States; Studies: Sustainable Cities at Aalborg University Copenhagen

You’re writing a thesis about the subject. What are your main findings?

There are two main issues: the problem of securing affordable housing and the problem of finding a job. They are both contingent on each other and both are almost impossible to get as an international student in Denmark.

Why is housing so hard to come by?
There simply isn’t enough. You are competing with new students and old students and Danish students. And the mentality given to those searching for housing is “You figure it out”. It’s led partly to the creation of a housing black market – especially on social media. And there are so many scams that target vulnerable new arrivals – especially internationals.

What about jobs? What’s the biggest issue there?
It’s hard. You need Danish skills, of course. But it’s difficult to become proficient enough to get a job here. Then there’s dagpenge – it’s targeted at all students, as a safety net – but few courses are actually in English.

And finally, the million dollar question: will you stay?
That’s the thing, I don’t know if I can. What’s ironic is that Denmark needs qualified individuals like myself to contribute to society and the welfare system.

Diana NEW

Diana Kopmane
Latvia; Studied: Multimedia Design at Copenhagen Business Academy

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in Denmark?
I have been living in Copenhagen for two years while studying as a multimedia designer. I’ve found it very hard to find a highly-qualified job. All I could find was freelance work or lowly-qualified jobs such as cleaning and babysitting.

Why do you believe it’s so hard for international students to break into the job market in Denmark?
I think one needs to be very competitive in the field one is applying for jobs in. You have to ask yourself: are you better than a Dane? Danes are fluent in both English and Danish, so the advantage is on their side.

What do you think international students can do to make it easier for themselves?
Learn the language! It’s also a good idea to ask about job positions through the people you know: university tutors, study colleagues, work friends. This is the best way to find a job. Otherwise you can volunteer, or go to municipalities or job bureaus to ask for advice.

Are you going to stay and continue trying your luck?
I tried hard to stay, but in the end I received better offers back home.


Adam Nichols

UK; Studied: Middle East Studies at University of Southern Denmark

What was the biggest challenge you faced as an international student in Denmark?
To be honest, I’ve haven’t even thought of entering the job market in Denmark and most of the problems I faced were as a student at SDU. The university sells itself as an international space (as do most universities in Europe). However, simple things such as library and canteen signs in English do not exist. Danish is the working language for the bureaucracy and the general operation of the university. This excludes and marginalises international participation. As an international student, I cannot run for student office, I cannot use the library without assistance, I cannot apply to be a course representative. Unlike my previous institution, I am first and foremost a guest. Small changes would make a big difference.

You’ve left Denmark. Would you ever return?
I would happily return to Denmark post-university for either work or a holiday. The Danes are wonderful people and I have made some of my closest friends in Odense and Copenhagen. However, as a student I would not return unless the universities became the international spaces that they sell themselves as. Small changes would make a colossal difference to internationals – to Danish student cohesion and the institutions themselves.


Alvaro Lagresa Cruz
Spain; Studied: Middle East Studies at Syddansk University

What is the biggest problem you’ve faced as an international student looking to stay in Denmark?
The cost of finding a job in Denmark is very high. You need a good command of the language and to be well connected. For that you need time, and that also means a lot of money. It is not enough to be in Denmark; you have to be in the important places and centres, and that is basically Copenhagen, which is one of the most expensive cities in the world.

You left Denmark. Why? Would you ever return?
I am now doing what I like far away from Denmark. Although I miss my life back in Odense, so far I don’t plan to return – at least not without a job contract in my hands.

Andrea NEW

Andrea Sanz
Spain; Studied: International Business and Marketing at Aarhus University & University of Southern Denmark

You found a job in Denmark after completing your studies. What do you believe is the most important thing you brought to the table?
When I came here I worked hard on internships, volunteered, took babysitting jobs and organised language exchanges to learn Danish and ‘regrow my roots’. The Danes noticed my efforts and helped me all the way through, and now I have a great job in which I also feel my native background is valued. This reflects very well the sense of equality and openness that I like so much about this country, and that makes it so full of opportunities … when you know how to find them.
Besides, there’s cake everywhere – what’s not to like?

What do you think international students should do to improve their chances of finding work in Denmark?
They need to get out of their comfort zone. Many international students tend to be a bit delusional about what moving to another country is about. For them, a good (and free!) education is the obvious key to a good job, and they become comfortable and build their entire new life around university. But when real life comes knocking, they not only lack the networks, experience and background that locals do, but also realise speaking Danish is more important than they thought. Learn the language and start building a local network the minute you get here!


Lamprini Basdeki
Greece; Studied: MSc in International Security and Law at University of Southern Denmark

What’s been your greatest challenge in Denmark?
After graduating from the University of Southern Denmark, I started seeing myself within the demanding and competitive job market. It is a great challenge for me to find a job, especially in Denmark, where most of the job postings concerning my field (political science, international relations, public administration, governance) are in Danish, and even if they do not require the use of Danish language, people who speak the language are actually preferred for any kind of position. That doesn’t really help the international students to be honest, as not only do they have to graduate from a demanding university, but also learn the language in order to compete within the local market.

Are you considering leaving?
As I am still struggling with the language, I believe that it would be easier for me to find a job outside of Denmark, and if that happens that would be my only reason I guess for leaving the country. Other than that, Denmark is a very nice country to live and work in, which is why I would prefer to stay and be employed here.


Viktorija Gaizutyte
Lithuania; Studied: Medialogy at Aalborg University

What’s the biggest problem with international talent creation in Denmark?
While Denmark is a rather international, open-minded country, this does not always apply to the job market, where the Danish language is key. Secondly, it is of high importance to know the right people in the right places, as many companies do not wish to hire an individual outside of their familiar circles. Finally, you may be required to have 5-10 years’ work experience, despite just having finished your studies.

Would you considering staying?
It is very, very tough, but perhaps the highly competitive job market is just a consequence of the great education possibilities offered in Denmark, which in my opinion is nothing to complain


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