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20th Mar 2024

Lessons from Denmark: The downside of limiting international student flows

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • Denmark is reversing policies designed to dampen foreign enrolment
  • The reversal is being driven by local labour market demands and a looming, and substantial, need to attract new talent and skilled workers to the Danish economy

We need not look far this year for examples of how national governments in major student destinations are moving to limit international student numbers. This is true in Australia, Canada, the UK, Netherlands, and others, and those new policy settings are taking hold even as many other destinations seek to further grow their foreign enrolments.

There is a contradiction there, and one that is hard to understand, except that international student movement is subject to political influence and, as the public mood shifts with respect to immigration levels, governments may feel compelled to adopt more restrictive policies.

But lurking behind that ebb and flow of political tides is another contradiction: most study destinations are motivated to build international enrolment, at least in part, to help address skills gaps and shortages in their domestic labour markets. In other words, most destinations are not only competing for international students; they are engaged in a global competition for talent.

The Danish twist

Denmark offers an example of a destination that recently moved to limit inbound student numbers, and is now quickly walking that decision back.

It was only in 2021 that the Danish government decided to dramatically reduce the number of university places available in English-taught programmes. The thinking at the time was that the move would reduce costs and make higher education more accessible for Danish students.

Under pressure from employers and industry groups, such as the Danish Chamber of Commerce, the government signalled a sharp U-turn on that policy a few months ago with Education Minister Christina Egelund saying in October 2023 that, "We should be grateful when foreign young people want to study in Denmark."

In early 2023, the government agreed that 1,100 new places could be opened for foreign students in English-medium programmes each year from 2024 through 2028, and a further 2,500 places per year from 2029 onward. Minister Egelund feels there should be more still.

“We are seeing a new era,” she said in an interview with Danish newspaper Berlingske. “When I sat down to examine the numbers [concerning demographic trends, and shrinking cohorts of young people], it was a wake-up call."

“We are not ruling out the opening up of the higher education sector [for foreign students] in another way compared to what we are doing today,” the minister added. “We are now at a point where we should be thankful every time a younger person from another place in the world looks towards Denmark. Our need is huge, and the competition for the qualified young and qualified workforce is hard."

The minister's comments come on the heels of forecasts indicating that Danish economy may need another 130,000 workers to address shortfalls across a variety of fields and economic sectors. A recent report from University World News indicates that Denmark's strategy for international education will emphasise domestic labour market needs going forward, and that actual enrolment targets are still a matter of negotiation among political parties and other stakeholders.

For additional background, please see:

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