Foreign PhD students in Denmark risk losing residency if they take sick leave

Non-EU nationals who are PhD students in Denmark risk losing their work and residency status if they take time off work due to sickness.

Foreign PhD students in Denmark risk losing residency if they take sick leave
A file photo of the University of Copenhagen. Photo: Sofie Mathiassen/Ritzau Scanpix

Citizens of countries outside the EU who are granted residence permits to study for PhDs in Denmark may be forced to quit their positions and leave the country if they become ill.

The situation can arise because of a clause in immigration rules requiring students to be “active” in their study programmes.

The rule has been criticised as discriminatory and has the potential to discourage PhD students from seeking medical help when unwell, according to a non-EU citizen currently following a PhD programme at a Danish university.

“It is a requirement that an alien is participating actively in the PhD programme that is forming the basis of the person's residence permit as a student,” the Danish Agency for International Recruitment and Integration, SIRI, confirmed to The Local via email.

“It is the educational institution that assesses if the alien is an active student in the programme. As a general rule, the alien is not considered as active student if he/she is on a leave. Consequently, an alien taking leave from his/her studies risks having his/her residence permit revoked,” the agency added.

“However, if the residence permit is revoked, the alien can apply for a new residence permit when he/she is ready to study further,” they also noted.

A foreign PhD student at a Danish university contacted The Local to say they were directly affected by the rule.

The PhD student asked to remain anonymous out of concerns over the impact on their career. Their identity has been verified by The Local.

“I'm a PhD student at Aarhus University. My research project was heavily affected by the coronavirus lockdown. This in turn had negative physical and mental consequences on my own wellbeing,” the person told The Local via email.

“I ended up having a stress burnout in July because of this and a number of other reasons that were indirectly or directly caused by this. My GP informed me that I had severe stress-related symptoms, gave me medication and prescribed me stress leave,” they explained.

“The symptoms were quite bad, and for the first time I decided to seek help,” the PhD student added.

READ ALSO: Opinion: Danish odds are stacked against skilled foreign workers

The individual's doctor initially advised a six-month period of sick leave to recover from the burnout but agreed to revise this down to three months to reduce the length of the absence, according to the account.

The student said they were subsequently informed by their university that, as a non-EU national on a PhD visa, they risked breaching the conditions of their residence and work permit, specifically the requirement to participate actively in the study programme which forms the basis for residency.

“From the viewpoint of the Danish immigration service, by taking a stress leave I'm not 'actively participating',” the PhD student said.

“There are some cases where non-EU (PhD students) were allowed to go on sick leave, but as I understand those are exceptions,” they added.

“I'm fully employed and I'm a tax payer as all other workers in Denmark. I have full access to the Danish health system, however, if I choose to act on that right, then the Danish Immigration Service will likely abolish my residency, which in turn means I will lose my work permit. For some researchers, this means the end of their PhD study in Denmark,” they explained.

The person has since been advised to withdraw their notice of sick leave.

They decided to contact The Local after realising that the rule was relatively unknown among other foreign researchers in Denmark.

“I was surprised by this discriminatory legal/labour practice towards non-EU researchers,” they said, pointing out that such rules could even discourage affected individuals from seeking medical help.

The rule is evidence that “discrimination is even present in highly educated labour practices” in Denmark, they added.

“I would like to point out that the university is not at fault here, it is the Danish Immigration Service that, through their loose interpretation of the residence permit conditions, apply discriminatory policies,” they said.

The Local has contacted Danish political parties including the Social Democrats, Liberal and Social Liberal parties with a request for comment, but has not received response at the time of writing.

The two latter parties have previously advocated more accommodating conditions for bringing highly skilled professionals to Denmark.

The exact rules regulating residence and work permits for non-EU nationals on PhD programmes are regulated by Denmark's 2019 Aliens (Consolidation) Act.

