Students' challenge to fees raises questions over Erasmus Mundus

Two Swedish students are challenging Uppsala University’s decision to charge domestic students tuition fees for a masters offered with seven European universities under the European Union's Erasmus Mundus programme.

The issue has sparked international international interest because the changing landscape for higher education funding in Europe has led a number of countries to introduce or raise tuition fees either for international students or for all students.

The students, Jöran Lindberg and Marcilles Hernandez, asked the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education last October to examine whether requiring them to pay tuition fees while studying at Uppsala was a violation of Swedish university law.

Uppsala responded to the complaint in April and the agency is now considering its ruling on the case.

The context

International masters students have to pay tuition fees, which have risen steeply in recent years, but Swedish, European Union and European Economic Area students do not.

However, Uppsala is part of a European consortium offering a degree in international humanitarian assistance – involving the study of integration law, political science, ethics, project management and other fields – for which demand is high.

The two Swedish students are required to pay tuition fees of SEK75,600 (US$10,575) a year.

The university produced a five-page memorandum defending the claim for fees, on the grounds that admission to the programme is regulated by Belgian law. At least 30% of the degree requirements have to be taken at another participating university to qualify for the joint degree that is mandatory in this Erasmus Mundus programme, under which the diploma has to be signed by two institutions.

Christian Stråhlman, a PhD student at Lund University and member of the Swedish rectors’ conference expert group, has accused Uppsala of hiding behind “technicalities and juridical constructions” to “argue with elegance that the Swedish student applying to a masters programme in Uppsala in reality applied for a masters programme in Belgium” and therefore is an exchange student.

In the memorandum to the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education (HSV), Uppsala said it had not been able to find any other solution that gives the student the option to study at Uppsala and be offered an equivalent education.

“In this way it has been possible to remain in the programme, which for Sweden and Uppsala is important, and by that [route] complete its responsibility as a member of the EU.”

Gunnar Enequist, of the HSV and secretary of the Swedish forum for internationalisation, said the forum would take up the issue after the summer, because there was a risk of conflict between the regulations for programmes of this type and tuition fees legislation.

SiN, the Association of Doctoral Organisations in Norway, shares the views of Uppsala and the European Commission that a Swedish student studying in Sweden cannot be exempted from paying the tuition fees to the consortium, because this would lead to an instance of discrimination.

However, it said that since Swedish laws ensure free access to higher education for nationals, Swedish universities taking part in Erasmus Mundus consortia, in collaboration with the Swedish authorities, should consider putting in place tuition fee waivers for Swedish students finding themselves in such situation.

”Doing so ensures free education for the students and compliance with the commission’s requirement that all students of Erasmus Mundus programmes be treated equally,” the organisation told University World News.

Tuition fees under Erasmus Mundus criticised

The issue of tuition fees and discriminatory actions against EU citizens when taking up studies in another EU member state is regulated by directive 2004/38/EC, which states that “if any EU citizen decides to study in another EU country, he or she must also be treated in the same way as the citizens in that country based on the principle of non-discrimination laid down in the Treaty of Amsterdam”.

In this case, Uppsala is applying non-discrimination by charging tuition fees for Swedish students as well as students from other EU states in the masters programme.

According to SiN, tuition fees charged by the European Commission and the way it informed potential students was heavily criticised by the European Ombudsman in 2011.

The ombudsman submitted a 121-point document, based on four years of inquiry into a complaint lodged by Canadian Erasmus Mundus student Julien Bourrelle.

In the run-up to the complaint it was pointed out to the commission that the Erasmus Mundus consortium charged tuition fees 10 times higher than the maximum tuition allowed in Germany, where the programme was taking place at the time. The commission failed to reply directly on this point.

European Commission publicity for Erasmus Mundus scholarships indicated that the scholarship was meant to cover all travel, living and tuition costs for the duration of the course.

But Bourelle complained about getting into financial difficulty due to being charged a €12,000 (US$15,000) tuition fee. Since a fixed amount of €5,000 was allowed for travel and relocation costs, this left just €4,000 to cover living costs per year, less than 45% of the German poverty threshold.

The ombudsman found the commission guilty of 'maladministration' in providing incorrect and unreliable literature about the scholarship scheme.

Similar cases elsewhere

Challenges similar to the Swedish case have been faced in Norway and Denmark in recent years.

In Denmark, the introduction of tuition fees for Danish participants in Erasmus Mundus programmes created a media storm in 2008-09, with interventions in the Danish parliament claiming that it was a violation of Danish law and the principle of free higher education for all.

Demands were made for universities that had claimed tuition fees from Danish students to repay them.

According to Jens Oddershede, chair of the rectors’ conference Danish Universities, Danish students participating in an Erasmus Mundus programme with a Danish partner university do not pay tuition fees for the part of the course taught at Danish universities.

The same is the case for other EU-EEA citizens. But, for those parts of the course taken outside Denmark, the same rules apply as for those countries where the exchange takes place.

“If there is a tuition fee, Danish students shall pay that,” he said. “Danish students receiving government student loans have, however, a possibility to apply for a grant from the Danish government to cover those fees.”

Vito Borrelli, of the directorate general of culture and education of the European Commission, told University World News that Erasmus Mundus does not impose any particular policy on tuition fees to cover student participation costs.

Rather, it leaves the consortium offering the programme free to define the financial contribution required of students. Furthermore, this student expenditure is covered by the Erasmus Mundus scholarship.

“All masters consortia are implementing a participation cost but how this fee is distributed among the participating universities is an internal decision of the consortium,” he said.

“From past experience, we know that Swedish higher education institutions do not benefit from the participation cost charged by the consortium. The Erasmus Mundus programme must always be implemented in line with national legislation by the participating institutions.

“So a consortium’s decision that the Swedish participating universities do not benefit from the joint participation cost is a way to comply with both the Erasmus Mundus programme and Swedish national legislation.”

But this view has been challenged by the European Student Union.

Chair Allan Päll said: "Joint and double degrees remain a concern in terms of regulation. To avoid universities escaping national regulation, joint and double degrees need to be held accountable by all participating countries.

“If an institution signs the diploma, in part or in full, it must be subject to national regulation. The principle in such case should be that when an EU citizen in such a programme studies for a part in a country where there is no tuition fee, that part should indeed be offered without fees.”

Maria Hernandez has now decided the only way out to avoid paying a tuition fee is to apply for another masters at Uppsala this autumn.