Study abroad funding determined by university rankings

The Norwegian government agencies overseeing arrangements for grants for students to study abroad are drawing up a list of permitted elite destination universities – for those applying for top-up grants to attend elite institutions abroad – based on universities’ performance in two global rankings, it has emerged.

The top-up grants are given in addition to the ordinary student loans and grants for studying abroad in world class institutions, where the tuition fees exceed the limit of the ordinary tuition support. In practice, these are located in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. In other countries even very high quality institutions may charge lower fees than these limits.

At a conference on university rankings earlier this month, arranged by NOKUT – the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education – in Oslo, the Norwegian Centre for International Cooperation in Education or SIU said that when preparing a list of 119 elite universities in 15 countries where Norwegian students would be eligible for the supplementary grant for undertaking full degree studies, SIU was using an average of the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) or Shanghai ranking and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings to decide which universities will be included.

Also, for an institution abroad to be included on the list, it had to be ranked both on the ARWU and the THE ranking lists.

The list includes seven universities in Australia, four in France and 18 in the UK. Other eligible universities are located in the US, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Israel, Japan, China, the Netherlands, Russia, Singapore, Switzerland and South Korea.

The objective of the Ministry of Education and Research and SIU is to ensure that more Norwegian students studying abroad are doing so at higher quality universities.

The additional grant of up to NOK66,652 (€7,190 or US$8,000) is decided on in mid-October and is valid for the next study year. The grant is a top-up grant for full degree studies at universities abroad where tuition fees are often at least NOK123,083 per year (US$14,900).

The total amount paid out in government grants has almost doubled in the past two years from NOK46 million (US$5.6 million) in 2013-14 to NOK88.7 million (US$10.7 million) in 2015-16. The number of grants awarded has risen from 727 six years ago to 1,614 in 2015-16.

Gro Tjore, deputy director-general of SIU, said at the conference that the Ministry of Education and Research wants a transparent system for deciding which institutions to include in the arrangement, and that SIU also wants to demonstrate that institutions that do not charge expensive tuition fees can be included among eligible elite institutions.

Misuse of rankings?

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, rector of the University of Oslo, criticised the list at the conference and said this practice is an example of misuse of the international rankings. He cited the School of Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS, in London as an example of an institution that does not qualify for inclusion on the list even if it is scoring high on other subject rankings, and argued that the two rankings used favour broader based institutions.

“Examples like SOAS are undermining our administrative procedures. In the hunt for university rankings one has to use caution,” Ottersen said. “A critical view on the methods and data used is necessary.”

Jacob Bergvik Aure, former president of the Association of Norwegian Students Abroad or ANSA, said in an article in July in Dagbladet that it is time to strengthen the additional grant scheme for tuition fees for Norwegian students at elite universities abroad.

“Norway does not have an elite institution. Talented students hence have to go abroad to study at top international universities,” he wrote. “Another NOK100,000 [US$12,000] in grants will therefore be of great importance for Norway,” he said.

Ole Kristian Bratset, current president of ANSA, told University World News that ANSA in principle is against using ranking lists in this way but he thinks it is positive that SIU is using two ranking lists to determine the selection of universities on the list, and that this makes it clear which criteria are needed to be included.

He said it is a political priority now for ANSA to secure an additional top-up grant of NOK100,000 to selected top institutions abroad.

Bjørn Haugstad, junior minister for education and research, told Khrono – a national online newspaper for the university sector in Norway owned by Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences – that he disagreed with Ottersen’s critique (and wondered if he had been taking too much fish-oil lately).

“The new regulations [for being eligible for international top-up grants] are not an inferior usage of the rankings because those institutions that qualify [for grants] all are highly recognised institutions internationally,” Haugstad said.

Ottersen said that Haugstad at the same time admits that many elite institutions will not be included on the list, and is thereby conceding that this is a problem.

Ottersen told University World News: “The scenario we can see coming if this line is followed to the end, is that all [international] collaboration is directed towards those institutions that are on the top of, for instance, the Shanghai list. Then we will get a world where the rich [institutions] in the West are playing with each other.”

As a result a rich diversity of perspective would be sacrificed due to the use of a limited definition of quality, he said.