Mobility funds switched into partnerships, BRICS

The government is to phase out its Quota Scheme for international mobility and plough 40% of the money saved into two-way institutional collaborations and research collaborations with BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – and Japan.

One effect will be the dropping of scholarships for 300 students from the Western Balkans, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and universities fear there will be a significant reduction in the current number of 800 scholarships for students from developing countries.

In the government’s proposals for the 2016 budget for the Ministry of Education and Research, the funding for the existing Quota Scheme will be phased out and put towards two new programmes.

Some 60% of the scheme’s funds will be transferred to a grant programme where Norwegian institutions have collaborative agreements with institutions in the South.

Some 40% of the funds will be used to support a cooperative research and higher education programme with the BRICS countries and Japan.

Minister of Education and Research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen said: “Countries such as China, India and Brazil are investing heavily in education and research as part of their national growth strategies.

"China will soon be spending more on research than the US, and Indian authorities are planning to double the country’s student population by 2025.

“In addition, these countries are important markets for Norwegian industry. That is why we must establish a closer cooperative relationship,” he said, according to a report in The Nordic Page.

This is a significant change, not least because the Quota Scheme, which has been operating since 1994, is extremely popular with thousands of students applying or seeking information, with the best students being accepted.

However, the programme with the BRICS countries plus Japan falls in line with the Norwegian priorities for international collaboration in research and higher education.

Until now, the government proposal says, there have not been enough resources available to make this collaboration a priority. These countries are now producing a great share of the world’s knowledge, and Norway needs access to it to meet the great social challenges and to develop more excellent research groups in the Scandinavian country, the ministry argues.

Controversial evaluation

The new partnership programme between Norwegian higher education institutions and partner institutions in the South, on the other hand, is influenced by an evaluation of the Quota Scheme in 2014 by consulting firm, DAMVAD.

This concluded, controversially, that even if the aim of supporting development most probably is fulfilled by the scheme, Norwegian higher education institutions have not to a significant degree used the Quota Scheme as an instrument for increased internationalisation of higher education.

This finding was refuted by many higher education institutions in the hearings for the DAMVAD report.

Changed arrangements

Under the government’s new plans, the system for allocating grant-supported places for international students is changing. Currently Norwegian higher education institutions, competing with each other, apply for a share of the international student quota, a system administered by the SIU – the Norwegian Centre for International Cooperation in Education.

The places are financed as part of the higher education institution’s governmental grant. Meanwhile, the living costs for the students are covered by a loan and grant from the Norwegian State Educational Loan Fund on a par with Norwegian students.

When the student has completed the degree and leaves Norway, the loan is converted to a grant and nullified with a moratorium that the candidate shall not re-enter Norway within 10 years. If the candidates decide to live in Norway, the loan has to be paid back as for Norwegian students.

The new partnership programme between Norwegian higher education institutions and partner institutions in the South will instead support collaboration between institutions via a mixture of two-way student exchanges, curriculum development, development of joint study programmes and joint degrees.

Universities fear that this arrangement will mean that less money is spent on bringing international students from the South to Norway – partly because the money will be spent on sending students to both partners in a collaboration, not just to Norway – which has raised concerns among the current beneficiaries of the Quota Scheme.

Currently 43 Norwegian higher education institutions receive students from the eligible countries, and the larger institutions take the lion’s share of the two quotas – the University of Oslo has 189 places, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology has 168 and the University of Bergen has 154, for example.

Higher education institutions run masters degrees taught in English and these students are valuable for maintaining these programmes. Many students from the South stay on to take a PhD – and 35% of PhD candidates are now international students.

Randi Haaland, emeritus professor of archaeology at the University of Bergen, has for example, tutored 28 masters and doctoral students from Africa, many of whom are today in responsible positions in Africa working with African cultural heritage.

Little debate

There has been surprisingly little debate in Norway on the major changes that are now proposed – neither by political parties, university leaders nor student representatives.

However, Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, rector of the University of Oslo, which holds the majority of the quota grants, told University World News that the University of Oslo recommended that the Quota Scheme be continued as an inward mobility programme with grants, and the university sees the Quota Scheme as an important element in its internationalisation strategy now and in the future.

He said the phasing out of the Quota Scheme would lead to a significant reduction in the number of students from the South studying at Norwegian institutions.

“We might lose the possibility to collaborate with countries we until now have worked with. And several of the University of Oslo’s masters programmes are built up around the Quota Scheme.”

He added: “In today’s world, with increasing inequality and a growing need to open the borders for exchanges of scientists, students, experts and talents, it seems discordant that the Quota Scheme is phased out without a public debate.”

Professor Gudmund Hernes, who was minister of education and research when the Quota Scheme was introduced, said Norway has a long history of prioritising student exchanges – ever since the son of the first King, Håkon Adalsteinfostre, studied in England in the tenth century – including through the Fulbright programme and European Union exchange programmes.

“In line with this, Norway has opened up for receiving foreign students. They have not only built competence – they have built networks that have been active in all the years after they went home. Anything that can weaken this will be a step backward."