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Crackdown on international researchers in Denmark creates frustation at UCPH

Recently, non-Danish researchers have been reported to the police for violating the terms of their work and residence permits. This has created a feeling of uncertainty and fear among scientific staff at UCPH. We just do what we are supposed to do, says UCPH professor.

Foreign researcher’s rights in Denmark have become a hot topic of late at The University of Copenhagen. Not least because of the highly publicised case of Brooke Harrington, an American sociologist and professor at Copenhagen Business School.

Harrington has researched the ways in which large corporations and rich people avoid paying taxes, and for this reason, according to the newspaper Politiken, she was asked to – and agreed to – share her knowledge with the Danish state – specifically the Danish Costums and Tax Administration, the Danish Ministry of Taxation and the parliamentary Tax Committee.

But as the ears of the Danish state were listening, its hands were dialling the cops. The Danish Agency for International Recruitment and Integration reported Harrington to the police for violating the terms of her work and residence permit by working outside the university with which she is affiliated, even though this work was done at the request of the Danish state.

She risks a fine of DKK 13,500 and a 15 year hold on her right to apply for Danish citizenship.

OK to work with Swedish colleagues, but not local ones

Also, just in 2017 alone, two University of Copenhagen (UCPH) researchers from countries outside of the EU have similarly been reported to the police for violating the terms of their permits, in this case by working as censors at other universities.

UCPH management has objected to this, and University Director Jesper Olesen has called the situation »absurd«. The university employs around 700 non-EU researchers.

Olesen has said to the newspaper Berlingske that »… it used to be possible to get an exemption (…) but today the law is being enforced to the letter to an extreme degree. This is also a matter of our reputation and regard. It is absurd to learn that you have been reported to the police for helping another university by taking on the task of being a censor.«

People won’t consider it attractive to come to Denmark, if they are not allowed to do the normal work of a professor or other researcher
Alexander Schulz, Professor at Plant and Environmental Science, University of Copenhagen

According to German UCPH professor Alexander Schulz, an expert in plants on a cellular level who has lived in Denmark for 18 years, representing the university and working with researchers from other institutions simply comes as part of any researcher’s more or less informal job description.

»We just do what we are supposed to do,« he says.

»We have commitments to represent our university, for instance by giving talks at seminars and speaking at conferences. If I understand the rules correctly, then a researcher from outside the EU would be allowed to speak at the university in Lund, Sweden, or wherever, so long as it is not in Denmark. This is absurd, because the reputation of The University of Copenhagen is based on the fact that we have researchers from all over the world who work at the front edge of their field and share their knowledge,« says Alexander Schulz.

His department – Plant and Environmental Science – employs PhD students and researchers from all over the world. Schulz says he typically gets 60-120 international applications when he announces an opening for a PhD or postdoc position.

»For the moment I believe researchers from outside of the EU would be hesitant to take on commitments at other universities. News of the situation here in Denmark spreads rapidly, which will make international recruitment much more difficult. People won’t consider it attractive to come to Denmark, if they are not allowed to do the normal work of a professor or other researcher,« says Alexander Schulz. »And I don’t know how this affects our PhD students. If their research is presented in another university at a conference or seminar, that might be illegal. I don’t know what I should tell my students.«

The online ministerial restriction counter

As an EU citizen, professor Schulz is not at present in any danger of running afoul of Danish regulations, but he says that any foreigner, whether from the EU or other countries might feel like a kind of a B-level employee in Denmark, being left out of public information.

He opens the Danish Ministry of Immigration and Integration webpage in his browser.

The first thing to notice on the site is a large blue box with an animated scoreboard counting to the number 64. This is an advertisement for the number of »restrictions in the area of immigration« put in effect by the present Danish government.

It is a clear enough statement in itself, but Alexander Schulz, who is fluent in Danish, would also like to point to another more subtle message:

»The relevant part on this homepage to a foreigner is called ’SIRI’ – Styrelsen for International Rekruttering og Integration [The Danish Agency for International Recruitment and Integration which reported Brooke Harrington and others to the police)], but, look, there is nothing here in English. It’s all in Danish. If you know you need to find SIRI, you go to the SIRI site, but there is no link to an English version.«

Denmark has an interest in letting highly skilled workers network and collaborate
Fernando Geu-Flores, Assistant Professor at the Department of Plant and Environmental Science, University of Copenhagen

Arguably, The Ministry of Immigration and Integration website is among the first, if not the only, Danish ministry homepage that almost any foreigner in the country would realistically want to visit. But out of a total of 19 ministries it is the only one – along with the slightly obscure Ministry for Ecclesiastical Affairs – that does not provide visitors with a link to an English-language webpage.

»This is a message. Even though I am not directly hit by this new interpretation of the law, I feel I am not considered to be on the same level as my Danish colleagues,« says Alexander Schulz.

Denmark risks missing out

Enforcing the rules strictly – as the Danish authorities have begun doing – is detrimental to individual researchers, but it also harms the scientific community in Denmark, says assistant professor Fernando Geu-Flores, also from the Department of Plant and Environmental Science. He is a Peruvian.

»I think it will limit the benefits of having highly skilled foreign workers in Denmark, because it would restrict their activities to just one workplace,« he says. »Denmark has an interest in letting highly skilled workers network and collaborate, and being a censor, for example, is not just about evaluating students, it can also be a starting point for scientific collaboration, because it provides a forum for discussion with other researchers.«

His colleague, Assistant Professor Qing Liu, China, says he would like to know what the reason for the rules are:

»Is it possible to ask someone from the Ministry for Immigration and Integration to explain the motivation behind the rules?«

The Danish Minister for Immigration and Integration Inger Støjberg has defended the decision to go after Brooke Harrington, while acknowledging that the rules might be due an overhaul:

»Such as the rules are, this has been handled completely correctly by The Danish Agency for International Recruitment and Integration,« Inger Støjberg says to Politiken.

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