Opinion: Don’t close the door on international education in Denmark!

A foreigner’s commentary on Denmark’s new ‘future minister’

I am one of these fortunate students who has been granted a full tuition scholarship and monthly stipend approaching a net value of half a million kroner.

Before I even go further, I need to express unfathomable gratitude. First, thank you Denmark – you are my new home now and the only place I truly feel myself and like every day is full of possibility. Thank you to DIS-Study Abroad in Scandinavia for providing such a fantastic introduction to a new culture and education system. And finally, thank you to my home country, the US, for educating me well enough to qualify for the Danish Government Scholarship, which has been the ultimate blessing in my life.

I bought my one-way ticket in 2014 with two professional US bachelor degrees under my belt and a solid background in classical violin. I thought I was employable, an interesting human being, and ready for the world. Where did I land? At an internship where I swept the basement of a bike shop each day.

Funding fracas
I got the news of my acceptance to the MSc program in global health at the University of Copenhagen (KU) during an awful day at ‘work’. I stood up at my desk and felt a pang of excitement and relief from my current state of living as I exalted: “I GOT INTO KU!”. Now, how to pay?

I emailed countless administrators at the university and every website seemed to say in bold letters: “There are no funding opportunities for international students”, save the option to take out additional US loans. You gotta love William D Ford. The doors were all closed, even though the door I had been hoping for was ajar with tantalising opportunity.

After some waiting, I finally got an email from a woman in the financial department at KU. All the email said was “you should actually open your letter of acceptance”. She was right.

In it to win it
In all my excitement and buzz, I hadn’t even opened the actual electronic acceptance letter on the admissions portal. After navigating through the maze, I got to the letter and there it was: “It is our pleasure to inform you that you have been admitted to the two-year MSc program in global health, at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Copenhagen, starting September 2015.”

Great… but then the next paragraph: “The Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences has a very limited number of scholarships available for the 2015 international student admission. Due to your excellent academic standing, you have been granted a Danish government scholarship which includes: a tuition waiver for the two-year program”.

I cried and called every person I knew. Life shook me and said: “Zach, see? You are going to be alright.” There were a lot of times during that year when I didn’t think I would be okay – when I thought I had made a huge mistake. I decided from that letter on that I would stay here to have a family, to capitalise on my professional career, integrate into Danish culture and society, and grow my local and international network. The challenge was on and it was exciting.

A taxing process
I understand the allocation of funds for education becomes controversial when people take all that tax money and return home to their countries of origin. This is unfortunate and even makes me, a foreign national, wince in frustration. That in itself is not fantastic, but there are definitely solutions that should be considered before cutting all international funding and education programs and taking the most drastic measures before considering what is truly at stake.

First of all, what is an ‘international’ or a ‘foreign national’? Are the ‘one out of five’ funded students who leave the country after obtaining their ‘free’ education (we still pay taxes by the way) non-EU? This data can easily be skewed to exclude EU foreign nationals and represent only non-EU minorities who have the largest legislative hurdles for remaining in the country after we graduate – not to mention financial.

Yes, the Establishment Card Scheme is fabulous, and you bet I have my eyes on it, but my wallet says differently. I don’t know any students who have 90,000 kroner in disposable income after studying to earn the Danish governments’ definition of the bare minimum for survival in the country for one year.

If this data reflects one in five non-EU students, then yes perhaps you are right with us leaving, but it is not because we premeditated these gains in pursuit of our lives back home. That would be like saying I swept a bike shop basement for six months for nothing. It would be like saying my one-way ticket was a mistake. It would be like saying I didn’t actually have the qualifications to earn a scholarship in the first place – that it must have been a matter of chance or Danish roulette.

They don’t make it easy
We would have left because the policies in place for foreign nationals to enter and remain in the country are incomprehensive and do not streamline the process for integration – they rely on a sink or swim philosophy and policy base. This is especially in consideration that foreign nationals have no definitive say in the formulation of any policies whatsoever or that it will now take six years to become a permanent resident.

