University Post
University of Copenhagen
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We need a better policy for academic scholarships so we can bring back knowledge to Denmark

Grant funding — The University of Copenhagen would not reimburse my family's expenses for school and health insurance. This was even though the Lundbeck Foundation had already granted them. This is how you miss out on precious knowledge and crucial international cooperation.

I was very excited when I received the news that the Lundbeck Foundation would finance my research stay at Nagoya City University in Japan.

It turned out, however to be only a foretaste of what is to come in the reality show ‘bureaucracy sabotages my academic stay abroad’.

This meant that I could participate in research projects that cannot be carried out in Denmark and become familiar with new methods for the benefit of Danish psychiatric patients. The stay was to mark the beginning of a major research collaboration in which my laboratory and our Japanese colleagues were to study risk factors for psychiatric disorders with the potential to really make a difference for the patients.

Since the stay was to last seven months, I chose to take my family with me. Fortunately, the foundation’s grant also covered the costs of an international school for my children. International schools are quite expensive in Japan and a local school was out of the question as my children do not speak Japanese. We found a school close to my workplace and got the children signed up. I paid the registration fee and school fees and applied for a refund of the money from my scholarship…

… and then it began. The University of Copenhagen blocked the refund. The explanation was that, according to state regulations, you cannot reimburse expenses in connection with school and childcare – even if a foundation has already allocated money for the specific purpose.

Reality show

At first, I thought there had been a misunderstanding: we live in child-friendly Denmark. The University of Copenhagen cannot possibly refuse to reimburse expenses for schooling.

All we ask is to use the funds we have already been allocated. But when I contacted the university’s people responsible for finance and administration, everyone repeated the same mantra: ‘The rules are that UCPH is not allowed to support childcare/schools. The rules for state institutions in Denmark rank higher than the rules of private and public foundations.’

All we ask is to use the funds we have already been allocated.

However, it turned out to be only a foretaste of what is to come in the reality show ‘Bureaucracy sabotages my academic stay abroad’. Since our Danish health insurance does not give access to health services in Japan, we had to buy the public health insurance, which is mandatory if you want to stay in the country. But when I tried to pay with the Lundbeck Foundation’s grant, the message was that the University of Copenhagen cannot reimburse expenses for health insurance either.

High price for academic stays

As I digested the bad news, I began to realize the scale of the problem. The costs of school and health insurance made a big dent in my family’s finances. If I had known in advance that the scholarship did not cover these costs, I probably would have stayed at home.

One can easily imagine a similar scenario where a PhD student or a postdoc with children is awarded a scholarship for a stay at a recognized foreign university but has to stay at home because it is not possible to pay expensive childcare and health insurance with a normal PhD or postdoc salary.

The paradox is that we do not ask the University of Copenhagen to pay our costs. We have raised the funds ourselves from private or public foundations such as the Lundbeck Foundation. All we ask is to use the funds we have already been allocated. By denying us the use of our own research funds, the university is not just providing a lack of support – it is setting itself up for direct opposition.


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Finding a solution

Academic stays abroad broaden horizons. Not just for the researcher who travels, but for the entire department, the university, and Danish society as such. However, it is costly to move abroad for several months. While establishing a temporary existence in a new country, one must keep all possessions and continue to pay bills at home. For many, such costs are unaffordable without a scholarship. The private and public foundations must be greatly praised for making academic stays abroad possible. However, we have to find a solution so that we can use the funds we have been allocated, including childcare and health insurance. Otherwise, we risk missing out on precious knowledge and crucial international cooperation.

After this original article was published in Danish on the University Post, we have received many supportive emails from researchers in University of Copenhagen, and we were very delighted to see that the debate was taken up in two follow-up stories in the University Post, one by professor Anja C. Andersen, and another by the Associate Dean for Research at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, and the Prorector for Research at the University of Copenhagen.

However, while Anja C. Andersen’s article was a constructive discussion offering potential solutions to solve the problem, the solution from the officials of University of Copenhagen is… to include more bureaucracy and more rules, as well as to warn and censor in advance by including ‘clear guidelines for administrative staff who approve applications for staying abroad’. Instead of trying to find a solution where very necessary costs for academic stays abroad, such as childcare and health insurance, are included.

Thus, the call for change stated above is still urgent, until universities indeed start to support academic stays abroad, we risk missing out on precious knowledge and crucial international cooperation.