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Czech student at UCPH asked to pay back DKK 50,000 of her SU student grant. But the authorities are misinterpreting the EU rules on who can get SU, says law professor. The Danish government could have been cheating international students out of their money for years
This is how the Czech national Tereza Hlobilova describes her situation in August this year when the Danish SU authorities demanded that she repay DKK 50,000. The ruling, however, was overturned when a Copenhagen legal aid group København’s Retshjælp took Hlobilova’s case and won it against the Danish government.
The process shows that Danish SU authorities may have been misinterpreting EU rules for years and thereby cheating international students out of the SU grants they were legally entitled to. This is the assessment of law professor Kirsten Ketcher, who specializes in European law.
When students like Tereza Hlobilova can get SU student grants at all, it is due to an EU ruling from 2012. According to the ruling, Denmark must pay SU to so-called ‘migrating employees’, i.e. European Union citizens during their studies who hold a job in Denmark. And it must be a regular job.
The Danish authorities’ requirement is that you have to work a certain number of hours: EU citizens are usually only allowed to receive SU, if they work at least 10-12 hours per week.
“It was a nightmare to suddenly have such a large debt. […] It changed my perception of Denmark from a beautiful country to a kind of prison.”- Tereza Hlobilova, Czech student at UCPH
The requirement is stated on the website which the Ministry of Education has set up with guidelines for SU-seekers. It states here “that it is usually a condition that employment should be for a minimum of 10-12 hours a week.” SU-applicants should also, it states, enclose documentation with their application showing that they are employed for a “minimum of 10-12 hours each week throughout the period while you study and get SU”.
But this is not a requirement you should be able to make, says law professor Kirsten Ketscher:
“What matters is not a specific number of hours, but if people are actually doing real work and therefore can be classified as employees. Denmark has always wanted to require a specific number-of-hours requirement, but they cannot do this.”
Tereza Hlobilova, who was required to pay back DKK 50,000, had actually attempted to live up to the Danish hour-number requirements.
Tereza, who has been in Denmark to study African Studies at the University of Copenhagen since 2012, worked 40 hours a month. She says she therefore believed to live up to the Danish demands for 10-12 hours of work per week, because there are normally four weeks in a month.
But the authorities calculated her work amount slightly differently:
“In the period from 1 October 2015 to 31 May 2016 you have not had enough hours to satisfy the requirement of genuine and effective employment with a minimum 10-12 hours per week or approximately 43 hours a month,” the Board writes in its decision.
“The requirement of 10-12 hours of work is just a creative estimate, it has nothing to do with the EU rules,” – Kirsten Ketscher, law professor specializing in European law
Thereza Hlobilova says she was shocked:
“It was a nightmare to suddenly have such a large amount of debt. I felt bound to Denmark until I had paid the debt, and DKK 50,000 is almost an annual salary for a social worker in the Czech Republic. It changed my perception of Denmark from being a beautiful country into a kind of prison.”
A friend made Tereza Hlobilova aware of the Copenhagen legal aid group København’s Retshjælp. They took her case against the SU agency. Suddenly their decision was overturned, and the requirement of a minimum of 43 hours a month of work had been dropped.
The Danish authorities reject the idea that the minimum requirement of 10-12 hours per week is contrary to EU law:
“The requirement for the 10-12 hours is derived from case law,” says a head of division in the Ministry of Education to Uniavisen with reference to a large memorandum that the Ministry has written to the Danish parliament on the subject.
Law professor Kirsten Ketscher believes – unlike the Danish authorities – that, say, eight hours of work per week should be enough to get an SU grant. The most important thing is that it is ‘real work’, she says.
“If a person has been met with the demand to repay SU because she did not work enough hours, this is not correct according to the rules. The requirement of 10-12 hours of work is just a creative estimate, it has nothing to do with the EU regulations,” says Kirsten Ketscher.
The SU agency’s guidelines are not in accordance with the rules, says Kirsten Ketscher:
“It is likely to mislead. It’s as if they have set up prior conditions for receiving SU grants. But it is not the SU-agency’s task to deter people from applying for SU. ”
According to head of division Peter Nielsen at the SU Grants Office, the Ministry for Education does not count hour numbers, even though the SU guidelines specifically ask students to demonstrate a set number of working hours:
“We don’t use a set, automatic mechanism to assess applications. In our guidelines, we emphasize that there is a specific assessment of all the circumstances of employment, and that this will usually mean employment for a minimum of 10-12 hours per week. The evaluation may involve additional criteria, such as the right to paid holidays, sick pay, the duration of the employment relationship, and whether the employment is covered by a collective agreement. ”
“We don’t use a set, automatic mechanism to assess applications. In our guidelines, we emphasize that there is a specific assessment of all the circumstances of employment, and that this will usually mean employment for a minimum of 10-12 hours per week.” – Head of Division, Peter Nielsen, SU Grants Office
Head of division Peter Nielsen also writes that students are consulted in cases of repayment:
“The students will always be consulted before we make a decision on SU repayment cases. In this hearing we ask them to submit the documentation they they believe is relevant to our assessment – and not only documentation for the 10-12 hours of work a week.”
Uniavisen has been in contact with the EU Commission’s department for social affairs and labour mobility.
They decline to comment on individual cases, but confirm that in EU law there are no rigorous definitions of when you are an ‘employee’. It is an assessment made by the authorities of each country.
In the meantime, Czech student Thereza Hlobilova, feels powerless towards the Danish SU authorities:
“Danish authorities have no right to make these demands on the number of hours, and in my eyes they are breaking EU law. Imagine how many people are in the same situation as me, who have been treated unfairly? If it were not for the legal aid, the ruling on my case would not have been changed,” she says.
Uniavisen has asked the Ministry for Education Ministry to comment on Kirsten Ketschers characterization of the guidelines for SU-seekers as ‘misleading’.
The ministry would not comment on this directly, but they write to Uniavisen that the guidelines despite the 10-12 hours of work text, carry out “a specific assessment of all the circumstances of employment “.
It has not been possible for Uniavisen to find out how much money migrant EU employees have had to pay back because they did not meet the requirement for the number of working hours.
The Ministry for Education writes that “plans to change the assessment practices for the status of a worker in Denmark under EU law are currently under consideration”.
It is a clear political objective for the Danish government to save money on SU to migrant EU employees like Tereza Hlobilova. The cost of the SU grants to citizens from other EU countries has grown since a 2012 EU ruling, and amounted to more than DKK 300 million in 2015. A figure that Minister for Education Ulla Tørnæs has called “troubling”.