University Post
University of Copenhagen
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Researchers not happy with tough new Danish-language policy draft

Non-Danish professors on permanent contracts are to teach in Danish after only 2-5 years, according to a new draft language policy at the University of Copenhagen. But this new, stricter, language policy formulation is misguided, international researchers say. And it will backfire.

International scientists in Copenhagen say a new language-policy document at the University of Copenhagen is fundamentally flawed and will put them at a disadvantage relative to their Danish peers.

This is after a new draft has been released that stipulates that professors, associate professors and assistant professors on permanent contracts should be able to teach in Danish after only two to five years of employment. It follows a more general Strategy 2023 which describes the University of Copenhagen as an ‘internationally oriented university anchored in a Danish culture,’ and does not apply to PhDs and postdocs on limited contracts.

Completely unreasonable and way too strict

Elisenda Feliu, associate professor in mathematics at UCPH


John Renner Hansen is a former Dean of the Faculty of Science and heads the committee that drafted the new language proposal. He explains to the University Post that the Danish-language teaching requirement is needed so that the University of Copenhagen have the staff available to man bachelor-level classes taught in Danish.

New Language policy at the University of Copenhagen

The drafted language policy memo includes the following points:

·         All employees at UCPH must have English-language skills at the level necessary to perform their job

·         Tenure-track assistant professors, associate professors and professors to teach in Danish after 2-5 years

·         Departments/units should write down clear procedures for language choice at meetings

·         All major admin IT systems must have Danish and English user interfaces

·         New UCPH managers to develop the international environment

·         Management must regularly put language on the agenda and discuss language-related issues

·         On programmes where English is a natural working language on the job market, students should, as early as possible on the programme, be taught in English.

·         Courses in written academic Danish must be included on all Danish-language BA programmes.

·         International full-degree master’s students offered free Danish classes to retain them in Denmark.

·         Faculties should identify the need for internationalization through language skills other than English.

You can see the new language policy draft in its entirety here (Kunet needs log-in).

»There will be no head of department with a big hammer at the end of the time period saying ‘you will be fired if you don’t live up to this policy’. It should be seen as guidance, so that heads of department together with associate professors and professors can work out individual plans and possibly a reduction of international researchers’ workload in the period where they are to take Danish-language courses,« John Renner Hansen says to the University Post.

He adds that the draft does not affect staff with temporary contracts like PhD students and post docs.

There is a real need for Danish-speaking teaching staff, Renner says, especially at the bachelor’s level where teaching is predominantly in Danish irrespective of subject area.

»Departments have a hard time finding staff to instruct classes at the bachelor’s level. This is to the disadvantage of Danish staff, who are being forced to teach more,« he says.

The new policy is also designed to ensure wider international staff participation on councils, boards and committees. For staff with a Danish CPR number, the Danish-language teaching at publicly funded language schools will be free during the first 5 years after first arrival to Denmark, according to John Renner Hansen.

Policy too strict

International researchers are not happy with the changes, judging from the dozens of critical comments under the draft on the University of Copenhagen intranet [needs KUnet log-in].

We have 8 nationalities at my floor and the only language for communication is English (Master’s student included) … if UCPH wants to have research-based teaching as policy, it has to be in English

Julien Colombani, associate professor in biology at UCPH

The policy is »completely unreasonable and way too strict,« according to Elisenda Feliu, a Spanish associate professor in mathematics at UCPH, whose mother tongue is Catalan, but who has six years of experience teaching in Danish after being in Denmark for 10 years.

»I started after four years, but it was too soon. You have to do your research and your other teaching. When I started the students complained about my accent, and then there is the preparation time: Every post on the Absalon platform took an hour, to make sure there were no spelling errors and was grammatically correct,« she says to the University Post.

She says she understands the need for international researchers to learn Danish to take part in university life, »and there has to be a language policy. But I don’t agree with the timeline,« she says.

Clare Louise Hawkins is a professor at the Department of Biomedical Sciences. She has completed three modules of Danish classes and admits to the University Post that while her »reading is not bad, her speaking is not too good,« after having to juggle a full time academic position with language school.

»I teach on different courses, and encounter students with different levels of confidence in English, so I do understand the value of a teacher being able to communicate fluently in Danish. However, this may not be possible for all international researchers, and being creative in your approach can still allow you to deliver quality teaching,« she says, adding that a policy like this also demands proficiency in a complex specialized language.

At odds with idea of research-based teaching

This policy has less to do with internationalization and more to do with protecting local staff

Catalin-Gabriel Stanescu, assistant professor in market and economic law

A stricter Danish-language teaching requirement may make it harder to attract the top international scientists to the University of Copenhagen. And several researchers point out that this would be in conflict with a goal of being a top international university. Why should you, after all, go to Copenhagen and be forced to learn Danish if your career is in an English-speaking education and research environment?

According to Julien Colombani, a French associate professor at the Department of Biology, the policy is fundamentally at odds with the idea of research-based teaching.

