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Think Play Participate

Foreign students and researchers are an important weapon in the global battle for knowledge – and Denmark is ready to join the fight.

By Inge Kjærgaard

Photo: Lykke Friis

The University of Copenhagen’s ambition is to be a top class international university, says Prorector Lykke Friis.
Photo: Scanpix.

Ni hau, hello, Guten Tag, goddag, hola. Every day, a wealth of different nationalities greet each other at Danish educational and research institutions, and if the leaders of these organisations have anything to do with it, there will be more of them in the future. Heads of both government and educational institutions agree that it is important to Denmark that it should not be only Danish students who receive an education, or are employed in research. Denmark very much lives on knowledge, but with a relatively small population, insufficient knowledge is being produced by Danish students alone. Denmark still has some way to go however in attracting foreign students.

“Denmark is not as well known as the UK and the USA, but the quality of higher education here is good. The teaching method is organised so that students participate very actively in the lectures and respond critically, both to the syllabus and the lecturer. We call the Danish teaching model Think Play Participate,” says Morten Overgaard of Cirius, a state agency for the internationalisation of educational courses.

In 2007, Denmark conducted a major survey of its potential as an educational country. It showed that while the educational courses were first class, reception and service provision for students were not good enough.

“The educational institutions need to think of students more as consumers who must be provided with a service. We need to be better at offering packages, so that we have thought not only of their educational courses, but everything around it. We are well on the way and the educational institutions are working hard, but there is still much to do,” says Morten Overgaard.

Special climate scholarships
In 2009, a few more foreign students have been given the opportunity to study in Denmark. The organisers of the UN Climate Change Conference COP15, which will be held in December 2009 in Copenhagen, have decided that attendees will not receive the traditional gift-laden conference packs – instead the budgetary allocation will be redirected to give 11 foreign students COP15 Climate Scholarships. The scholarships provide access to 2 year master programmes, and tuition fees and living expenses are covered. And the climate scholarships are spreading in ever-widening circles.

The Faculty of Agricultural Sciences at Aarhus University was assigned one of the scholarships for the Agro-Environmental Management course, and the university chose to add 10 more scholarships to it. Kristian Thorn, who is the international head of Aarhus University, hopes to retain some of the students, but is also delighted that they can take a good deal of environmental knowledge back to their home countries.

In addition to agricultural environment, the scholarships have been awarded in water supply technology and renewable energy on courses such as Biosystems Engineering, Environmental and Resource Management, and Environmental Chemistry and Health.

High expectations at DTU
In Lyngby north of Copenhagen lies the Technical University of Denmark, DTU, which is known worldwide for its study and research environment and has secured a place at the top of the international rankings. Nonetheless, DTU management is constantly striving for improvement across all criteria.

“In Denmark we have a well-developed community, but we are not so good at adopting new members into it. This is an area we are constantly working on, but this year we have put extra focus on it,” says Elizabeth Tromer, head of department for International Collaboration at DTU.

The university expects a lot of the students who are accepted, in terms of their subject knowledge, language skills and ability to work in teams.

“The universities that the students come from must be highly ranked internationally or locally, and students need to achieve good results before they are accepted. We also encourage Danish students at DTU to meet students from different countries because it strengthens the Danish students’ network,” says Elizabeth Tromer.

All general e-mails in English
At the very centre of the capital lies Denmark’s oldest university, the University of Copenhagen, which also holds a high position on international rankings. It has been ranked the eighth best in Europe on the Shanghai Jiao Tong rating, and is the first Danish university in the top 50 worldwide.

“We want to be a top-class international university and it is not the passport number that decides, but what our students have between their ears. We must attract the best, and if it is others than Danes, then it is they we want to have. But internationalisation is not a separate point in our strategy – it is incorporated into everything we do,” says Lykke Friis, prorector of the University of Copenhagen.

Although internationalisation has become a well-integrated part of the university’s mindset, Lykke Friis also knows that there is still work to be done. For example, until recently general e-mails were sent out only in Danish – and as she says, that is of no use if you want to be international. But progress is constantly being made.

