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10th Apr 2015

International student mobility picking up in Norway while major reforms take shape

Citizens in all Nordic countries have access to free higher education by virtue of a social philosophy (and tax structure), which holds that income differentials should not affect the right to a good education. But in recent years, the region has been split on whether students from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) should pay tuition fees. As of this writing, Sweden and Denmark require tuition fees from such students, while Norway, Finland, and Iceland do not. Nevertheless, there is a good deal of debate in Norway and Finland about the issue. Finland almost introduced tuition fees for non-EEA students late in 2014 then backed away from it given the lack of consensus in parliament for the move. A similar reversal recently occurred in Norway. But the issue of how to handle students from outside the EEA remains a contentious one in Norway, for reasons ranging from social ideologies to labour market dynamics. And it is a significant issue, as Norway has been attracting ever-increasing numbers of international students in the last decade.

Norway’s increasing internationalisation

In 2003, the number of foreign students in Norway was less than half what it is now. In 2012 there were 19,249 foreign students studying in the country, representing nearly a tenth (8.5%) of Norway’s university student population. Growth has mainly come from the Ukraine (a 751% jump) in recent years along with Nepal (+648%). Poland, Denmark, and France also registered as significant growth markets. The biggest source countries for Norway’s higher education institutions, however, remain Sweden (1,676 students in 2012), Russia (1,061), Germany (968), China (907), and Denmark (861). Unlike some other destination countries, Norway is also sending out a comparable number of students for study abroad. In total 23,400 Norwegians studied abroad in 2011, up 7% from the previous year and the highest number ever. According to the latest UNESCO data, their top destinations were Germany (7,327), the UK (4,423), Denmark, (2,898) the US, (1,953) Poland (1,510), and Australia (1,338). Since 2008, the Norwegian government has been prioritising North America as a destination for students to study abroad; it has since added Asia as a region with which it would like to see more educational collaboration and has targeted increased support for study in emerging economies. To encourage outward student mobility to diverse destinations, the Norwegian government has recently introduced additional funding in the form of:

  • Increased financial support given to students to help offset the effects of currency fluctuations that have seen the Euro devalued against some foreign currencies.
  • Offered four years (as opposed to the previous allowance of three years) of financial support for students to study abroad. This combination of grants and loans amounts to as much as US$40,000 per year for students of highly ranked universities in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) as well as the US.

In 2012/13, this expanded funding was extended to support studies in non-Western countries as well, reflecting Norway’s increasing prioritisation of emerging and developing markets, particularly China. This extended support covers an impressive range of costs:

  • US$21,000 per year for tuition (a mixture of loans and grants);
  • US$16,700 for study and living costs (in the form of a loan, of which 40% can be converted to a grant when the student graduates);
  • US$3,000 for language study (a grant) as well as additional support for two return trips to the study destination.

The debate about international student tuition fees - and international students in general

Both inbound and outbound student mobility trends point to Norway’s belief in the value of internationalisation. Yet early last year, the government was pushing for the introduction of tuition fees for non-EEA students to help offset budget cuts to universities. The move was widely protested by universities, student groups, and opposition groups in parliament, who argued that it was contradictory to the country’s internationalisation goals and to its core social principles as well. Critics of the proposal said that introducing non-EEA student tuition fees threatened the diversity of Norwegian campuses and would reduce inbound student flows from countries such as Russia and China. Norway has a high cost of living (and incidentally, was just ranked by the UN as the best country in the world to live in for the eighth consecutive year) so its policy of not charging international student fees has been seen as key to its ability to attract non-EEA students. Domestic students also worried that the move to charge international students for education might eventually lead to tuition fees for all students. The proposal did not proceed, yet not all Norwegians are content to continue with the status quo stance on international students in the country. The Norwegian National Federation of Enterprises (NHO) is among the most vocal in saying that taxpayers should not have to subsidise foreign students studying and living in Norway – at least not without getting something in return. It would like to see changes made so that the international students who are accepted (1) can contribute to the Norwegian economy with in-demand skills and (2) should be encouraged to stay in the country after graduation. The NHO argues that the decisions about which foreign students are accepted should be moved from individual institutions to a central admissions office. NHO director Svein Oppegård recently said:

“Norway is using great resources to educate foreign students. We then have to get something back. We cannot trust that higher education institutions are admitting those students that are most needed in the workforce.”

The NHO is also concerned about the volume of foreign students who come to Norway to study – especially in PhD programmes – then leave, taking their skills back to their home countries. Mr Oppegård argues:

“With regard to doctoral candidates, it is a problem that approximately 250 such candidates each year are leaving Norway after taxpayers have paid for their education. This means that Norwegian society is not benefiting from a yearly investment of approximately NOK625 million [US$89 million].”

Others consider free education to be a cornerstone of Norwegian society and value the country’s openness to the world. When the proposal to introduce fees was on the table in 2014, Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, President of the University of Oslo, told The PIE News:

This is not about money, but about values. Norway prides itself on taking an international perspective that comprises the world at large and that emphasises the need for solidarity across geographical borders.”

It will be interesting to see how Norway directs its internationalisation policies over the next few years. Leading destination countries are increasingly linking international education to the needs of their economies (for example, Canada’s new Express Entry system, the US’s Optional Practical Training programme and New Zealand’s introduction of liberal post-graduation work opportunities and immigration tracks). But for now, Norway will remain among the few Western destination countries welcoming international students to study with free tuition and no constraints on what they wish to study.

Reforms afoot

The discussion may take another turn still, however, as a reform process announced last month begins to take hold. Minister of Education and Research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen recently announced the most substantial reforms for Norwegian higher education in 20 years, a process that will see 14 of Norway’s 33 institutions merged into five universities or university colleges. The government appears to be aiming for a more effective system built around a smaller number of stronger institutions. “Mr Isaksen used the terms ‘robustness and ‘less fragmentation’ several times during his presentation of the reforms,” reported University World News recently. “He said Norway had too many smaller higher education institutions with little demand for all their programmes. Some had problems attracting highly qualified staff and consequently produced little research and too few graduate students.” The impact of the planned reforms on institutional budgets will become more clear in October 2015 when the government introduces its 2016 budget. The budget may reveal some changes to university funding models in Norway, in conjunction with the reforms or otherwise, as the institutional funding formula has been under review of late by two expert panels (a productivity commission and a university financing commission), and each has supplied some recommended revisions for government review leading up to the fall budget.

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