University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


UCPH's language policy contradicts research-based education objectives

Danish-language requirements — For most subjects at the university, the language of research is English. If the university is true to its research-based education ambitions, it makes no sense to have a university-wide language policy that expects internationals to teach in Danish.

I have been following the University of Copenhagen’s (UCPH) language policy debate in the University Post, including Alberte Ritchie Green’s study of the consequences of the policy for international staff, and Sif Høg’s opinion piece describing the policy as nationalist gesture politics. To the latter, deputy director for communication Jasper Steen Winkel replied that »we do, actually, have a language policy at UCPH that is quite international«.

I think the language policy is quite the opposite of that. It is alienating and threatening for international employees and job candidates. It is damaging for the international reputation of the university. And it is misaligned with research-based education and internationalization objectives, because the language of research for most subjects is English.

A direct threat to internationals

The policy states that »in general, it is expected that tenure-track assistant professors, associate professors and professors are able to contribute to teaching in Danish after 3-6 years, including grading and supervising students – at a level of skills that corresponds to the teaching they are to undertake.«


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The deputy director argues that »contributing to teaching in Danish« is something distinct from and less demanding than »teaching in Danish«. In my role as head of section, I have participated in numerous discussions of the policy with the higher management and witnessed presentation of the policy to job candidates and employees.

In my experience no one in the management can tell the difference between »contributing to teaching« and »teaching«. But even more crucially, job candidates and employees cannot rely on policy interpretations, because today they may be lenient, and tomorrow they may get strict. Therefore, it makes no sense to debate interpretations of the policy. As long as the expectation is in the policy, it is a direct threat to all international job candidates and employees.

No one in the management can tell the difference between »contributing to teaching« and »teaching«

I am not sure whether our management, which predominantly consists of native-speaking Danish nationals, can truly relate to the threat the policy represents to international job candidates and employees. For most internationals, it is infeasible to learn Danish up to the level required for teaching within three to six years and keep up with their research, teaching, and other duties at the same time. And if they do not live up to the expectations, they may be at risk of losing their job – especially at the tenure-track level, where inability to secure promotion to tenure is equivalent to being fired. And if they lose their job, they lose their residence permit and get kicked out of the country together with their family.

A contradiction to research-based education ambitions

Almost no international staff will ever reach the same academic proficiency in Danish as they have in English. Not only because they start learning it later in life, but also because most of the university research is in English. Even my Danish colleagues prefer English over Danish for academic communication and teaching, because English is the language of science.

So, if the university is true to its research-based education ambitions, what is the point of expecting internationals to contribute to teaching in Danish? Would we like them to deliver high-quality education in English and improve the academic English level among students, or would we like them to struggle with expressing themselves in Danish, and the students to struggle with understanding their Danish?

Not within the university’s authority to enforce integration

Jasper Steen Winkel also writes that »we no longer tell incoming researchers that they can easily make do with English — as this is a truth that needs modifying. They can, probably. But if they want to thrive, it means something if they get to know the local language.«

While I fully agree that it is beneficial to learn the local language, and I praise the university’s initiatives to help with that, it should be stressed that it is not within the university’s authority to enforce integration into society.

If at some point in life a person would decide to apply for Danish citizenship, there are other state authorities that are responsible for setting the necessary integration standards and checking on them. But otherwise any person is free to not integrate.

The university management lacks international diversity

Jasper Steen Winkel continues with writing: »In this way, they can better participate in and contribute to social and academic contexts at UCPH – and in society in general, for example through the dissemination of research.«

While I agree that Danish is important for the interaction with society, I see no reason why a lack of Danish skills should be a barrier to »contribute to social and academic contexts at UCPH«.

I commend our department (DIKU) for making it possible for all employees regardless of their Danish skills to equally contribute to social and academic life. And I see no reason why this should not be the case for the rest of the university. International employees constitute a significant part of UCPH academic workforce at all levels, but they are highly underrepresented in the management. If the university is true to its diversity goals, I think it should reflect on this.

I believe that a stronger international representation in the management would have spared us from the troublesome language policy we need to fix now.