“For years we have run the reception of Danish and foreign students separately – this year we are changing that for the first time, and sending a signal right from the start. Foreign students must feel part of the university in just the same way as the Danish students,” says Lykke Friis. “Our ambition is to make Copenhagen an IQ magnet which is able to attract bright minds. This will be the biggest competition parameter in the future, if we are to maintain our wealth and have a welfare state. And it requires interplay between companies, university, municipality and state.”

Graph symbol

Foreign students in Denmark:

Graph: Foreign students in Denmark

Linking students and companies
The collaboration between companies, university, municipality and state is precisely the focus of the regional projects of two of Denmark’s five regions. The Capital Region and Central Denmark Region are currently running projects on how to retain foreign students.

The projects have two overall objectives: firstly, to make the students interested in staying in Denmark after the completion of their courses by teaching them culture, language and the art of writing job applications, and by creating more opportunities for student jobs, project writing in collaboration with the business community , and later jobs; secondly, to make companies aware of the opportunity for employing students who come from abroad.

In both projects, thorough surveys are being carried out to discover what experience companies have with foreign students, and what is required for companies to employ them.

“Many companies do not know the potential there is in foreign students, and they think language is a barrier. But we have a very well qualified group of students whom companies need to become aware of. That is why this project is important,” says Lene Christensen, project manager at Capital Region.

There has long been a focus on attracting foreign labour to Denmark, but the focus on retaining foreign students is new.

“The advantage of foreign students is that they have been here for a period of time and are familiar with Danish culture. Most of them have not started a family and so do not have the problem of moving a family to Denmark,” says Lene Christensen.

Both projects will result in an internet portal being made where companies can post job advertisements and students can post CVs, which will make it easier for students to apply for jobs and easier for companies to employ students.

Welfare, windy weather and strange vowels

Photo: Daniel Dau

Despite the strange language and windy weather, Daniel Dau wants to stay in Denmark after having completed his economics studies at Aarhus University.
Photo: Jesper Rais, AU-foto.

One year became three years, which will become … who knows how long. Daniel Lau came to Denmark from Australia as an exchange student, just to experience life in another country.

In summer 2009 he graduated with a masters degree in economics, and now he would like to get more out of being in Denmark.

“I like the safety that I feel in the system, and the fact that there are not so many poor people. And you don’t have to think about your safety when you are going home in the night. Altogether I feel safe here,” he says.

Daniel Lau was looking for a strong welfare system, which the entire Nordic region could provide. And Denmark ’won’.

“Denmark was slightly cheaper to live in than the other Scandinavian countries, and I had heard that Danes were easy to get to know. I knew an Icelander who studied economics at Aarhus University, and out of the Nordic universities with which my university had an exchange agreement, Aarhus offered the best course,” he says.

But otherwise Daniel Lau didn’t know much about the little country on the other side of the world, so there was also space for some surprises.

“I was surprised how windy it is here, and how difficult the language is to learn – there are some strange vowels,” he says.

Even so he was able to learn the language with its strange æ, ø and å vowels, and manages the whole interview without resorting to English.

Exclamation point

Foreign students in Denmark:

You can come to study in Denmark as an exchange student, apply for admission to all study programmes – from undergraduate to PhD level – or apply for a PhD position.

On you can find a range of information on studying in Denmark, including a list of the various courses you can apply for, information on scholarships, and general information on study culture.

You can also contact the educational institutions offering programmes in your subject to find out what opportunities there are for studying in Denmark.

There is also a portal for those who would like to work in Denmark. You can find available jobs on: www.workindenmark

Perhaps Denmark for ever
Danes are not famous for their open arms and dinner invitations to people they do not know. But Daniel Lau discovered another side of that reputation.

“After a while I discovered that Danes are actually a lot more sociable than their reputation suggests, you just need to get to know them first. The do not hold giant parties, but invite a few to dinner. In the canteen at the university for example, you never see anyone eating alone – people are always in small groups,” he says.

