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Why do I have to pay DKK 38,500 in tuition while working a full-time unpaid internship?

Op-ed — Non-EU students are paying excess tuition fees at the University of Copenhagen while working in internships, writes Sofie Campbell.

I am currently completing a master’s in Advanced Migration Studies at the University of Copenhagen. I pay DKK 38,500 in tuition fees for each semester of my 22-month-long programme. My programme gives students the option of completing a full-time internship for credit (30 ECTS points) during the third semester.

What sparked my surprise and outrage – which led me to write this article that you are now reading – was that I realized that while working in this unpaid full-time internship I was required to full tuition fees to the university. Sorry, what? And why?

I reached out to Trine Sand, Head of Section at International Education and Grants at the University of Copenhagen. Ms. Sand sent me two excerpts from Danish Law, which state that students are required to pay full tuition while on an academic internship because they earn university credits for the work.

To me this did not really add up. Students pay tuition fees, presumably, to cover the costs of the delivery of course content and the evaluation of the student’s performance and understanding of that content. Students do not, importantly, pay tuition fees to be granted ECTS points.

The law says: invoice students

The university must invoice fully for participation in classes, exams and other grading methods that are part of an examination, and this must happen in all situations where there is no other funding for the activity.

When a non-EU citizen decides to make use of the option to engage in an academic internship the university must charge full tuition.

This is according to the Bekendtgørelse om tilskud og revision m.v. ved universiteterne (Tilskudsbekendtgørelsen, Regulation of the universities’ funding and audit).

We do not pay the university to give us a degree. We pay the university to deliver services. And only if a student demonstrates a sufficiently comprehensive understanding of the content of those services, are they granted ECTS points, and ultimately a degree.

In Canada the fees are adjusted during internships

In Canada, where I’m from, students pay tuition fees while they study at university. The fees can range from around DKK 12,500 to 75,000 per semester, depending on the programme and the level of education (bachelors, masters or PhD).

Co-op programmes are quite common in Canada. These are programmes that include a series of academic internships as required and credit-bearing elements of the degree. It is typical for students in these programmes to pay a fee to the university while on an internship because there are still some administrative costs associated with the internship. This fee is supposed to cover time spent signing employment contracts, answering questions from students, and evaluating the internship report at the end.

Doing some math

During a typical semester of courses worth 30 ECTS points a student will have a total of eight hours of instruction per week for three months (minus one week for autumn break). That is 88 hours of direct student-teacher instruction.

That does not include hours spent outside of class time meeting with students, answering students’ emails, or the time required to grade exams.

Meanwhile, during this internship semester we have, in my programme, three group supervision sessions lasting two hours each. That is 6 hours of direct student-teacher instruction. That, as above, does not include hours spent outside of supervision time meeting with students, answering students’ emails or the time required to grade exams (which for the internship is a 20-25 page paper that receives either a pass or fail).

I emailed an administrator of my programme asking if she could give me an estimate of how many hours of work each student requires of University of Copenhagen staff while on internship, to ensure that my calculations were correct.

The plot thickens

She responded first that there is »quite a lot of activity behind the scenes with information, registrations, contracts, set up in the systems, emails back and forth, changing of exams, contact with the host institutions, etc.«

She continued, writing: »I do understand, that it can look like it doesn’t cost the University as much to have you out on internships, but it is approximately the same as a regular course. It’s probably a little less for the lecturer but it’s more for the administration.«

My thinking when I saw this reply was that, based on my own experience, I have not received anywhere near the same amount of contact with or instruction from university lecturers or administrators during this internship semester as I did during my two previous course-based semesters.

I am, without a doubt, paying a disproportionate amount of tuition for this internship semester.

In a follow-up email she wrote: »The tuition fee for the entire two-year master’s programme is set on the basis of all the courses and exams combined and not the individual semester. And then the bill is just spread out on all four semesters. The Thesis, for example, is rather expensive both in supervisor and external examiner hours and for the administration.«

Interesting. Now, when I read this email, I actually felt a little relieved. It was extremely satisfying to finally get an answer that made sense. I even considered at this point whether or not I should still write this article. However, after a little more thought, I came to the realisation that even given all of this information, it still does not add up. I am, without a doubt, paying a disproportionate amount of tuition for this internship semester. Let me clarify:

Unconvinced

I understand the reasoning, communicated by my programme administrator, that the full cost of a student is calculated and evenly distributed as four installments over four semesters. However, my challenge is this: my classmates and I had the choice of either taking courses, conducting an independent research project, or completing an internship. If the internship is slightly cheaper for the university than a semester of courses then why would I pay the same tuition regardless of which option I pick?

It would be logical that the total cost of me studying at the University of Copenhagen is calculated on the basis that I choose the more expensive option in this third semester – that I take courses worth 30 ECTS points instead of completing an internship. As such, having chosen the internship option, I am over-paying.

Where to from here?

My programme has announced that the cohort that began this September, 2019, will no longer have a choice for this third semester. They will be required to complete an internship. I call for their tuition fees to be lowered to reflect the difference in the amount they would have cost the university had they had the choice, and chosen, to take a semester of courses.

A final word on non-EU students’ financial struggle

The university requires that internships be unpaid. This is a discussion that has been had, and had again, so I won’t dig into it here. That being said, I do not think students should give up on the fight for better compensation.

As a non-EU student I am under no circumstances eligible for SU. Now, to be clear, I’m not demanding here that I should be. After all, I have never paid a cent (or øre) of tax to the Danish state. I mention this only because I have only ever put a surprised look on a Dane’s face when I inform them, that I am not eligible for SU.

As such, in order for non-EU students to survive financially during their studies they must either:

– Take on considerable debt,
– Have a very, very deep savings account,
– Have significant financial support from their family,
– Or, I suppose, have an extremely lucrative side gig on the weekends.

Ultimately, non-EU students have little hope for financial independence during their studies – a lamentable stress and pressure on these students during and after they have completed their studies.

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