OPINION: Denmark must treat international students equally over residency

A bill supported by Denmark’s left-wing parties seeks to give education equality with full-time work in considering residency cases. Foreigners who have studied in Denmark deserve to have their work recognised, writes Naqeeb Khan.

OPINION: Denmark must treat international students equally over residency
File photo: Mathias Bojesen/Ritzau Scanpix

According to a 2017 Ministry of Higher Education and Science assessment, 80 percent of foreign graduates from Danish universities leave Denmark within two years of their graduation.

This is probably because of the difficulty many experience trying to fulfil stringent criteria in order to be allowed a settled future. 

Under current rules, there are two ways to fulfil criteria for permanent residency in Denmark for non-EU nationals:

  • You can apply for permanent residency after four years of residence in Denmark if you fulfil all four supplementary requirements which are: 1) full-time work in each of the last 4 years; 2) pass the Danish language exam, PD3; 3) demonstrate an income of 290,000 kroner in each of the last two years; 4) pass an active citizenship (medborgerskab) exam.
  • The second way is to apply after residing for eight years in Denmark. Here, you must have been in full time work for 3.5 years during the last 4 years, plus fulfil 2 of the above 4 requirements. There must not be a 6-month continuous break in full time work: this resets the counter.

The Social Liberal (Radikale Venstre) party in October tabled bill B65 at the Danish parliament, proposing the inclusion of education as full-time work in permanent residency criteria. The bill has the support of all the other left wing minority parties, but the governing Social Democrats have not said they will vote for it.

The Social Democrats are still reluctant to support the bill. When I had a chat in January with Rasmus Stoklund, the party’s immigration spokesperson, he categorically rejected the proposal.

International students

The exclusion of education as a form of employment directly affects international students.

READ ALSO: Why do foreigners leave Denmark when they want to stay?

An international (non-EU) student pays a tuition fee of at least 75,000 kroner per year to a Danish university. They spend up to 80 hours a month working and pay taxes.

Chrissy Patton, an American student in Denmark who graduated from Aalborg University in January 2020, is now working in Denmark on a so-called establishment card, which is valid for two years and can be extended for a further year.

“Although I’ve graduated with my Master’s degree from a Danish university, have lived here for the last five years, passed the Danish language exam PD3 and have a full time job, I still won’t qualify for permanent residency anytime soon as I have to work full time for a minimum of 3.5 years before I can be eligible to even apply,” Patton says.

“I will likely have to rely on the pay limit scheme in order to meet the 3.5 year requirement, but that means I should have a permanent job contract with a salary of more than 436,000 kroner a year (and this amount increases every year) which is extremely difficult for a new graduate,” Patton adds.

Chrissy Patton at her Aalborg University graduation. Photo: supplied

International students in such cases can be forced to leave Denmark despite being well integrated, highly qualified and in full time jobs. If education was considered as full-time employment, they would not only find it easier to stay in Denmark but also qualify for permanent residency and focus on their career, which ultimately would contribute to the Danish society and economy.

Reunified spouses

Thousands of Danes are married to individuals from outside of the EU. They join their spouses via strict and controversial family reunification laws after fulfilling a series of requirements.

Thereafter, these spouses have to individually fulfil all the requirements for permanent residency.

They have to work full-time for 3.5 continuous years after graduation, which means a wait of approximately 7-8 years after coming to the country, if they decide to study and become qualified before entering the labour market. Alternatively, they can decide to forego their studies and work in an unskilled job, thereby reaching the residency requirement — full time work for 3.5 of the last 4 years — faster.

Leaving education is not only to the detriment of their personal growth but results in Denmark gaining unskilled, rather than skilled labour.

Copenhagen School of Design and Technology graduate Katie Larsen came to Denmark in 2015 from the United States. She is now married to a Dane. She represented Denmark at Dutch Design Week 2019, with a project rooted in Danish history and culture, at a conference for the world’s best design graduates. She could not apply for permanent residency because education is not counted as full-time work, so she applied for family reunification.

Larsen lost her job after the coronavirus crisis and has since left Denmark with her Danish husband to study in The Netherlands. She plans to return in a few years’ time under EU laws.

Katie Larsen at Copenhagen School of Design and Technology. Photo: supplied

“I was two months away from completing my mandatory integration contract with Slagelse (Municipality), a contract that required me to work for at least a year to prove my ‘self-sufficiency’,” she wrote in a LinkedIn post in April (Larsen has given permission to link to the post).

After losing her job due to the coronavirus crisis, “any hope of applying for permanent residence in the next four years has also been ruined,” she wrote.

Had education counted as full time work, as it did prior to a 2016 law change, she would have already qualified for permanent residency.

Reunified children

The children of reunified international workers also suffer because of the strict permanent residency laws.

If a child joins their family in Denmark at the age of, let’s say 14 and their parents do not get permanent residency while the child is under 18, the young person will have to fulfil all the permanent residency requirements on their own.

They either have to leave education to get permanent residency in four years via working, or wait for another eight to ten years to qualify for permanent residency. Their future remains totally uncertain until they are granted permanent residency.

Maya Young came to Denmark when she was 14 years under the terms of her father’s work visa. She is now 17 and studying at a state school. Her father will not be eligible to apply for permanent residence next year, when she turns 18. This means that after she turns 18, she will have to fulfil all the permanent residency requirements on her own.

Maya Young with her parents in Denmark. Photo: supplied

“If education counts as full time work, I can apply for my permanent residency permit next year as I have been studying ever since I came to Denmark almost three years ago. This will bring calm in my life and I will be able to focus on my studies and career,” Young says.

Danish politicians must consider the lives of these young, highly qualified individuals before voting on this bill. Education, rightly recognised as full time work, will only benefit the Danish society and economy.

Naqeeb Khan is a research graduate of the University of Glasgow, Scotland and resides in Denmark. He is president of Green Human Resources and an executive member with the Danish Green Card Association (DGCA). He can be contacted via email.

Member comments

  1. I would love to hear more updates on this issue in the coming months. I am seriously considering coming to Denmark for a master’s degree.

  2. I would love to hear more updates on this issue in the coming months. I am seriously considering coming to Denmark for a master’s degree.

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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.”