Fees and international students in Nordic nations

In 2010 there were 68,256 foreign students in the five Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Foreign student numbers were up by 117% from 2005 and they comprised 5.8% of the total Nordic student population of 1.18 million, according to a recent study.

Denmark had the highest proportion of foreign students – 8.6% of all students – and Sweden had the highest number – 27,859 – among the five nations, which have a combined general population of nearly 26 million.

The Copenhagen-based Nordic Council of Ministers commissioned Oxford Research to undertake a study on Tuition Fees for International Students – Nordic practice.

The study’s foreword said that Nordic higher education was now competing “in a truly global market, where competition is tough and institutions work hard to attract the best students”.

Higher education no longer free

Until a few years ago, Nordic countries had a long tradition of free higher education financed by taxpayers. The situation has changed.

Denmark was the first to introduce tuition fees in 2006. Finland launched a five-year trial period running from 2010-14, while Sweden brought in tuition fees from 2011. Only Iceland and Norway do not charge at all.

The report questioned the effects of the introduction of tuition fees, and how fee systems were constructed and applied in different countries. It also queried the existence of scholarship schemes and how they worked.

The aim of the study was to provide a knowledge base for further cooperation within the Nordic region.

It focused on national practices concerning international students, defined as students coming from outside the European Union-European Economic Area (EU-EEA) – except Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein.

It also examined the introduction of fees and the number of international students, and discussed future perspectives, notably arguments for and against tuition fees.

The researchers interviewed around 40 people from public agencies and staff at Nordic educational institutions and organisations, and also compared the effects of tuition fees in the UK and The Netherlands.

International students


The study showed a significant increase in international student numbers in Sweden, notably from outside the EU-EEA, up to 2010. After fees were introduced there was a dramatic fall in in the number of non-EU-EEA students – from 8,000 to 2,000 from 2010-11 – as previously reported by University World News.

Living costs and fees deter foreign students, and the study looked at which students were deterred. Bachelor and masters programmes were now demanding fees, but doctoral programmes were excluded.

The report compared fees in universities and polytechnics for different study programmes. They ranged from SEK65,000 (US$9,972) in Sweden to €5,000-€12,000 (US$6,550-US$15,720) in Finland, to €6,200-€13,100 in Denmark.

When introducing tuition fees in 2011, Swedish institutions initiated measures to strengthen the country’s competitive position, in order to compensate for the fees. An application fee was also introduced. Legislation stipulated that the fees should cover full costs.

In both Sweden and Finland, until 2010 most non-EU-EEA students were from Asia. These statistics also declined after fees were introduced. The report attributed this to the “shock effect” when going from no payment to full costs.

The increase in non-EU-EEA students in Finland from 2005-10 was 102% at universities and 137% at polytechnics, against 23% and 27% for EU-EEA-students.

In Finland, 41 programmess out of 399 at nine universities and 10 polytechnics were fee-charging. Institutions within the fee pilot scheme must offer masters programmess and scholarships, and the medium of instruction must be English.


The study found a “marked increase” in the proportion of international students and universities and scientific colleges in Norway from 2005-12 – their numbers grew by 56%.

There were nearly 16,000 international students in 2012, some 8,700 from the EU-EFA and 7,260 from outside Europe. Between 2005 and 2012 EU-EFA international student numbers grew by 89% while non-European numbers rose by 29%.

In Norway, students generally do not pay for education. Several people told University World News that free education for all might come under pressure within the next five to 10 years.

One stakeholder said that if Norwegian students were unable to find places on courses due to international students, this would increase incentives to introduce tuition fees.

The issue will not be raised under the current government. But if a conservative-led coalition government were elected this autumn, the subject might resurface during the next four years. Currently, the polls show a clear majority for a conservative coalition government.


Icelandic universities said they had seen significant increase in international students, including “more students from developing countries who cannot afford to study in countries with tuition fees”.

The numbers of international students were small in low-population Iceland’s higher education system – 852 from the EU-EFA and 281 non-European students in 2010 – but in the five years from 2005 there had been increases of 45% and 86% respectively.


In Denmark, universities can set tuition fees that are higher than the costs, but the surplus they generate must be used for scholarships schemes. There is an application fee of €105-€150 to some institutions.

From 2005-10, there was a 154% increase in students from the EU-EEA, in particular to business academies (up 421%) but a reduction in foreign non-EU-EEA students of 31% at universities and 8% at university colleges.

There was also an increase in non-EU-EEA students at the business colleges, which did not introduce tuition fees before 1 January 2008.

One Danish stakeholder said: “The fact that prices are at taximeter level [full cost] means it costs the same to study engineering in Denmark as at the best American universities and considerably more than in other European countries, while the social sciences courses are relatively cheap in Denmark compared with other countries”.