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Clearing up the student housing chaos in Copenhagen

Housing co-ordinators meet up to share dreams of campuses, dorms, and one-click sign-up procedures

Right now, between one and two thousand exchange students are filling out forms and planning their stay in Copenhagen for the fall semester.

At the same time, university housing co-ordinators and administrators are using the calm before the next hard gust of international students hits the city to try and think outside their box.

And the stakes are high, claims the Danish Agency for International Education which organised a recent conference on international student housing. The best students compare university services, including campuses, when choosing where to study, and Copenhagen doesn’t necessarily come out on top.

»Housing is widely expected to be part of the package when students decide to study abroad. And the better the students, the higher their expectations are,« the agency wrote in their invitation to the conference.

September bottleneck

Copenhagen housing co-ordinators need no reminder as to what some international students’ expect.

The traffic jam of students in September is much bigger than the number of dormitory rooms available. As reported in several articles in the University Post, this leads to student frustration.

The fundamental problem is the lack of housing at student-friendly prices for all students, International and Danish.

But the housing problem can be worse for international students, who come to Copenhagen for one or two semesters. As more students come in September than in January, the University can either not reserve a dorm room to all students in September, or be forced to uphold empty dorm rooms in the less popular spring semester.
There are no easy solutions, and in practice a large proportion of incoming students find private flats and rooms in the end.

Aarhus has centralised office

But maybe Copenhagen should do more.

The second largest Danish city, Aarhus, has a centralised housing co-ordination unit with one website, one list, and a widely proclaimed housing guarantee. The director of this unit Per Juulsen thinks that Copenhagen has something to learn.

»Seen from the student applicant’s perspective, the Copenhagen market for student housing is confusing,« he says.

Copenhagen has several separate dorm waiting lists and dorm-coordination offices. This means that ‘problem’ tenants, such as internationals who are in Copenhagen for a short stay, find it harder to get into dorms with waiting lists who don’t have a bilateral agreement with their university, he explains.

»A central sorting mechanism would be an advantage to international students, who otherwise tend to be assembled in a number of specific dorms,« says Per Juulsen.

Nutty city rules

The University of Copenhagen reserves places for internationals at a number of dorms, but is not able to reserve a number that is equal to the total intake of incoming students.

Eva Petersen, who is housing co-ordinator at the University of Copenhagen, is not overly impressed with the Aarhus model: A centralised dorm co-ordination office for all Copenhagen institutions would not solve the problem of the August/September bottleneck, she reckons.

»Even with one office it won’t be able to find housing for everyone,« she says, and points out that the Aarhus’ guarantee for new students also entails long waiting times, and bad leasing conditions for students such as having to accept and pay for rooms long before needing it.

Eva Petersen points instead to the need for more flexible city housing regulations: »The rules may state, for example, that the rooms have to be given a new coat of paint every time someone moves out. For rooms with students moving out after five months, this is just not practical,« she says.

Having the University of Copenhagen build its own dorms is no solution: A new 2010 campus law allows universities to house international researchers and students, but only under restrictive investment limits via a foundation, making it impractical.

Copenhagen campus project

As university housing stakeholders scratch their heads, a privately funded initiative hopes to solve some of the problems by 2015.

The ambitious DKK 2bn Copenhagen Campus project (see also overleaf) plans in the first phase to house 1,100 students and 400 researchers in an architecturally innovative project at the vacated Carlsberg brewery. It will include housing, cafés, sports facilities, kindergarten, church, mosque and a one-stop-shop to help internationals with the paperwork involved in moving to Denmark.

The hope is that it will help keep internationals in Denmark, improve integration with Danes, and ultimately help solve a future need for qualified labour power in the country.

Charlotte Mark of the Microsoft Development Center, one of several corporate sponsors, introduced the project by explaining that Denmark is »losing the war for talent«.

Danish companies are not good at integrating internationals, and the Danish community is not good at keeping them once they are here.

»International students come at the best time, maybe they don’t have families, maybe they don’t have a love in their life yet. We need a comprehensive solution to retain these talented young people,« she said.

The new campus initiative is designed to be this comprehensive solution.

And it is on track, according to Anette Galskjøt of ThinkTankTalent which is heading the project. She explained to the conference that »we are meeting key stakeholders, and that we will be closer to knowing how much funding is forthcoming by the end of May.«

Need to do more with less

Meanwhile, University of Copenhagen housing co-ordinators take a deep breath and brace themselves for August and September.

Last autumn, well over one thousand international students came in September. This year, housing co-ordinators expect to be able to get dorm places for half of this number, and put the rest of the applicants on lists for private flats and rooms.

Only one thing is absolutely certain. As the green leaves in Copenhagen’s parks turn red, students expect a roof over their heads.

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