Minister wants to lure students from southern Europe

Norway's minister for higher education and research has called for more university collaboration with southern Europe, to help countries hit hardest by the economic crisis – and to lure talent.

“In Spain, there is a 50% unemployment rate among young people,” Tora Aasland said. “It is a tragedy that their competence will not be used in the further building up of European society, now that the economic crisis makes this more urgent than ever.”

Dr Kyrre Lekve, Aasland’s junior minister, told University World News that Norway was allocating NOK3.8 billion (US$660 million) each year to economic development in Europe, funds for which Spain, Portugal and Greece are eligible.

Norwegian institutions receive almost 4,000 exchange students through the Erasmus mobility programme.

The question was how to turn these opportunities into concrete university collaborations, which could build bridges for students to Norway, where there is employment and increasing immigration of highly educated people from all over the world.

Norway offers more than 200 masters degrees taught in English and saw the number of foreign students rise to 17,800 this academic year – 8% of the student population and a 1% rise on the previous year.

“Norwegian higher education institutions are seeing that more foreign students want to study in Norway,” Lekve said. “One reason is that institutions offer many courses and study programmes taught in English, and these degrees are of high quality and often taught using student-centred learning methods."

Levke said that foreign students, including European students, have to compete for a place on the same conditions as Norwegian students, but are not charged tuition fees, unlike in most other European states, especially at masters level.

“Another reason why foreign students are choosing to come could be that Norway is scoring high on international surveys as a country where there is a high quality of living and safe living conditions,” Lekve said.

“The government does not have a recruitment policy for selected fields of studies or programmes for foreign students”, Lekve told University World News. “The way we can open up for more foreign students to come is to make the recognition system as efficient as possible, so that foreigners can have their competence matching the work openings where they are qualified.”

He said the government was trying to make higher education more attractive to both home and international students by building more student houses and through “systematic improvement of the quality of higher education”.

“Among several incentives, we have this year allocated NOK4.5 million as seed money for establishing joint degrees with partner institutions abroad,” Lekve said. “Also, the ministry has allocated a strategic fund for the sector for extended cooperation between institutions, where internationalisation issues might be included.”

Despite the show of political will from the ministry, there is no quick fix for interested students to study in Norway, since study places and the financing of living costs have to be arranged through university collaboration for students who cannot cover their living costs.

The legal basis for students within the European Economic Area (EEA) drawing on government support is complex.

Foreign citizens undertaking higher education in Norway with a legal permit to stay can receive support from the government loan fund if they have a relationship in Norway, with a Norwegian or a foreigner with permanent residence in Norway. Foreign citizens who have worked full-time in Norway for at least two years before the education starts can also receive support.

Citizens from the European Union or the EEA with employee status in Norway have the right to receive government support if the course is related to their work. To get such a status as an employee, the EU or EEA citizen has to have worked for a certain time, but there is no requirement to be in full-time work.

After five years' legal stay in Norway, EU and EEA citizens have the same right to government support for education as Norwegian citizens. And those in this category also have the right to government support abroad, on the same basis as Norwegian citizens.

Knut Aarbakke, leader of Akademikerne, the Federation of Norwegian Professional Associations that represents 160,000 professionals, said Norway lacked 70,000 highly qualified people, with one in 10 private companies surveyed stating they would hire someone from abroad during 2012.

He said the government should make a plan for further immigration of highly qualified people.

But Minister of Labour Hanne Bjurstrøm told the Norwegian daily Aftenposten that people should not come to Norway before they have an arrangement with a company or organisation for work. She does not agree with Aarbakke that the government should play a role in recruiting people from the southern countries in Europe. “Companies need no assistance to do this.”

The governmental tax authority has issued twice as many tax cards to citizens from Spain in 2012 compared to last year, according to Aftenposten.

“People coming from the south of Europe traditionally have not settled permanently in Norway, due to climate or for cultural reasons,” Bjurstrøm said.