Call for reform of admissions for international students

Norway should introduce a centrally coordinated national admission system for international graduate students, a government-commissioned report has recommended.

Mandated by the Ministry of Education and Research, the Norwegian Centre for International Cooperation in Education or SIU has investigated the admission of international masters students to Norwegian higher education institutions.

The report, More or Better?, calls for a “more strategic recruitment of international degree students to Norway”, replacing the current system, in which each university and university college selects the students themselves, with a centrally coordinated system.

Since 2014 the government’s long-term objective has been to “attract the most talented students in the world”.

In 2016 the parliamentary education committee urged the government “to work out a strategy for how Norway can attract more international students at masters degree level”.

A government white paper of 2017 said that Norway – which does not charge tuition fees for students from outside the country – has a large number of requests for studies, notably for masters degree courses taught in English.

But the main finding of the new report is that the recruitment process lacks a systematic approach on a national level when it comes to recruitment of international graduate students to Norway.

“This is no surprise when we know that Norwegian educational policy focuses on promoting exchange through institutional cooperation, rather than on recruiting individual students,” the report found.

“At the same time, if international students are to contribute to enhanced quality in Norwegian education, not merely filling available places on a study programme, the lack of political will to form a recruitment policy is problematic,” the report argued.

Analysing the statistics for 2014-17, the report found that:
  • • International graduate students account for 3.24% of the total number of students.

  • • In 2017, a total of 8,644 international students registered at Norwegian higher education institutions, a drop of 13% from 2015.

  • • Six out of 10 are from outside the European Union or European Economic Area (EU/EEA).
The pattern of recruitment over time has varied from one source country to another and between institutions.

In 2017, 49% of the international degree students came from Europe, 10% from Africa, 32% from Asia, 7.8% from North and South America and 0.6% from Oceania.

The number of students coming from Africa fell by 250 to 919 from 2014 to 2017. In the same period, the total number of students recruited under the Quota Scheme – in which higher education institutions competed with each other, applying for a share of the international student quota – dropped by 700.

Three of the source countries with the highest relative reduction of student numbers from 2014 are the Panorama programme countries, China, India and Russia, prioritised by the government. In this programme, funded by the government, institutions compete and students can be recruited or exchanged.

The highest relative reduction in sending international students to Norway was experienced by Russia (-43%), Lithuania (-42%), Iran (-30%), India (-28%) and China (-26%), while there was an increase reported from Ireland (+75%), the Netherlands (+69%), the Philippines (+56%), Nigeria (+55%), Hungary (+50%) and the United States (+41%).

While the average national intake of international degree students as a percentage of total students was 3.2%, some institutions had significantly higher rates. The highest was at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (8.6%), the University of Oslo (5.7%), the University of Stavanger (5.3%), the University of Bergen (4.3%) and University of Tromsø (3.9%).

Recruitment is a ‘demanding process’

One finding reported is that recruitment of international students is demanding, especially if the focus is on attracting the best applicants.

“While a high number of applications from international students is emphasised as a strength in the Norwegian government’s white paper on quality in higher education, this report concludes that a high number of applications is not only positive. Most of the institutions we have spoken to find the handling of the many applications very demanding,” SIU stated in the report.

“Furthermore, we see that Norwegian higher education institutions have problems maintaining the applicants’ interest throughout the application process. It is evident from our interviews with the institutions that Norway should prepare better to manage the interest in Norway as a study destination,” the report said.

One of the respondents in a survey undertaken as a part of the report said: “It is not a problem having many applications. But [ensuring we] have good applications is.”

Impact of visa demands

The report says that for Norwegian institutions, recruiting students from the EU/EEA is fundamentally different from recruiting students from outside this area. The current system makes it far easier for European degree students to come to Norway.

The most important difference is the visa demand for all students from outside the EU/EEA. This implies that the process from application to the start of study takes longer, and that there are financial demands that may be difficult to fulfil.

European students have easy access to higher education in Norway, and in general they adapt easier to life on and off campus. Still, the number of European students coming to Norway to study is outnumbered by students from other parts of the world.

“If the government wishes to assist the institutions in recruiting more European students, there is a need for concrete measures,” the report concludes.

The report has collected comparative information on international recruitment from Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Sweden.

SIU hence wants to discuss the overarching political goals for recruiting international masters degree students and is calling for a nationally coordinated admission system for attracting the most talented among internationally mobile students. This would release resources that today are used for screening students, the report suggests.

A precondition for achieving more strategic recruitment of international degree students is political will, the report concludes. “A more active policy in neighbouring countries to Norway means there is increased competition over international students. It is unrealistic to recruit the best students without a distinct policy in this area,” the report concludes.

Interactive tool for institutions

SIU has also developed a very interesting tool to help institutions plan their recruitment of students from other countries.

By using the included map of all major countries in the world and using a pointer and several filters for country, level of study, higher education institutions and time period, readers can quickly check how many Norwegian students have studied in the country selected and how many students from that country have come to Norway to study.

The filters allow for breakdown into institutions, time periods, level of studies and which programme has funded the students exchanged.

Professor Mari Sundli Tveit, chair of the Norwegian Association of Higher Education Institutions and rector of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, told University World News the current admission procedures are both challenging and time consuming.

Her own university is actively engaged in making itself an attractive study destination for the most talented students internationally but “would save time and resources if there was a better national coordination of the admission of international applicants to Norwegian higher education institutions”.

Agneta Bladh, the special investigator on higher education internationalisation for 2017-18 in neighbouring Sweden, commenting on the report, told University World News that Sweden has national coordination of applications, assisted by a virtual organisation of people from the institutions.

“I believe you get the most talented students if a competitive situation is in place. This depends on the demand and supply relation for each programme.”

She said most educational offers in Sweden are on masters level and the country has more incoming students from the EU/EEA, though student numbers from outside Europe are increasing.