5th Feb 2023

Brussels warns EU states against shutting out foreign students

  • The EU executive says Austria and Belgium discriminate against foreign students (Photo: European Commission)

The European Commission has taken legal steps against Austria and Belgium for failing to give students from other EU member states the same access to their higher education systems as to their own national students.

Its 27 commissioners decided on Wednesday (24 January) in favour of sending Vienna and Brussels "letters of formal notice" - the first step of infringement proceedings which could lead to cases before the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

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According to EU rules, EU citizens should have equal access to universities across the bloc.

Last year, Belgium's French parliament adopted a decree which requires 70 percent of new medical students to be resident in Belgium.

The move came as French students in particular come to Belgium to take advantage of easier access to medical studies and cheaper education in Belgium in their own language.

But the commission said the move goes against the EU principle of the free movement of people.

"The...commission indicates...that the system has a discriminatory effect on the EU nationals not residing in Belgium and that Belgium failed to justify the introduction of this system," it said in a statement.

Austria capped the number of foreign students at its universities at 20 percent early last year in a bid to restrict German access to its medical faculties, despite a July 2005 ECJ ruling which declared earlier restrictions illegal.

"The commission...considers at this stage that Austria has still not complied with the ECJ's ruling and invites accordingly Austria to submit its observations," the statement said.

More specifically, the EU executive said that Austria's laws "discriminated against holders of secondary education diplomas awarded in another member state", as they could not gain an equal access as holders of the corresponding Austrian diploma.

Both countries have two months to respond to the commission letter.

Danish plans for legal restrictions

Meanwhile Denmark - which has many Swedish students in its universities - is looking at what Copenhagen may do to stop the influx from across the Oresund strait.

"We have to find a solution at the EU [level]," Danish science minister Helge Sander said in July 2006, after it emerged that one third of students accepted in Danish medical faculties that year were Swedish.

But a plan for the the three countries to jointly seek a solution in Brussels was scrapped due to a lack of common interest, said Jens Peter Jacobsen, an expert working on the issue.

Mr Jacobsen is working with the science ministry to see what Denmark can do to limit students coming from Sweden.

Protests against Belgian plan to keep out foreign students

Belgian professors and French students in Belgium will hit the streets of Brussels on Wednesday to protest against a Belgian plan aimed at limiting the number of foreign students in higher education – a plan that could go against EU law.

Denmark seeks EU help on Swedish student influx

Denmark wants a change to EU rules on open universities after it emerged that one third of students accepted in Danish medical faculties this year are Swedish. Belgium and Austria face similar problems arising from the fact that EU citizens have equal access to universities across the bloc.

Austria introduces cap on EU students

Austria will cap the number of foreign students at its universities at 20 percent in a bid to restrict German access to its medical faculties, despite a recent EU court ruling which declared earlier restrictions illegal.

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