Denmark concerned about the high proportion of foreign students who leave after graduation

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Studies reveal that a large percentage of international students leave Denmark within two years of graduation
  • Danish officials have announced new measures to constrain the number of student spaces in selected programmes with especially high departure rates, and are also taking steps to boost the retention of foreign graduates
  • The Danish government prefers that a greater proportion of foreign graduates remain in the country, and contribute to the national economy, for an extended period after graduation

A new study from Denmark’s Ministry of Higher Education and Science reveals that many international students leave the country after completing their studies rather than staying on to live and work in Denmark.

The study finds that stay rates vary depending on the academic programme in question, and bachelor’s degree graduates are less likely to stay on to work in Denmark than are graduates from master’s programmes. Just over 4 in 10 (42%) of those graduating from English-language master’s programmes leave the country within two years of completing their studies, while 50% of those graduating from English-language bachelor’s programmes do the same.

A related report from University World News cites broader Statistics Denmark data to the effect that, “Some 26% of international students leave Denmark within three months of securing their degree, and 38% [leave] within 21 months.”

Most international students subsidised

These latest findings are troubling to the government because, as a Ministry statement observes, “These students’ education is funded by the Danish taxpayer and about half of them receive [State Educational Grant and Loan Scheme] grants during part, or all, of their studies.” While students from outside the EU/EEA pay from between €6,000 to €16,000 per year for full degree studies, most international students come to Denmark from elsewhere in the European Union. The top ten sending countries to Denmark in 2017 were Germany, Romania, Norway, Sweden, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Poland, Italy, and Hungary – leaving China as the only non-EU/EEA country in the top ten.

Subsidising the education of international students is premised on a goal of keeping talented international graduates working in the Danish economy for an extended period after graduation. Indeed, a previous study on the economic impact of international students by the Danish think-tank DEA showed that if Danish employers were to hire enough international graduates, the economic benefit for Denmark would be greater than the cost of educating those students.

However, the most recent government analysis concludes that each foreign higher education student contributes, on average, between DKK 100,000 and DKK 350,000 to the Danish economy (this equates to roughly US$16,000–US$55,000 per student). As the Ministry notes, “There is significant variation because approximately half of international students have left Denmark five years after they begin their studies, and it is [only] after nine years (from beginning their studies) that international students on average have earned back their costs.” The net effect of these post-graduation departures, the Ministry concludes, is that, “Only one out of three international students contribute positively to the public finances in their lifetime. Two out of three are estimated to be an expense for Denmark.”

Reducing student spaces

Denmark’s Minister for Higher Education and Science, Tommy Ahlers, has announced that several measures will be taken in response to this accumulated research regarding the stay rates for foreign graduates. These include:

  • Intensifying initiatives to increase retention rates of international graduates.
  • Reducing the number of places allotted to international students in programmes where retention rates are low. Six of Denmark’s eight Danish universities will see a total reduction of 1,000 to 1,200 in places allocated to foreign students in master and bachelor of engineering programmes.
  • Improving the quality of English-language programmes.
  • Working with institutions to ensure that any new programmes are relevant to the needs of the Danish labour market.

The coming reductions in places reserved for international students follow the government’s 2017 decision to eliminate 1,700 places in other selected programmes, a decrease of almost 28% compared to the number of seats available in 2015.

“International students bring a lot to Denmark,” said Minister Ahlers. “They expand the horizons of Danish students and introduce an international aspect to the work being done in Danish companies. It is important that many international students also represent a highly qualified workforce for Denmark. But we cannot solve the educational responsibilities of other countries. Therefore, we must do more to ensure that talented international students stay and work here following graduation, and we must adjust the number of places of programmes where we see many graduates return home.”

Overall enrolment growth

Over the last five years, the total number of international students in Denmark increased by just over 42%, from 23,950 in 2013 to 34,030 in 2017. Ministry figures suggest that much of this growth is from students enrolling in an expanding field English-taught degree programmes in the country.

Denmark is one of the top five countries in Europe in offering English-taught university programmes, and this follows a wider trend of dramatic growth in English-medium degrees across the continent. In 2009 there were virtually no such programmes, while in 2017 there were nearly 3,000 across Europe.

For additional background, please see:



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