Fees for international students put on election agenda

Minister of Education and Research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen said the Conservative Party will include a proposal to introduce “moderate tuition fees” for students from outside the European Economic Area, or EEA, in its party manifesto for the general election this autumn.

He was speaking at an annual Conservative Party meeting last weekend in his capacity as leader of the programme committee preparing for the upcoming general election.

At the same time, several party spokespersons including the Prime Minister Erna Solberg, claimed the proposal did not break the principle of free education.

Kristin Vinje, spokesperson for the Conservative Party, said at a conference recently that the party is “working for Norwegian students who are accepted at elite institutions abroad, like Harvard”, and that the income from tuition-paying international students from outside Europe shall be used for this purpose.

The announcement follows a majority decision of the programme committee of the Centre Party – the old agrarians – to support the introduction of tuition fees for non-EEA students, in line with the statement of the deputy chair of the party, Ola Borten Moe, who told Norwegian broadcaster NRK in January: “Norwegian students have to pay tuition fees when studying abroad and it is therefore natural that foreign students have to pay for tuition in Norway.”

Previously, Borten Moe said it was “not feasible for Norwegian taxpayers to pay for the whole world to come to Norway”, as reported by University World News.

In two weeks’ time, the party will vote on the proposal, despite much resistance at grassroots level.

They could be joined by a third party supporting the policy. At a recent discussion meeting where the Centre Party and the Conservative Party both said they were supporting the introduction of tuition fees for non-EEA students, the representative for the Progress Party – presently in the government – also said that they supported this view.

Christian Anton Smedshaug, a member of the programme committee of the Centre Party, wrote in the student newspaper Universitas: “Norway is now almost alone in having a tuition-free education for an unlimited number of students from all over the world.”

He said the growth in the number of foreign students is high, totalling 25,000 students, compared to 10,000 ten years ago.

“This is expensive. On average a study place costs NOK200,000 [US$23,600]. The cost of foreign students hence is close to NOK5 billion [US$590 million] or 13% of the total budget for higher education.

“It is therefore necessary to bring the Norwegian system on a par with that of our neighbouring countries, like Denmark, introducing tuition fees [for non-EEA students] in 2006, Sweden in 2011 and Finland in 2016,” Smedshaug argued.

Students protest

But Marianne Andenæs, chair of the National Union of Students in Norway, told University World News: “The argument that is now mostly used for introducing tuition fees is that ‘everybody is doing it’. This is not in itself a good argument. Neither the Conservative Party nor the Centre Party have listened to the serious arguments against tuition fees, and what Norway in fact will lose by doing it.”

She said Norway will not become better by closing higher education inside a “payment fence”.

“We will lose perspectives and qualifications will become less important, while it will be the size of your wallet that will decide [access].”

She said the debate has not focused on whether it is wise for Norwegian higher education institutions in terms of ensuring quality of intake or economically.

She argued that the calculations by the Centre Party are incorrect because 60% of international students in Norway are from countries in the European Economic Area, who are secured tuition-free study rights through the EEA agreement.

“In Sweden, the introduction of tuition fees led to universities having to set up bureaucracies to handle admissions, money and recruitment campaigns – and also Sweden had to set up grant schemes for a majority of the fee-paying students, which was much more costly than the tuition fees brought in,” Andenæs argued.

University leaders criticise the move

Some university rectors have heavily criticised the move.

Professor Anne Christine Johannessen, vice-rector for internationalisation at the University of Bergen, told University World News: “The principle of free higher education has to be kept in force, regardless of where the students are coming from. The grant options for students from outside the EEA are few, and the introduction of tuition fees will lead to a further weakening of the economic position of this group of international students.”

Professor Curt Rice, rector of Oslo and Akershus University College, said he thinks it is unwise to introduce tuition fees since international students are of great value for Norwegian institutions as they bring international perspectives into the classroom.

Professor Gunnar Bovim, rector of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology or NTNU, said in an open letter in the university newspaper Universitetsavisa (in Norwegian and English): “Tuition fees do not contribute to greater internationalisation. If they become a reality, we only risk ending up with a less exciting, less diverse, less international study environment. We also risk losing talents that, with time, can provide valuable contributions to research. We cannot afford this!”

He said: “As one of the world’s richest nations, in solidarity, we also have a global responsibility for the development of knowledge. That is a level of generosity we can afford: the principle of free tuition in Norwegian education is not reserved for those of our students who are born in our privileged part of the world. This is a question of values. It is a question of knowledge for a better world.”