Last week, I was at Aarhus University as speaker at an event organized by Access for Refugees to Education (ARE) and Studenterrådet ved AU. In this, we talked about the fact that in Denmark there is a group of about 600 young refugees, who, given their residency status, do not have access to free higher education. This is a group of people who, on one hand cannot afford studying in Denmark, and on the other, face the reality that their countries are not safe enough for them to go back and study there.
The question therefore is: can we afford to give these young refugees a free education? Yes, we can. We are actually talking about a very small cost, when looking at the national budget on education. Also, this would be a great investment on integration and employment levels after graduation; among many other benefits that education gives to individuals and the societies they live in. It would be a clear win-win situation.
Why don’t we grant them equal rights to access higher education, as we do with other refugees under different statuses? Unfortunately, this is because we are trapped in a situation where the biggest political parties in Denmark do not wish to make any move that could publicly seem as benefitting immigrants or them who do not fall into their definition of ‘real Danes’.
Too many international students?
It was already back in 2016, when Ulla Tørnæs (V), at the time Minister of Higher Education and Science, claimed that we had too many international students storming into the country and taking our student grants. Therefore, there was a need enforcing some disproportionate cutbacks on the SU grants. However, this had never anything to do with international students. In fact, the SU system was threatened to be cut for a while already, but blaming a specific group of students to get through with it seemed like a good strategy at the time.
Last year, a national newspaper made a headline on how students with non-western backgrounds were more likely to commit fraud in the SU system. A statement that was afterwards confirmed as wrong by experts, but which the newspaper in question prioritized to make a headline that would get a lot of attention out of it, instead of double-checking its own facts.
Very recently, our current Minister of Higher Education and Science, Tommy Ahlers (V), decided to force our institutions to close international study places to ensure that less foreign students come to Denmark. Independently on the fact that the numbers of the Ministry itself show that international graduates make in average an economic profit for the state. And independently on the fact that students, trade unions, industry sector and universities strongly advised against these measures. This was still the stubborn direction chosen by the Ministry.
A dangerous discourse
This anti-migration and anti-diversity national discourse has been going on for far too long, and it impacts our education system. It is a discourse that has nothing to do with rational arguments or facts but builds up on fears and emotions. This is a discourse that is misused to gain both attention and political power. And most importantly, it is a discourse that has a real impact on the lives and the futures of many of our peer students.
Today, many international students decide to leave the country after graduation, simply because they do not feel welcome. Refugees, who wish to contribute to Denmark by gaining knowledge through an education, they simply cannot afford to do so. And Danish students with different ethnic backgrounds, end up believing that they do not have the same chances as their peers in their own country.
The quality of diversity
If we want higher education institutions to be spaces where solutions to the great challenges of our time are found, we need these to be diverse. Because we need people with different backgrounds to bring diverse perspectives to be challenged together. Diversity is a must for quality in education.
The current symbolic political discourse not only goes against this principle, but also against the foundations on which our educations are built. It acts against any form of cooperation and dialogue, and it does not follow facts nor listens to experts. It is simply not productive, and it holds us back from building solutions and creating new knowledge; which are some of the chore purposes of education.
We, students, have a responsibility to actively oppose ourselves to these tendencies. Not only for the sake of our peers that suffer the most because of it, but also for the sake of the society we live in.
Hopefully, our voices will not only give a better future to an engaged group of refugees, but will also make Denmark a better place for everybody to live in.