Daniel Lau is spending the summer taking vacation, going to holiday homes with his friends and working at festivals. He is enjoying having some time off after completing his course, and feels that he is well equipped for the future.

“Math was of high quality – with a good syllabus and very well organised, and I like the form of teaching and learning here. It is very easy to have contact with the tutor, and I also felt that the tutors had respect for me. It gave me self-confidence and meant that I wanted to study even more,” he says.

Daniel Lau would also like to do even more in Denmark. He is applying for a job as an economist in the environmental industry, and doesn’t dismiss the idea that he could be in Denmark for the rest of his life.

I love cycling to work

Photo: Philip Binning

Although Philip Binning is half Danish, it wasn’t on the cards that he would one day cycle to and from work in Denmark. As a boy he moved to Australia, and then later to the USA.
Photo Peter Clausen.

Philip Binning is half Danish, half New Zealander, and knew Denmark before he came here as a research scientist. He was born in the country, and there is also a small wood in Jutland which he planted when he was backpacking as an 18 year old. But otherwise it wasn’t on the cards that one day he would be cycling to and from work along Danish cycle paths.

As a five year old he moved with his parents to Australia, where his father was involved in the planning of the capital, Canberra. Philip took his bachelor’s degree in mathematics there, and a scholarship led him to new adventures – he took an M.A. and a PhD at Princeton University, USA. Back in Australia, Philip Binning was employed at the University of Newcastle where he stayed for 10 years. During that period, he married Susan, and their children Charlotte and Alexander were born. But he still wanted more out of life.

“I had an idea that one should have a major shift in life before the age of 35, so we started looking at the opportunities,” says the now 42 year old Philip Binning.

Two offers landed on the table – one from the University of Waterloo, Ontario in Canada and one from the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). Linguistically, Canada was more attractive, but Denmark’s capital and his connection with the country decided the matter.

“Both universities are world-renowned in environmental technology, but when we compared the two cities, there was no doubt. Copenhagen is a wonderful place to be, and naturally it also meant something that one side of my family comes from Denmark,” he says.

Six years ago, the Binning family checked into Denmark, and there is no immediate plan to check out.

A tough start
The children were respectively six months and four years old when the family arrived in Denmark, so they didn’t have much opinion regarding the move. Philip’s wife, Susan, saw it as a challenge.

“She thought it was exciting to try something new, but I also think it has surprised her how tough it has been. She had to learn a completely new language, which is very necessary if she is going to use her training as a doctor. We had underestimated that,” he says. But with the language now mastered, Susan Binning is working as a GP.

And then there was the social side of things. In Australia, the Binnings were used to informal dinner invitations, when for example parents collected the children’s playmates. It is not like that in Denmark.

“It takes a bit more time because Danes are not so open. But we engage ourselves in the school and day nursery, and we have a strong network. You get an amazing closeness to each other because it is such a small country,” says Philip Binning.

Workwise it was also a tough start for Philip. As a research scientist you have to work your way up and spend a good deal of time applying for money. Now he is heading a research group of eight staff at the Department of Environmental Engineering at DTU and feels that he is surrounded by bright minds.

“The department I am in is unique in my subject area, and I am working on some very interesting projects. There are very few places in the world with the broad subject knowledge that we have here. I can find experts down the corridor, and that makes it very interesting,” says Philip Binning.

Part of his work also consists of teaching and he enjoys the close contact with the students and the informal tone. He also feels this gives him a professional boost, and teaching has turned out to be an unexpected highlight in his career. On a table in his office is the proof – a large glass vase.

“Two years after I came here, I was voted Best Lecturer of the year at DTU, and that is a very big honour. I am very proud of it, and that is without doubt the biggest event in my career,” he says.

This page forms part of the publication 'FOCUS DENMARK 03/2009' as chapter 4 of 10
Version 1.0. 27-10-2009
Publication may be found at the address


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