NORWAY: A free system but for how long?

Higher education in Norway is a part of a welfare society and is defined as a public good so 100% of the education part of the budget is publicly funded. Although a few private institutions exist, they are mainly in business studies.

The present coalition government, with a Left Socialist minister of higher education, will ensure international students also do not face fees - at least for the next three years. But this could change, given that the budget for universities this year is extremely tight.

Demographic factors could lead to 80,000 new students over the next few years. This year's budget offers a significant expansion of research, notably climate research, but no expansion for the education part of the budget.

This has led to an outcry from the universities demanding more funds. The response of the Minister has been to appoint a high-ranking committee to examine "the action space of universities", indicating how they can meet the new challenges without a significant increase of the budget.

Over the last decade, a significant number of international degrees have been set up and they total more than 100 nationwide, notably at the masters level. Some of these are attractive and interdisciplinary, such as international health, gender and development, sustainable development, international education, technology and society, and good governance.

These have given institutions an ample opportunity to experiment with innovative and multidisciplinary advanced degrees. Some have been successful in the Erasmus Mundus scheme and some attract several hundred applications each year.

Foreign students wanting to study in Norway have to meet three criteria: They have to document sufficient funds (NOK 80 000/year [US$13,500]); they have to document that they have a place to live and they have to fulfil the requirements in Norwegian language, compulsory for entrance to universities.

The English-taught masters degrees can waive the Norwegian language requirements but they still have a competitive arrangement to select the best applicants, from Norwegian and foreign students.

A grants scheme for students from developing countries, and selected Eastern European countries, support 1,100 international students who pay no fees. A grant covering living costs on par with Norwegian students is given to the students as a loan and, when they finish their degree and leave Norway, this loan is annulled.

But there is a moratorium on entering Norway for five years. If students decide to stay on after completing the degree, the loan has to be paid back on the same conditions as for Norwegian students.

In this 'quota system' introduced in 1995, the higher education institutions have to compete for a number of grants from the 1,100, preferably in collaboration with institutions in developing countries. Students from these institutions have to compete for the grants and the number of applications is very high at the major universities.

One third of these 'quota grants' are now held by students working on their doctorates, which means a significant proportion of those taking a doctoral degree (some 1,000 a year) are foreign citizens. Foreign students as a group also now perform better than Norwegian students with regard to fulfilling the degree requirements in time.

Norway has a strange history with regard to the number of Norwegians that since WWII have taken their academic degree abroad. Because of the poor conditions for higher education after the war, a substantial number took degrees in engineering, medicine, business etc. abroad.

In the mid-1950 30% of all Norwegian students were studying abroad. During the expansion of higher education from 1970 onwards, the number abroad reached 20,000. In Australia, 4,000 Norwegians were studying in 2002 (up from 40 in 1995) as a result of aggressive recruiting from agents for Australian universities and the Norwegian government covering the fees. But many believed the choice of Australia was more motivated by 'surfing, sun and sex'.

Because of this large number of Norwegians having access to higher education abroad and an opportunity for the country to educate their talents, the Norwegian parliament accepts that its oil-rich country has reached a 'pay-back time' and the arrangements for receiving more foreign students have been supported until now.

But the increased pressure on university budgets might also lead to new pressure on parliament to change this system and introduce fees for foreign students.