Inclusion in Danish higher education 'a tough task': international students

Punvi Kalia
Punvi Kalia - [email protected]
Inclusion in Danish higher education 'a tough task': international students
Photo: Iris/Scanpix

The Local’s Punvi Kalia spoke to past and present international students in Denmark about the challenges they faced trying to fit into life in the Scandinavian country.


Recently, a report released by NGO European Network Against Racism concluded that racism plays a key role in migrants’ exclusion in Denmark. The report made reference to verbal or physical threats, ethnic profiling, political trends and limited access to the labour market.

But what about students who are not migrants, who simply come to Denmark to attain further studies, with many of them paying out of their pockets? Do they really feel affected by racism?

Aarhus University, one of the oldest in Denmark, sees thousands of international students coming each year for one or two terms.

There are many events in place to make international students feel included, like free Danish language courses, scholarships as well as free public events giving exposure to Danish culture, but there still remains a struggle for newcomers to fit in.

For 36-year-old Moamen Abdelkawy, a scholarship holder and father of one, exclusion went beyond language barrier and cultural differences. Abdelkawy was accepted to a Master’s degree in Quantitative Economics at Aarhus University under a scheme aimed at highly qualified non-EU students admitted to graduate studies at an eligible Danish university. Abdelkawy, who is from Cairo, came to Denmark in August 2016 and left earlier this month.

“I was very happy the first two months in Denmark, there's no bureaucracy at all and the university is highly organised – and that's coming from someone who has dealt with a lot of universities and working in academia. I got my accommodation through AU housing and my neighbours are some of the best people I have met in my life.

"We explored the city, the weather was amazing and the Aarhus Festival Week was much fun. Compared to Egypt, Denmark is much more organised, more green, and the traffic is much, much better,” said Abdelkawy, who is now back home spending time with family.

His welcome week itself was a preview of what was ahead, especially being the only non-EU student in his programme. In the events during the welcoming week, other international students from various programmes told him that their access to the labour market is limited, and that many of them had taken a year to land a job despite having better qualifications than their Danish counterparts.

Many also criticised Danes for being “not nice” and “miserable,” which surprised Abdelkawy, given the “perfect” image of Denmark he had come to expect from social media such as Facebook.

Abdelkawy says he tried to learn some Danish a few months before arriving in the country. But the Egyptian doesn’t think language is the real barrier for foreigners in Denmark.

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“The language is not the problem in Denmark, the real issue here is that when you discover that you're not accepted in that society, with a crazy government that pushes everyone out, and no chance of finding a suitable job. Learning Danish becomes totally useless since there's absolutely no use of that language outside the country,” said Abdelkawy, who by January 2017 had received over 45 rejection emails from different Danish companies.

Language lessons are not a magic solution for those trying to find work. Photo: ricochet69/Depositphotos

The Danish concept of ‘hygge’, increasingly well-known internationally due to a foreign media infatuation over the last couple of years, can be a great coping mechanism against the country’s harsh grey winters.

One aspect of hygge is good company, for example sharing dinners and brunches, and while it works for many, some, like Abdelkawy, felt otherwise.

“I was extremely depressed, I had suicidal thoughts for the first time in my life. I never heard about it before but I think I had seasonal affective disorder (SAD). I barely finished my first semester exams. It was still very bad and being surrounded by Danes didn't help. I felt as though I was in a prison and I didn't get better until May when I took the decision to leave Denmark,” he said.

When asked about the university authorities who might have helped in making the situation better for him, Abdelkawy said that “the university is very well organised, but there's a catch, as for everything in Denmark it's only suitable for Danes and they don't care if it's working for others.”

Blanka Eszter Koi, a Hungarian student who was on the Global Nutrition and Health programme at the VIA University, points out similar issues with the academic system at university level in Denmark.

“I do love Denmark and love the culture and don’t want to sound ungrateful or anything, but my study experience here was really bad,” Koi says.

READ ALSO: Denmark falls in international student satisfaction rank

Despite understanding Danish, Koi says she struggled to fit in, particularly when it came to group work assignments.

“Most of the Danes liked to work after school but majority of international students had jobs to go to. This made completing assignments a tough task and gave the impression that the non-Danish students were not sincere towards our studies. It came to a point where the Danes went to the teacher saying that they no longer want to work with international students and eventually the groups were separated – Danes and non-Danes.”

Koi remembers thinking of dropping out during her second year because she simply didn’t feel included.

“At the beginning, the class distribution was 50-50, with a total of 40 students, and in the end only five international students graduated,” she said.

Students in Denmark’s smaller towns, which do not see the influx of international students of main cities Aarhus and Copenhagen, noted similar experiences.

Aarhus University. Photo: Rhinomind/Wikimedia Commons

Waseem, whose name has been changed as he is still an active student, is an architecture student from Pakistan at a university in Kolding.

Waseem says that he and fellow South Asian students have experienced discrimination in public places such as 7-Eleven convenience stores, and even by European classmates.

“Although I do not have a problem with my university or the education system per se,” he added, but noted difficulties finding part-time work. Waseem, like his friends from India and Pakistan, has work experience of up to five years in his field, but has failed to land any job other than cleaning, dishwashing or similar unskilled roles.

“There is nothing wrong with putting restrictions when it comes to working hours for us international students, but the problem is the type of jobs offered to us on the basis of our skin colour,” Waseem said. He added that he tried to learn the language, and like Abdelkawy, felt that a lack of acceptance, rather than the language was the problem.

“I was aware of hate crimes in the U.S. and the U.K. and that is why I did not opt for them, but to be honest, what we call soft racism, it is not exactly that soft in Denmark,” he said.

He says that he cannot blame Danes for having certain perceptions about countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan or India, citing media depictions of those countries.

“But I hope something is done, by our government as well as theirs, to make further studies for professionals like me smoother, so that future students from such countries find it easier to survive here, especially when it comes to job opportunities.”

Abdelkawy, who is at present weighing his options in Cairo having been offered a number of European scholarships for the next academic session, said that he found the political reality in Denmark to be different from other western European countries.

“There's something very dangerous in Denmark compared to other European countries . In France or Germany or the U.K. you'll have one or two far right parties that want to push all foreigners out, while the other political main stream is reasonable in that matter. In Denmark, attacks on foreigners come from right and left. The far right party [Danish People’s Party, ed.] is the second biggest party in the parliament, and the current immigration policy is very successful in driving people away from Denmark. I'm a living example.”  

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