International students in Denmark and their struggles with debt

, by Věra Dvořáková

International students in Denmark and their struggles with debt
The Department of Architecture, Design and Media (also called CREATE) at Aalborg University. Credit: Věra Dvořáková

Lockdowns are stressful. We’re isolated from friends and family. We’re worried about our future and livelihood. Dario, an Italian studying in Denmark, has one more worry to add to this ever growing list: debt. The money he owes is his Statens Uddannelsesstøtte (SU), a financial state support for students. At a rate of about €750 a month, this generous ‘pocket money’ is for many a gateway to education, creating a level playing field for students from all financial backgrounds. However, for foreign students, there are often strings attached. The New Federalist spoke to three of them – Dario, Claudia and Carmen – about how the lockdowns have turned this gateway into a prison.


Dario came to Denmark in the summer of 2020 and, thanks to his experience in hospitality, soon found a job as a waiter for 10-12 hours a week. These 10-12 hours are vitally important, because, unlike Danes, EU nationals are required to work 10-12 hours a week to be eligible for the SU programme. A programme many internationals, including Dario, rely on.

In December 2020, Denmark went into lockdown for the second time, shutting down, among others, the hospitality industry – Dario’s source of work hours. As the lockdown extended beyond Christmas, Dario’s life started to become problematic: “I sent [the Ministry of Education and Research] an email saying that I wasn’t working and that my employer was doing everything in his power to guarantee me [10-12 work hours a week]”. The response from the Ministry was devastating: Dario didn’t reach the 10-week threshold of continuous work and was asked to pay back all SU received to that point – around €4000, plus interest.

Dario insists that it has to be a misunderstanding: “I didn’t [reach] this amount of weeks because [the] government decided [to lock down]”. While the SU rules have been updated to reflect the extraordinary situation, to appeal or challenge the debt, a student must engage with a confusing bureaucracy that demands, among other things, a written explanation of the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on his work, signed by the employer. “I’m not asking to receive any additional SU while I’m not working but asking me to pay all the SU money back, it doesn’t really make much sense”. However, his letters fell on deaf ears.

Frustrated by the bureaucratic chaos, he reached out to a local City Council member Lasse Frimand Jensen and asked him for help. The politician promptly contacted several Danish organisations and labour unions that promised to follow up on the issue. “Since most (...) public decisions have been changed due to COVID-19, I would (...) think that we would do the same regarding the SU rules. I know that when rules are rules, you cannot bend [them] (...), but we are in a situation (...) that is (...) extraordinary,” he argues. Lasse continues to fight for Dario and other students in his situation, but as of writing this article, nothing has changed.

Dario, taking things into his own hands, created an online petition, requesting the Ministry for Education and Research to take external causes, such as a pandemic, into account when applying the 10-week rule. He shared it on Facebook and suddenly, he was not alone.


One of the students who signed the petition was Claudia, a British/French student living in Copenhagen. She had long been saving up to enrol in her dream study programme, but the sky-high prices in Copenhagen soon made those savings disappear. Fortunately, thanks to her waitressing job, she was able to supplement her income with SU. However, when the second lockdown came, she was told to pay it all back. “If I have to pay [SU] back, I definitely can’t pay the rent,” she recounts her first thoughts, “I’m gonna have to drop out”. Facing a non-responsive government, Claudia turned to Facebook where she found many similar stories. Some of them are successfully appealed and have gotten out debt-free, while others are still waiting for a response from the government to this day. Claudia appealed, but to no response.


At the beginning of 2020, Carmen, a Romanian student based in Roskilde, was excited. She was to spend 4 months on an exchange in Morocco. For that, she paused her SU and a job at a bar to leave the country in February. Fast forward to June, Carmen was stuck in Morocco. Neither the Danish nor the Romanian embassy helped her, so she got on a Spanish repatriation ferry and managed to get back to Scandinavia in July. But now she had to re-register, as she had been abroad for too long and Denmark considered her a new immigrant.

After the rounds of bureaucracy were done, she got back to her old job and re-applied for SU. But in October, Danish bars were forced to close at 22.00, resulting in organisational chaos that left Carmen with fewer working hours that month. But explaining it to the Ministry only led to the dreaded letter. Carmen, a “marginal supplement” according to the letter, had to pay back the last two months of SU. No explanation from her employer helped. So, she appealed.

Once she got the full hours the next month, Carmen re-applied for SU and successfully reclaimed it. She received two letters – one telling her how much SU she will get and the other one how much she owes. But she hasn’t heard from the authorities since and hasn’t even gotten an SU re-payment plan promised to her. “I’m quite scared of contacting them again,” she complains, “because every time I asked them for help, it’s like they [dig] me a bigger hole.”

Feeling unwelcome

All three students are still waiting for a response to their appeal. It’s difficult to determine how many of these stories are out there, but each interviewee knows at least one person experiencing the same problem. The long waiting times also come with a high price tag. “It was impossible to stay concentrated (...), because I had to write emails to [the authorities],” Dario describes the impact this situation has had on him, ”that was, obviously, time taken from lectures. I just couldn’t stay focused for longer than 10 minutes.” “I’m now in psychotherapy,” tells Carmen. Claudia remarks: “I just cried”.

Carmen and Dario also say that this situation made them rethink their future in Denmark. “It felt like I was being pushed away,” explains Carmen. “Right now I’m a student and (...) I’m treated in this way,” notes Dario, “do I really wanna stay in this country after I graduate?” For many international students in Denmark, this isn’t just a thought. The latest data from the Ministry of Education and Research show that half of these students leave Denmark within the first two years after graduation. Efforts to reverse this trend have resulted in shutdowns of many English-language study programmes. Add the anti-foreigner rhetoric surrounding the acquisition of Danish citizenship and one has to ask – is this just bureaucratic chaos, or is Denmark on its way to lose its foreign students? If that happens, Denmark not only loses the young educated workforce its ageing population needs, but also an element of multiculturalism, diversity of ideas, and innovation. But Lasse Frimand Jensen stays optimistic: “I certainly hope we’re not heading in that direction. Because (...) I value international students and the international community. (…) I don’t think bad intentions are [at play in] this.”

Image used is the author’s own.

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