There is only so long we can prolong having a salary and being functioning adults before we need to throw in the towel and return home to make a living. For reference, my peers with bachelor degrees in the US have already had salaries for years and are growing their futures with confidence.

I have come from the basement of a bike shop to jobs within health policy strategy for the European region at the World Health Organization within HIV/AIDS and hepatitis and now policy within Novo Nordisk, recognising I needed to make moves towards a Danish company if my future was to be certainty in Denmark.

We, being myself and my peers at university, have climbed the ladder from bottom to top and we are still told it is insufficient by a system that cannot help but ostracise both refugees fleeing conflict and highly-educated young people it has paid to recruit. This is a flaw in government policy, but the answer is not cutting the ropes when you realise you have made mistakes – it’s adjusting the knots.

Delving into data
The questioning of the data the research minister Søren Pind relies on in his basis for putting a cap on international students coming to Denmark (read here in English) is necessary. I study global health and work closely with demography and epidemiology. We know better than anyone how to manipulate the data to convince people what we say is true. You taught us how to do it, after all. A favourite professor at KU, Siri Tellier, told us to always question the data quality and integrity. When you say the death rate is 1.5 you need to ask “per what”?

I do not doubt Danish economists to rely on strict and well-calculated data concerning educated foreign nationals, but I do question the phrasing of it and its manipulation when delivered to the media. I am asking Søren Pind to be specific and answer us: “per what”?

Next, where do Danes go, and a vast majority of the world, when their R&D pharmaceutical pipelines hit the roof? Or when their cancer treatments aren’t robust enough, or when they cannot treat rare genetic diseases during end-of-life care and need more support? They go to the US. Where would we be without Harvard, Stanford, and Yale? Before I go on claiming this ‘America first’ attitude as my own, I will note Denmark’s own Ib Christian Bygbjerg phrased it this way to me.

It would be wise to meet, especially Americans, with open arms during this politically frightening time when countries are closing in on themselves. The future of R&D depends and relies on doors being open. Never has there been a time more necessary for mobility, internationalisation, educated young people, and academics than now. If the only alternative is that you do not want to pay, then how will you attract the young people you will need later to be your ambassadors and advocate for you?

Denmark needs us
Every country, not least a small country relying heavily on imports and exports like Denmark, needs young well-educated ambassadors who will advocate for them and give them what they need. If you can ensure that the next life-changing drug or the next life-saving insulin will come from Funen or Jutland, then by all means, close your doors, shut us out, and re-evaluate your HR departments. Suit up. However, if you can’t ensure that production, then I would ask yourselves: “Per what”?

When Søren Pind became the development minister in 2010, he called himself ‘Minister of Freedom’ and when he was justice minister in 2015-16, he referred to himself as the ’sheriff’. This time, Pind is Denmark’s new ‘future minister’. But, how can he invest in a future for Denmark without treating highly-educated and qualified people well?

I would urge, before coming to drastic solutions like immediate programmatic cuts, to consider well-thought-out solutions that strike a balance between the nationalist political drivers in the Danish government and the clear need for knowledge-sharing and growth across borders in this politically frightening time.

Housing and A-Kasse
Here are some ideas we have thought of:

  • Include us in your A-Kasse scheme for job recruitment purposes, not for dagpenge. At this point, we don’t want to give you more financial collateral against us, but it would be great to pay into an A-Kasse and receive a job counsellor like our Danish counterparts.
  • Maybe you could lessen the financial requirement for an Establishment Card and evaluate how many of us actually find jobs and integrate sufficiently within two years; I can ensure you that your one in five proportion will go up.
  • Stabilise your housing situation. Maybe if students didn’t have to move every three months, on average, they would feel more comfort to remain. There are places to go that do not abolish what your very own Danish peers before you worked so hard to establish – like innovative and highly-impactful programs in global health and global development.

Here to stay not go away
These are programs that reflect the global needs that Denmark has made academic and financial commitments to, even using them to repeatedly market themselves to attract foreign investment and interest in Danish products.

My gratitude is limitless for the opportunities I have been given here, but I will not stand quietly while a system presumptuously assumes I premeditated these gains in order to leave when each day is spent working hard to stay.