Minister moots mandatory study abroad for students

Norway’s Minister of Research and Higher Education, Iselin Nybø, is considering making a student exchange period abroad mandatory rather than the exception it is today.

She made the suggestion in an interview with Khrono when confronted with statistics showing that 2.65% of Norwegian students went on student exchanges abroad in 2010 but by 2017 this had fallen to 2.5%.

The falling proportion is a source of frustration for a government that is not only committed to the Bologna Process goal of 20% of students spending at least three months of their studies in another country, but that last year in a government White Paper set a longer-term goal of 50%.

The Eurostat VI database (2016) found that two-thirds of Norwegian students had no plans to go abroad during their studies, with the majority reporting economic reasons and the lack of options to work alongside their studies when abroad as their main reason for not planning a study abroad period.

Only 12.1% of bachelor degree candidates completing their degree in 2015 and 2016 had been abroad during their studies, while for those completing a masters degree the figure was 16.3%.

Those average numbers, however, mask a significant variation between the 38 public and private higher education institutions providing data in 2016. Of these, 61.4% of students completing bachelor degrees at the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH) had been abroad, compared to 31.4% at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design and 31.2% at the University of Bergen. Seven out of the 38 institutions had fewer than 10% of students going abroad during their studies.

Mixed response

The minister’s comment provoked a mixed response from students and teachers. Lecturer Irina Pavlova of the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, in an op-ed article in Khrono, the research magazine for Oslo and Akershus University College, on 27 August said the government’s goals for exchanges are demanding too much of students. "Stop the internationalisation hysteria – I will not be on board!"

The National Union of Students in Norway (NSO) addressed the issue in their meeting on 3 September, passing a resolution on how to improve the toolkit needed to make student exchanges easier for students to undertake.

The resolution, drafted by NSO executive committee members Stian S Magelssen and Stein Olav Romslo, calls for an "opt-out mechanism" for student exchanges first proposed by former minister of education and research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen in 2015.

The resolution calls on universities to do more to lower the threshold for participating in a student exchange programme by making such an exchange an integrated part of all study programmes, with a simple opt-out mechanism, instead of, as the situation is today, where many students have to find an option for a study exchange themselves.

"Active opting-out is the tool we need for increased study exchanges. This is not a mechanism to force students to go out, but to force the institutions to make it possible for those who want to go abroad to do so," they argued.

"Today most Norwegian higher education institutions have good ambitions, but none are good enough at fulfilling them. In many cases they even advise against going abroad. This is done both directly and indirectly," Magelssen and Romslo wrote in a background document on the resolution.

"An institutional attitude change in the whole sector is needed and a new framework for exchanges must be seen as a key and not a lock. We want a system where the students have to opt-out of student exchanges, instead of having to apply for such a study period abroad," they said.

The NSO resolution was passed on the same day as the opening of the new Norwegian Agency for International Cooperation and Quality Enhancement in Higher Education – or DIKU – a new directorate with 120 staff and with offices in Bergen and Tromsø.

Vice-rector for Education at University of Bergen, Professor Oddrun Samdal, told Khrono that the University of Bergen fully supports the proposal of an opt-out mechanism. She said no future workers will have daily work free from international influences and that the University of Bergen has an ambition for 40% of their students to undertake study abroad by 2022.