Politicians target student mobility imbalances

Over the decade from 2003-13, the number of students arriving in the Nordic countries seeking university degrees increased by 53,000, creating a severe imbalance between degree seekers arriving and local students leaving to study elsewhere.

In 2012, 83,000 students from outside Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden arrived in these countries to enrol at a university. At the same time, almost 45,000 Nordic students were studying for a degree outside their home country.

Politicians in the four nations face a difficult balancing act in attracting foreign students while seeing too few of their own students leaving to study in another country.

The politicians want international talent recruited to their workforce, given the evidence that importing it has a positive effect over time on a country’s treasury.

But the same Scandinavians make it more difficult for foreigners to study in the Nordic countries by demanding tuition fees. That is, when they are not bound by international agreements such as the EU/EEA agreements to accept country member nationals as equal to their own citizens in gaining access to higher education.

A balancing act

The balancing act becomes more difficult if the politicians also want their own young people to study abroad, at least to the same extent as foreign students arriving to study in their countries.

Some 30,000 international degree students were enrolled in the Nordic countries in 2003 and about 13,000 or 43% were from outside Europe. Even after the introduction of tuition fees in Denmark in 2006 and Sweden in 2011, the number of students from outside Europe increased by 20,000 over the decade to total 32,500 in 2013.

But over the decade, the total number of incoming degree-seekers rose to 83,000 students, a 175% increase. The extra 53,000 students included significant increases from within the Nordic countries as well as from the rest of Europe.

A massive rise of more than 5,000 international students each year is mainly because of a significant increase in courses taught in English and the strategic initiatives of most universities to strengthen internationalisation.

The number of students going abroad from the four Nordic countries for a full degree last year was 44,760, or 53% of the number of incoming degree-seeking students. The number leaving Sweden amounted to18,600, Norway 16,260, Finland 5,900 and Denmark 4,000.

During 2013, the imbalance saw 40,000 more students arriving in the Scandinavian countries compared with the number outgoing. The largest proportional increase of incoming students was experienced by Denmark which has experienced a 10-fold increase in students from Eastern and Central Europe – jumping from 823 students in 2003 to 9,313 students in 2013.

Imbalances between Nordic countries

But striking imbalances also exist between the Nordic countries sending and receiving students from their neighbours: Norway sent almost 3,000 students to Denmark in 2011-12 but only 241 Danes were studying in Norway. Finland sent 2004 students to Sweden, while only 220 Swedes went to Finnish universities; Sweden sent 1953 students for full degree studies to Denmark, while 445 Danes were studying in Sweden.

To account for such intra-Nordic imbalances, an agreement was signed in 2012 between the countries whereby “sending countries” pay for the imbalance, as was covered in a previous report by University World News.

Even more striking is the imbalance between the 10-fold increase in students from Eastern and Central Europe, totalling 9,313 students in Denmark in 2013. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have increasingly accepted tuition fee paying students from all over the world, including the Nordic region, notably in the health sciences where there is a severe competition for access to these studies.

In 2012, these three countries received 2,569 students from Norway and 1,809 from Sweden, but only 35 from Denmark. As of 2014, there are almost as many medical students outside Norway (3,082) as are studying at the four Norwegian universities (3,666).

Among the mobile students, 1,278 are studying in Poland, 562 in Hungary, 405 in Slovakia, 277 in Denmark, 230 in the Czech Republic, 106 in Latvia and 60 in Romania. Only 28 are studying medicine at universities in the UK and a mere four in America.

Balancing incoming and outgoing students is seen by politicians as the ideal situation. “Why should our taxes be used to pay for students from the US, China and Russia?” is a frequent argument heard in Norway today and was heard in Sweden before tuition fees were introduced there in 2011.

Norwegian university leaders are wondering why the Minister of Education, Torbjørn Røe Isaksen has initiated plans to introduce tuition fees for students from outside Europe, even though the Norwegian parliament refused to endorse this when the budget was approved last year.

The Norwegian Association of Higher Education Institutions has called for continued free education in Norway, saying it is opposed to the government plans to examine the grounds for introducing tuition fees.

Internationalisation is of great importance in Norwegian higher education and, as a high-cost country on the periphery of Europe with a small language area, the association does not want to add to the burdens of those wanting to study in Norway. It has called on the parliament to stop plans for the introduction of tuition fees.

Both Finland and Norway are now feeling the pressure caused by a massive influx of foreign students as a result of Denmark and Sweden having introduced tuition fees for students from outside their borders.