Thoughts on being a study abroad student from a welfare state

I really tried to figure out some symbolic meaning of these Buckingham gates, but I sort of forgot it.

I have almost lived in London for a year now. While I still cannot quite understand how I have completed my first year of university, then I have slowly adjusted to the big city without realising it. I have adopted small quirks and cultural practices, from where to stand on the escalator to how you pronounce ‘Gloucester’. Despite my mates teasing me of sounding more and more British, I actually feel more Danish than ever before. British culture is in many ways similar to Scandinavian culture. I believe that made the differences more startling to me and taught me a lot about the customs and the system that I am used to.

1. Social mobility

Most of my friends are either British or international students from all corners of the world. I was surprised to learn that it is quite common for students to receive support from their parents, on top of tuition and maintenance loans. My friend told me that her mother had to work extra hours to cover the rent of her dorm room and that British parents usually save up (if they can!) before their children attend university.

I don’t receive support from my parents – nor do I think that they would have the means to support me either. While their household income may seem above average in comparison to a lot of other countries, then Denmark has a high tax rate (around 40%, depending on income and deduction). Danes also usually do not have any sort of ‘college fund’ for their children, since education is free and students receive a ‘state grant’ of approx. £650. Fortunately, Danish students abroad are also eligible for this state grant. Without this income, I would not have been able to study in London without taking out maximal loans and work more hours than recommended just to cover my rent. I did choose to study abroad (and go into debt instead of studying for free at home), but that state grant makes sure that I can graduate with only a small student loan to pay off – and nothing else.

I am forever grateful for this privilege that makes studying abroad much more accessible for the average Jane. It also made me aware of how difficult it can be for low-income households to send their children to university. Especially in an expensive city as London.

2. Efficiency

“Bureaucracy” is probably the most hated word in Denmark. Everything government-related takes so much time, and it almost becomes a sport whenever you have an issue. How many times will you be redirected? How many e-mails and follow-ups will you have to send? And how many employees without any clue of your case do you have to start over with?

Moving to the UK and dealing with government issues was actually a relief. The British governments have websites that explain most of the things you have to do and what steps you need to take. Need a new European Healthcare card? In Denmark, just to get an answer, you have to wait three weeks. In the UK, your new card should arrive within ten days. Paid too much tax? In Denmark, you have to wait a month after your redundant tax has been calculated until it is paid back. Meanwhile, it took me three days to receive my tax refund from the UK.

Denmark has one of the biggest public sectors in the world. This makes a lot of sense due to our universal healthcare and free education. However, Britain also has free healthcare, and yet their system seems much more efficient. I did not think that an institution of that size (after all, the UK is slightly bigger than Denmark in both size and population) could handle cases so quickly. It was a nice reminder that we should not only strive to do better back home, but big changes are also very much possible – even in large public institutions.

3. Taxes – and inequality

I got my first job in the UK a few months after starting university. My savings were running low, and I felt like I had adjusted to university life, so I started working for a clothing shop on the weekends. However, the shop’s accountant had apparently messed up with my tax code, which meant that I was paying tax. It took me months before I found out that not only did I not earn enough to pay tax on my income, but the government also owed me hundreds of pounds. Why didn’t I realise this before? Well, I was actually surprised by how little tax I had to pay. I was used to paying 40% tax any income above my deductible, so I thought I was doing pretty well over here with the low tax rate. The idea of not earning enough to pay tax never occurred to me.

Now, I am no expert on the British tax system compared to the Danish, but I will say that Denmark redistributes more wealth than Britain. We all have different opinions on how much of a good idea that is, but the effects weren’t visible to me before I moved to London. Despite what some Brits would say, then the class system and the ‘elites’ are still very much alive here. The different neighbourhoods were startling in the beginning – how could the city change so much within just a couple of kilometres? Why are they all discussing private versus public school, and why have 20 of Britain’s Prime Ministers attended the same school? This whole gap between the wealthy and the poor was more apparent than I had imagined. Perhaps because I had only experienced the country as a tourist a couple of times and only seen the highlights.

Of course, we also have wealthy people in Denmark. However, it seems to me like we do not have quite the same division between rich and poor, or at least not as startling as you can see in London. Unemployed and disabled people in Denmark receive enough support to have roofs over their heads and still afford to eat, while most of the famously rich families are more or less living the same lives as the rest of us. In fact, being too much ‘out there’ or different is viewed negatively. There is a lot of social pressure to conform in Denmark, whereas I have in no way experienced that in the UK to the same degree. Success is celebrated, and you are allowed to own your achievements to a greater extent, which took some time for me to get used to.

It is not to say that Denmark is superior to Britain or vice versa. I think that depends a lot on your personal political beliefs (and how much tea you like to drink). However, moving to a different country and experience it from the inside, has made me much more aware of the positive and negative aspects of living in a large welfare state. In many ways, I count myself lucky to grow up there, but I would have missed out on a bigger perspective if I hadn’t had the chance to study abroad. I am not sure if I am going back to Denmark anytime soon (that decision may depend on the outcome of Brexit), but I have gained much more awareness of both countries’ systems, with all their strengths and flaws, and my own heritage.

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