Row over foreign student share of student housing

A television report that Norwegian students can’t get accommodation because all new student rooms are going to international students has stoked a public row with universities. The rector of the University of Oslo, Ole Petter Ottersen, has accused the broadcaster of misleading the public.

The row began when journalist Fredrik Solvang, on the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, or NRK, news programme Dagsnytt 18 on 28 October, claimed that 70% of available student rooms in Oslo and 64% in Bergen were allocated to foreign students.

“The number of foreign students is increasing by 2,000 each year,” Solvang said, “which is the same number as the number of new student rooms built. The foreign students have a guarantee for having a student room and they do not have to pay any tuition fees. In principle, Norway is building new student rooms for American, British, Swedish and Russian students.”

Aleksander Gjøsæter at the Student Welfare Organisation in Oslo, which allocates the rooms, said: “We allocate [places in] 9,000 student houses in Oslo and we have decided that foreign students admitted under an agreement with a Norwegian institution shall have priority.”

But there is no discrimination between international students, Gjøsæter said. “We are not sorting students out by which countries they are coming from.”

Pål Adrian Ryen, deputy head of the National Union of Students in Norway, said the union has “year after year” asked for more student houses from the government, but fully endorses the policy of giving 70% of rooms to foreign students in accordance with the government’s internationalisation policy.

Conservative Member of Parliament Henrik Asheim said it was a challenge that so many of the rooms were given to foreign students.

Ola Borten Moe, deputy leader of the Centre (Agrarian) Party, said if Norwegian taxpayers are paying for 40% of the building of student houses, he did not think there should be a system where Norwegian students have less chance of getting a room. Norwegian taxpayers should have a say in this question and Norwegian students should at least have an equal opportunity for access compared to foreign students, he argued.

There are an estimated 23,000 foreign students in Norway and the NRK estimates that the cost to the country is NOK4 billion (US$490 million).

The commitment to house foreign students relates to the demand of UDI, the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration, that international students have a housing contract before they enter the country.

But Borten Moe said it is “not feasible for Norwegian taxpayers to pay for the whole world to come to Norway”.

Norway provides tuition-free study to foreign students, and the 25,000 Norwegian students studying abroad are heavily supported by the government but nevertheless on average return with a debt of NOK500,000 (US$61,000) in study loans because of the cost of tuition fees.

Foreign students interviewed by the programme said their main reason for choosing Norway is the lack of tuition fees. When Sweden introduced tuition fees for foreign students from outside Europe, the number of foreign students in Sweden dropped by 79%, NRK reported.

Analysis provided by the television programme said that while around 23,000 foreign students are studying in Norway, there are, according to the National Union of Students in Norway, only 37,651 student rooms, which only leaves 14,491 student rooms for more than 200,000 full-time Norwegian students.

NRK asked Minister of Education and Research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen if the government would again look into introducing tuition fees in Norway, despite such a move being blocked by a majority of MPs two years ago.

‘Factual errors’

But the rector of the University of Oslo, Ole Petter Ottersen, disputed the statistics used by the broadcaster and accused NRK of using “frightening rhetoric” and “factual errors”.

On his blog, Ole Petter Ottersen said that 39% and not 70% of student rooms in Oslo are taken up by foreign students. “NRK is building up scepticism against international students,” he said.

However, he was attacked on social media by conservative-liberal magazine Minerva, whose editor, Nils August Andresen, published an article with the title: “Dishonest rector: A university should produce knowledge, not ideology.”

Solvang and Andresen refer to the fact that while foreign students are allocated rooms at two points during the year, Norwegian students are allocated rooms over the year as they become vacant. In August this year seven out of 10 rooms in Oslo were allocated to foreign students.

Far-right groups say the situation is a form of ‘educational apartheid’ in which international students get a housing guarantee while most Norwegian students have to turn to the private, and often very expensive, housing market.

But Marianne Andenaes, head of the National Union of Students in Norway, representing 230,000 students, told University World News that the real issue is the lack of student housing.

“NRK and the Centre Party are identifying the wrong suspects. They are painting a picture of international students coming to take something they do not deserve, taking it from Norwegians. And Ola Borten Moe is calling for tuition fees [for foreign students],” Andenaes said.

“But he should stop pointing his finger at international students and take criticism for having neglected the student housing issue for a long time as a member of parliament.”

Meanwhile, Professor Anders Breidlid of Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences has called on the college to establish a grant programme for “students from the global South” because the Norwegian Quota Programme, accepting 1,100 students from developing countries with a grant to study in Norway, was scrapped in 2016. This led to the number of African students being reduced from 2,212 in 2015 to 2,057, or a 7.3% reduction, Breidlid said.