»In the field of biology research, all scientific articles, text books, international meetings and grants funding are based on the use of English. We have eight nationalities at my floor and the only language for communication is English (Master’s student included) … if UCPH wants to have research-based teaching as policy, it has to be in English,« he says, adding that »if you want to attract the foreign talent, you need to have a policy that aligns with that.«

Protects local Danish staff

Several researchers take up the ‘free-riding’ issue with the new policy.

While some international researchers may be reluctant to come here in the first place, others will exploit a University of Copenhagen contract knowing that they will leave in two-three years before having to pass the Danish-language requirement, according to Catalin-Gabriel Stanescu, a Romanian assistant professor at the Center for Market and Economic Law.

»In my opinion this policy has less to do with internationalization and more to do with protecting local staff. It facilitates removing foreign staff that are already here by disregarding any skills or contributions they might have, unless they learn Danish. The requirement goes against what the policy claims to be trying to achieve: namely to foster internationalization and the integration of foreign staff. It refers, for instance, to ensuring participation in committee and administrative tasks. However, committees can choose their own language. According to the policy, this will be rectified by sending foreign staff to school, learning Danish, and then participate in the committee. It does not make sense. But one could simply hold mixed staff meetings in English. This doesn’t cost any money, and everyone could participate.«

»By maintaining the option to conduct mixed staff meetings in Danish, the natives ensure that foreign staff are left out or cannot contribute for a number of years and thereby maintain their dominance over foreign staff, who will be reluctant to express themselves in a language they cannot master,« says Catalin-Gabriel Stanescu.

I think it is possible to learn Danish at this level in this timeframe. And we will be increasing the Danish-language teaching so that this is possible

John Renner Hansen, former dean and author of the new language-policy

He adds that learning Danish to a professional level in two-five years is unachievable for a full-time working adult and would, if actually implemented, be very costly for the university:

»Will the University pay foreign employees to undertake 2 years of intensive Danish classes? I don’t find this very likely,« he says.

A Danish-language requirement favours homegrown Danish academics, while disadvantaging international academics in promotions and contract extensions.

»I do not dispute the right of the University to implement a language policy. What I do question is its real purpose and ability to foster internationalization. There are other ways to ensure internationalization and integration of foreign staff, such as: relocation packages, assistance with obtaining a CPR number, temporary accommodation and support in finding a place to live,« says Catalin-Gabriel Stanescu.

Will let international researchers do their share

John Renner Hansen, the former Dean who chaired the committee that authored the new language-policy, rejects the idea that the new policy is to the disadvantage of international academics, and that it will encourage free-riding from incoming international academics who will come to Denmark knowing that they will leave before having to pass the Danish-language teaching requirement.

»If anything, you could argue that the free-riding is what is happening now, and that our new language policy will go against this,« he says.

Present rules already stipulate that working hours for associate professors and professors should be allocated with 50 per cent on research and 50 per cent on teaching. The policy simply makes this allocation possible, he argues.

As for the fundamental question: Can you, as an incoming international researcher, learn Danish at a teaching-level within two-five years?

»Yes you can,« he says.

»I think that it is possible to learn Danish at this level in this timeframe. And we will be increasing the Danish-language teaching so that this is possible,« says John Renner Hansen.

While it is the first time that the Danish-language requirement is formulated with a two-five year timeframe, the dual-language Danish-English policy has been longstanding, and is approved by the Board of the University of Copenhagen. The new language draft is an explication of this overarching policy, according to John Renner Hansen.

Having another half-day of work in the evening is not nice. But I do believe that we should engage with the wider environment that our research is a part of.

Maria Rijo Lopes Da Cunha, postdoc in ethnomusicology at UCPH

The draft still has to pass a few stops before becoming University of Copenhagen policy. After a period of feedback before 1 October, the draft will be brought before the staff-management general collaboration committee HSU, before finally being signed off by the university’s Board.

Most international researchers give the draft proposal’s two-five year requirement negative feedback — but not all of them.

Internationals need to engage with Danish community

Maria Rijo Lopes Da Cunha is a Portuguese postdoc in ethnomusicology at UCPH. She is not, yet, affected by the policy change herself, but says the draft language policy is »good news«.

The new Danish-language policy will help internationals become more integrated, participatory, and proactive in their departments and campuses, and they will be able to offer more support to colleagues with administrative tasks.

»I understood the point that academics are hard-pressed with multiple roles, research grant applications, teaching, research, and then having to learn a language on top of that. I am trying to do that myself. Having another half-day of work in the evening is not nice. But I do believe that we should engage with the wider environment that our research is a part of. And we can only do that if we understand the local language,« she says.

»I am an ethnomusicologist and a lot of my work is interpreting societies. If I do not understand real concerns because my language is limited, how can I know if the knowledge I create is going to have a real impact beyond by own milieu? By not learning the language, you are missing out on discussions and debates at your university and in the wider society, and possibly missing out on important points that contribute to your own research,« says Maria Rijo Lopes Da Cunha.