Denmark: Amid Skills Shortages, Calls Grow For More Foreign Students

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Recent warnings from mayors in Esbjerg and Sønderborg, both situated in Jutland, Denmark, about an acute shortage of skilled labour that is already being felt, have drawn critical attention to parliament’s decision to cut the number of places available to international students in higher education institutions.

The mayors’ concerns were reported on 25 August by Jyllands-Posten – the main newspaper in the Jutland region – which ran several articles in August on the need for more international students due to shortages of experts.

According to the report, in Esbjerg, the business academy admitted 78 students into English-taught study programmes, but they had to reject 195 applicants due to a decision by parliament in 2022 to reduce the number of study places by 89. In total nearly 4,000 study places taught in English have been cut, as reported by University World News.

Esbjerg mayor, Jesper Frost Rasmussen, said he is deeply critical of the parliamentary decision. “It is a paradox of another world that we have to reject so many international students that we would like to have here … we now have to reject them when we are in need of them in the workforce,” he is reported to have said.

According to Rasmussen, Esbjerg is a multicultural port city home to citizens from 150 different countries, and the English-taught study programmes are of great importance.

In Sønderborg, where a business academy had to close all 20 English-taught study places in computer science, there is also criticism of parliament: “It is stupid. Our experience demonstrates that we manage to retain international students when they have graduated and for me it is evident that we in Denmark cannot escape having to import many young people to our country [for employment], the mayor, Erik Lauritzen, said.

Commercial director of windmill software company Shoreline Wind in Esbjerg, Michael Bjerrum, confirmed that his company could employ more people: “We could have had twice as many employed in Esbjerg if we had access to qualified graduates in this area. Now we have to employ staff members in Norway, Sweden, Germany and France. But we would have preferred that they were sitting here in Esbjerg,” he said.

Firm endorsement

The two mayor’s viewpoints received firm endorsement by two industry heavyweights in an opinion piece written for Business newspaper Finans on 31 August in which they accuse Denmark’s immigration rules of strangling the country’s business and research climate

The authors are Jens Hjarsbech, chief economist at the business community think tank Axcelfuture, and Inge Berneke, senior vice-president of corporate affairs at the healthcare research institute the Lundbeck Foundation (Lundbeckfonden).

According to the CPH Post, Hjarsbech and Berneke observe that “highly educated people encounter obstacles of both a professional and private nature when they attempt to build a long-term existence in Denmark”.

They say that business schemes designed to obtain employment and residence permits are too restrictive, slow and complex for non-EU workers with the result that only 20% of highly educated foreign workers come from outside the EU.

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen admitted in an interview to Berlingske that the lack of skilled workers in Denmark was creating problems and threatened to halt development. She said a primary goal over the coming years will be to find more hands.

But the newspaper Børsen, which conducted a survey this year, reported that 15.1% of those asked said that they wanted to work fewer hours and only 5.1% said that they wanted to work more hours. The survey prompted a leading economist and chair of the Reform Commission, Nina Smith, to observe that such a movement towards less work is “really poisonous for a welfare state that is wired the way Denmark is”.

A country-wide investigation by the Danish Chamber of Commerce from November 2022 to April 2023 found that businesses could not fill 60,000 posts.

International students: Part of the solution

Minister for Higher Education and Science Christina Egelund told Jyllands-Posten she was concerned about the issue and said that several of the proposed responses to a shortage of skilled personnel suggest that an increase in international students could be a part of the solution.

She referred to the implementation of reforms that will see 1,100 English-taught study places added each year from 2024, and 2,500 each year from 2029. Egelund said that she was open to discuss models that could allow business schools to admit more international students in the future.

A follow-up article on 25 August headlined “Danish Business: New figures on foreign labour show the need to open a closed door”, referred to a chamber analysis that shows that foreign citizens are increasingly being engaged as employees in several sectors of the Danish economy – a reality that supports the need for more international students, according to the Chamber.

“The reduction in international students is clearly too hard and this is very frustrating. In the short run one has wanted to reduce the SU [financial support to students, including international students] but in the longer run this issue is about the recruitment of highly qualified personnel which is not some low-hanging fruit that is easy to pick. This is something we in Denmark have to fight hard for,” said Peter Halkjær who is head of the labour market division in the Danish Chamber of Commerce.

He said the calculations that were used for the 2022 reductions in English-taught places may be based on incomplete data: “This issue is not only about the SU”, he said, “but also about the work the international students will be doing when retained after their studies. This work will be taxed, and it is the potential for retaining them that will be decisive for our growth in Denmark and contribute to the need for a workforce in other areas,” he said.

The chamber analysis found that almost 53,000 employees within public administration, education and health had a foreign background and that over the last 10 years every third new colleague in these branches had been recruited from abroad.

Halkjær has proposed that the government look into a model where higher education institutions are rewarded financially for the number of international students they manage to retain after graduation.

As the country grapples with the issue, Denmark nonetheless appears to be showing more interest in recruiting students and high-level skills from Africa, where the population is expected to double before 2050 to 2.5 billion.

Over seven days in August, Minister of Foreign Affairs Lars Løkke Rasmussen visited Kenya and China. In an article in Berlingske, he is quoted as saying: “Europe is in need of Africa. We shall listen more and moralise less”.

He said he will be arguing for greater “pragmatism” with regard to the controversial issue of recruiting more people into the workforce: “more employees and students from Africa shall come to Denmark”.

Løkke Rasmussen said Denmark needs more friends and will build “partnerships based on equality”, hoping that Denmark and other Europeans will build closer ties to African nations.

In 2020, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs worked out a strategy for collaboration with Kenya 2021-2025 based on a broad political majority.

Løkke Rasmussen’s visit followed a visit in June this year by Frederiksen to Namibia and South Africa, together with the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. In March this year, Frederiksen also visited Egypt where she had talks with Prime Minister Moustafa Madbouly.

The case for more international students

Frede Blaabjerg, a professor in the Department of Energy Technology at Aalborg University and chairman of the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy, told University World News the country does “not have the right education in the fields that we are giving advice in” and said he agrees that the solution to a lack of qualified personnel was to admit more international students to Denmark.

Jesper Langergaard, director of Universities Denmark, agreed.

“Considering the demographics in Denmark, with smaller youth cohorts expected in the coming years, we need to increase the number of international students at university level, otherwise we risk a shortage of academic labour,” he told University World News.

“International students at university level have a better retention rate than all other groups, and the highest economic return on investment. In light of this and the shortage of labour in the coming years, we urge the politicians to lift the current restrictions on the intake of international students.

Camilla Gregersen, chairperson of the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs (DM), said: “I fully understand the frustration in Esbjerg. We have never hidden the fact that we do not like the master’s reform and the prospect of a number of masters programs being shortened.

“We support more English-language education, and we welcome students from all over the world. Of course it is crucial that the applicants have the qualifications … but there are many talented people, also in Africa. International students can bring new input and raise the quality of the programmes,” she told University World News.

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