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Stay or leave Denmark? It is a lottery

For students, the decision to come to Denmark, to stay here, or to leave again is a complex one. But it is mostly about personal relationships

Love and chance encounters. These are what bring international students to Denmark. And love and chance encounters are what are making them stay here to start a career afterwards.

This is the short version of research in progress at the University of Copenhagen, Department of Geography and Geology, presented at a symposium on parallel language policy last week. Ana Mosneaga has carried out in-depth interviews with 41 foreign students and graduates, probing their decision to study abroad, why they chose Denmark, and their thoughts about pursuing a career here.

As Ana Mosneaga explains, politicians tend to think of foreign students as ‘brains on the move’.

»The traditional conception is the push and pull model, which tends to explain academic mobility in terms of economic factors such as differences in income. But this can only partly account for various patterns of academic mobility today. In reality it comes down to chance encounters and opportunities,« she says.

Girl or a job

As one Chinese student, who is quoted in the study, puts it: »My parents divorced. I felt stressed in the family and wanted to go somewhere to improve my life«.

Once here, finding a boyfriend or girlfriend is a major factor in student decisions to stay.

»I came here initially with the intention of going back to Holland, but I also know that I’m going to study here at least two years, so there is a good chance that I find something that keeps me here. Either a girl, or a job. If that happens, I might stay here. If it doesn’t happen, I’d probably go back« says a Dutch male student.

I’m here! Take me!

Officially, policymakers hope that elite migrants and highly qualified students will choose to live and contribute to Danish society. But Danish policies to cherry-pick the most highly-educated and ambitious elite students from abroad are doomed to fail unless they also take into account the so-called non-monetary factors.

People are not simple, argues Ana Mosneaga based on the results so far. The change of status from student to career in Denmark is dependent upon the student passing a multiple of barriers that have nothing to do with money.

A female American pharmaceutical student quoted in the study has a mentor from the Danish company Novo Nordisk. She points to the closed Danish labour market when it comes down to hiring for real jobs.

»It is a disadvantage not being fluent in Danish. I have been told that if a foreigner and a Dane are equally qualified the Dane will get the job which can be a bit of a frustration. Especially when I hear all the time that ‘we need international people to stay and work in science’ – I’m here! Take me!«

Permanent resident or strong CV

Even for those lucky enough to get a job, the barriers to a successful career in Denmark continue, especially for those who are successful in their field.

»If I stay I’m eligible for permanent residency but then I’m staying here at this level. Is that enough for me? That’s the question,« an Iranian man with a PhD in Veterinary Science, quoted in the study, reflects:

»So either I stay here and get stability or go to the US and get stability in the future through a stronger CV. That’s my dilemma…« .

Elite policies ineffective

Ana Mosneaga’s research indicates that a government policy to attract certain ideal types is doomed to fail.

To attract the most skilled migrants, Ana Mosneaga says, »targeting certain types like, for example professionally-oriented globalists, is difficult, if not completely ineffective. Instead, the study points to the fact that job opportunities after graduation are the most important factor, as are encounters with ‘special others’«.

Read an earlier University Post profile of Ana Mosneaga and her work here.

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