According to the act, a residence permit may be granted upon application to an alien who takes a PhD programme in the country if they are “enrolled at a Danish university and receives pay from the university or a company associated with the alien's PhD programme”; or is “enrolled at a Danish university without receiving any pay from the university or a company in Denmark”.

An executive order under Danish immigration law further states that “a residence permit [granted to students who are non-EU nationals] is subject to the condition that the alien is actively studying in connection with the course or education programme forming the basis of the residence permit”.

Are you an overseas national living and working in Denmark? Do you have a story to share related to immigration rules? Feel free to contact us — we'd be happy to hear from you.

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What are the hardest things about moving to provincial Denmark as a foreigner?

Foreign residents who have moved to lesser-known regions of the country share their experiences of life in provincial Denmark. 

Provincial regions of Denmark want to attract skilled foreign workers, but what are the biggest challenges faced by relocators?
Provincial regions of Denmark want to attract skilled foreign workers, but what are the biggest challenges faced by relocators? Photo: Signe Goldmann/Ritzau Scanpix

Editor’s note: there are of course also many positives about living in provincial Denmark, and people based in those areas were happy to share those too. Read what they said in this article.

When Lea Cesar moved from Slovenia to the town of Ringkøbing in 2011, she didn’t know much about the region of western Jutland. 

“In the beginning, I didn’t like how difficult it was to find a job as a foreigner in a smaller city,” Cesar told The Local. Back then she didn’t speak Danish, and that made it hard to find a job that matched her skills and qualifications. 

“I later took it as a challenge and started my own company,” Cesar said, opening a cafe and bakery called Baking Sins in central Ringkøbing. Once she’d taken things into her own hands, she thrived and came to love her town. 

“I love the small shops with handcrafted products,” she said, drawing a comparison to the big shops and chain stores of larger cities. “The culture here is totally different. Ringkøbing is a smaller town, but feels big enough for me.”

Considering the pros and cons of a life in lesser-known parts of Denmark has never been more relevant, as the Danish government amps up efforts to decentralise Denmark and municipalities look to internationals to balance out declining populations. 

READ ALSO: Is it easier for foreigners to find a job outside Denmark’s major cities?

There may be fewer job opportunities, depending on your industry and Danish language skills

Fewer job opportunities, Cesar said, is one of the primary differences between living in a town like Ringkøbing versus a larger city. 

“There aren’t as many companies here searching for employees that only speak English,” she said. “I think it’s important to speak at least basic Danish; otherwise it would be hard to come here.”

Antoniya Petkov, originally from Bulgaria, faced similar challenges finding work when she moved to Ringkøbing several years ago after her husband accepted a job at a wind energy company in the area. 

“Most of the job opportunities in my field in the area require a high level of Danish language, which I am still working toward,” Petkov told The Local. 

In the meantime, she continues to commute to Aarhus, where she works as a technical recruiter in systematics at a large Danish software firm. “However, there are a lot more opportunities for developers, engineers and people with a technical job profile where Danish isn’t required,” Petkov said.

Even in technical roles, Danish proficiency helps. 

Victor Balaban, originally from Moldova, moved to Vejle while working at Siemens Gamesa. Although he said there are plenty of job opportunities in the region, Balaban said his options would be significantly more limited if he didn’t speak Danish.

Candice Progler-Thomsen, an American living in Lolland, said Danish proficiency is “almost essential” to find a job in the municipality. “There will be greater job opportunities here for individuals who learn Danish,” she told The Local. 

And, because it’s a smaller area with fewer employers, Progler-Thomsen said people may need to be willing to commute or otherwise expand their job search.

READ ALSO: Why (and how) Danish provincial areas want to hire skilled foreign workers

On the other hand, there may also be less competition for jobs in lesser-known parts of Denmark, said Mariola Kajkowska. 

Originally from Poland, Kajkowska moved to Vejle in 2019, where she works as an employee retention consultant. “There are often fewer applicants for each job, which increases your chance to be selected for the position,” she said.

