Government backs down on tuition fees for non-Europeans

The Norwegian government has backed down from a proposal to introduce tuition fees for students from outside Europe, instead reaching a deal with opposition parties to increase the budget next year for higher education institutions by NOK80.5 million (US$12 million).

“Both the government and the supporting parties are to be honoured,” Gunnar Bovim, rector of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, or NTNU, said in a statement to Universitetsavisa.

He stressed that the objective of admitting foreign students was not only to secure the best talent. “To receive students from countries that have not developed democracy is a part of our social contract,” he said.

Student unions, which have used a variety of measures – including appearing nude in the press – to combat the proposal, as well as spokespeople for higher education institutions across the country, welcomed the news.

At the same time, the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise – NHO – published a report, Foreign Students as a Competence Resource, and organised a conference with the same title in Oslo, proposing radical changes to the system of admitting foreign students.

Press reaction

The initiative caught the headlines of major newspapers, with Dagens Næringsliv stating that “NHO is tired of educating ‘unusable’ foreigners, [and] will only accept students that are needed in the [Norwegian] workforce”.

NHO suggested stopping the admission of international students at individual higher education institutions and instead having a central admission office, mandated to accept foreigners based on certain objective criteria and the needs of the workforce.

It proposed that on graduating, foreign students should be encouraged to stay and work in Norway, so that their skills are not lost.

Also recommended is a tax reduction arrangement for these students, whereby their government loan would be reduced by an amount equal to the payback arrangement Norwegian students receive if they move to the upper northern part of the country after graduation.

The NHO report also highlighted some interesting statistics about the four categories of foreign students in Norway in 2012, including that:
  • • About 6,500 students participated for one or two terms in exchange programmes.
  • • Some 1,100 students were accepted under the quota scheme grant with developing countries, that is Western Balkans and Central Asia.
  • • Around 1,000 ‘free-mover’ students, mainly Russians, were studying ‘virtually’ at a Norwegian higher education institution and approximately 11,000 for a degree at a Norwegian university or university college.
  • • Out of 1,500 graduating doctoral students, 550 were foreign citizens.
The NHO proposal is mainly directed towards the free-mover category.

Major changes

From 2003 to 2012 the number of foreign students in Norway more than doubled to 19,249 students in 2012, or 8.5% of the total student population.

Some countries have increased their student population extensively during the decade. While the average increase was 118%, the increase in Ukrainian students was 751%, Nepalese students 648%, Polish students 429%, Dutch students 390% and students from France 280%.

Also, the type of institution receiving foreign students and their selection of studies has changed significantly over the decade.

In 2003, two-thirds of all foreigners were registered at the four ‘old’ universities – Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim or NTNU, and Tromsø – while in 2013 these four institutions accounted for one-third of students from outside Norway.

At universities, 11% of students were foreign in 2012, at university colleges 13% and at art schools 21%.

The NHO study also found that the greatest increase in foreign students was in economic and administrative studies, from 108 students in 2003 to 2,795 in 2013. Other fields of study that saw a strong increase were technological studies and health sciences.

Payback time

Commentators are at odds over how Norway should recoup its investment in international students.

“Norway is using great resources to educate foreign students. We then have to get something back,” said NHO director Svein Oppegård. “We cannot trust that higher education institutions are admitting those students that are most needed in the workforce.”

Also, he said, higher education institutions often accept students onto cheap courses where there is available capacity. “Look at the expansion of students in economic studies. It is much cheaper to educate these compared to students in technological fields, who are in great demand in the workforce.

“With regard to doctoral candidates, it is a problem that approximately 250 such candidates each year are leaving Norway after taxpayers have paid for their education. This means that Norwegian society is not benefiting from a yearly investment of approximately NOK625 million [US$89 million],” said Oppegård.

“Since the doctoral students are financed by universities and higher education institutions, it is rational to continue this form of decentralised admission. But the authorities should monitor the development.

“One way of securing greater orientation towards Norwegian industry could be by using the industrial PhD that started in 2008 for this group, where candidates get employment in the company at the same time as they are registered at the higher education institution,” Oppegård told the conference.

But Bjørn Haugstad, state secretary to the minister of education and research, does not endorse the NHO proposal of prioritising foreign student for specific fields of studies.

“Let me take one example,” Haugstad said to Dagens Næringsliv.

“Up to now there has been great demand for skills within the petroleum industry, but the statistics now indicate that present capacity level is covering the need for new candidates in technology in the coming years. It is within health-welfare and different teaching professions that the need is the greatest.”