EU students in Denmark caught in a bind on SU relief
As the Coronavirus Crisis drags on, many people’s employment, financial standing, or even their housing situations have come under serious threat by its impact. Some EU students living and studying in Denmark at a higher education institution who have come to rely on its state education aid program, Statens Uddannelsesstøtte (SU), have experienced a domino effect on all fronts upon losing their jobs.
In order to be considered of equal status to Danish citizens under EU law and thus eligible to receive SU assistance, EU students must have either resided in Denmark for five or more years or fulfilled certain conditions as a worker.
These conditions involve working a minimum 10-12 hours per week and 43 hours monthly for a continuous period of 10 weeks, and per the SU website: “If you do not meet the conditions for being a worker … we will discontinue your SU, and if you have received too much SU, you must pay back this amount.”
Insult to injury
Many EU students who take advantage of this program work part-time and in the service industries – often the first jobs to have been slashed amid the coronavirus restrictions as companies have scrambled to rein in costs. Pressure mounted to begin laying off such workers en masse after PM Mette Frederiksen announced a lockdown of most shops and restaurants on March 11.
As a result of losing their jobs, they have been unable to satisfy the conditions for being considered a worker and have begun receiving bills from SU for the repayment of financial aid issued to them. The amount of the bill, determined by the number of weeks and months they have failed to meet the required work hours, has come to the tune of tens of thousands of kroner for those affected.
This has put tremendous pressure on EU students who are otherwise not eligible for government assistance as foreign citizens nor for any of the Coronavirus Crisis rescue packages implemented by the Danish government, as they are not available to part-time workers. As full-time students, many are left under these circumstances with no income to fall back on while still juggling their rent and now a hefty bill from SU.
SU COVID-19 policy
SU on its website acknowledges that the coronavirus outbreak is an extraordinary situation and that it will take this into account in its ongoing assessment of a student’s status as a worker under EU law.
“As a rule, you can maintain your status as a worker during the period in which official recommendations from Danish authorities to reduce the spread of COVID-19 can implicate that you cannot work. We currently consider this period to be from mid-March 2020 to the end of June 2020,” the COVID-19 notice on its website states. “As a rule, after this period, we expect you to continue your work.”
The notice is not as reassuring for those whose contracts have been terminated altogether. It reiterates that you can in some cases maintain your status as an EU worker for a period of time after termination, but that you must: “1/ Provide documentation showing that you have become involuntarily unemployed; 2/ Have registered as a job seeker at your local job centre; and 3/ Meet the job centre’s standard job search requirements.”
In any case, you must also prove that you have satisfied the condition of continuous employment leading up to your work stoppage. This is not possible for many who began their work in 2020 as the coronavirus outbreak first started severely impacting economies around the world in early February.
“We, as a starting point, expect that you as a minimum have worked 10-12 hours each week in a consecutive period of 10 weeks leading up to when you stop working,” added the SU website.
It is difficult to say how many EU students have been made to pay back their SU under these circumstances, but if the outpouring of consternation online is any indication, then there are many.
Thousands of members of Facebook groups like ‘Coronaknibe’ and, ironically enough, ‘I study in Denmark and do not get SU’ have been reaching out for legal guidance on SU repayments, whilst sharing online petitions and imploring fellow members to contact the Ministry of Higher Education and Science with their stories.
In the same way the Danish government has initiated a pause on the so-called ‘225-hour work rule’ for Danish nationals in order to receive unemployment benefits, online activists and those affected have been calling on the Danish government to temporarily waive the continuous work and 10-hours-a-week conditions for SU.
For the time being, EU students in Denmark will have to grapple with the weight of an SU repayment bill over their heads while also attempting to focus on their studies. Some may have to consider returning to their home countries.