Speaking Danish is important, professionally and socially

When Petkov first moved to Ringkøbing, it was challenging that she didn’t speak Danish. It was hard to do daily tasks, like communicate with workers at her children’s daycare or chat with her neighbours.

“People were distant at first when we bought our house in a typical Danish neighbourhood,” she said. 

It was very different from Aarhus, where they had lived before moving to Ringkøbing. “Aarhus has a huge international community,” she said. “We were always able to find friends and it was easy to get by speaking English.”

Petkov also missed the variety of English events and activities available in Aarhus. “But, we compensate by going to international events in the municipality,” she said.

Balaban, who established baseball clubs in both Herning and Vejle, said being a part of the community and getting involved is integral to building a social network and making friends in Vejle. “You have to be an active part of society,” he said.

Although learning Danish was a challenge, Petkov also saw it as an opportunity. “I’m not sure I would have learned Danish if we were living in Copenhagen or Aarhus,” she said. “You just don’t need it much there.”

Now, she’s learned enough Danish to engage in small talk with her neighbours. “Once people got used to us, we felt very welcome,” Petkov said, “though I don’t think we will ever blend completely.”

Chris Wantia, also a resident of Ringkøbing-Skjern Municipality, has found Danish to be integral to life in rural Denmark. 

He lives in the village of Bork Havn, population 300. “When I walk out of my house, I don’t expect my 65-year-old Danish neighbour to speak to me in English,” Wantia told The Local.

“English may be fine in the big cities, but speaking Danish here is important,” he said, adding that it would have been very challenging to purchase and renovate the two homes he and his wife, Janine, own in the municipality if he didn’t speak Danish. 

A second silver lining Petkov has identified is that living in Ringkøbing has also enabled her family to engage more deeply with Danes and Danish culture, adding that most of her friends are Danish. 

“If you really want to dive into Danish culture, a place like Ringkøbing is amazing,” she said.

There’s less to do, depending on your interests (and you might need to drive)

“You can count on one hand the number of good restaurants within 50 kilometres of Bork Havn,” Wantia told The Local. Although that wasn’t a dealbreaker for him and his wife, Janine, it might be worth some consideration before moving to a village like Bork Havn. 

“If you want many restaurants, parties, or meeting new people all the time, this isn’t the place for you,” he said. “It’s quiet here. Some people might not like that, but it’s perfect for us.”

Vejle, though much larger than Bork Havn with a population of 113,000, also isn’t a very lively city in terms of nightlife, according to Balaban.

“I’d say it’s a mature city,” he said. “It’s a quiet city that attracts a lot of families and people who are more settled down.”

Ultimately, having ‘things to do’ nearby depends on which activities you prefer. 

In Lolland, Progler-Thomsen said it’s “a bit of a sacrifice” to not have easy access to the cultural activities the family had in Copenhagen. 

READ ALSO: Are provincial parts of Denmark a good option for international families?

In exchange, her family has access to activities it enjoys that weren’t available in Copenhagen, including many outdoor activities and sports. “We love the Safari Park that’s only a 7-minute drive from our house,” Progler-Thomsen said. 

That’s something else to consider, though: driving. 

Kajkowska, in Vejle, said driving will play more of a role in one’s life, living in these parts of Denmark. “I was at a party the other night and two cars had driven one and a half hours from Sønderborg to come to the party,” she said.

READ ALSO: What benefits does life in provincial Denmark offer foreign residents?

For the most part, Petkov said she doesn’t feel like she’s missing out by living in Ringkøbing.

She enjoys several favorite cafes in town, an Italian restaurant where they are regulars and enjoy chatting with the owners, exploring the beaches and woods, and escaping to the wellness hotel near their house for mini-breaks. “In the summer, it feels like living at a resort,” Petkov said. 

“Ringkøbing is a great place for our family,” she said. “The benefits outweigh the drawbacks for us.”