Students demand crisis support in grants not loans

The government of Norway has partially backed down on proposals to provide a student support package only as a loan.

Norwegian students were angry that the proposed government support package for students who, due to the current coronavirus pandemic, have been laid off from part-time jobs they do alongside their studies was to be provided only as a loan and not as a grant.

Minister of Research and Higher Education Henrik Asheim said on Thursday 26 March that under a support package to help students through the coronavirus crisis, they will now be paid out the last three months’ instalments of their study loan immediately (NOK27,000 or US$2,500) and an additional loan of NOK26,000 will be offered to those who have lost their part-time jobs due to lay-offs.

Student representatives said this was discrimination since the other approximately 300,000 laid-off workers will be supported by the welfare system.

Following student anger over the loan-based support package, the opposition parties and the government agreed on 30 March to ask the government to propose an allocation of NOK1 billion (US$97 million) to convert to a grant the extra loans obtained by students able to document a loss of income.

This means that between 30% and 40% of the extra loan of NOK26,000 allocated to students extraordinarily to cover income loss due to losing their part-time job because of the coronavirus crisis will be given as a grant.

On 20 March the Norwegian parliament had agreed to ask the government to return “as soon as possible” with a temporary arrangement through the Norwegian State Educational Loan Fund (Lånekassen) for students who are experiencing a loss of income as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement, Minister Asheim said: “Students will have grants and loans for the rest of the study year paid out, together with the payment from April. For most students that is NOK27,550. In addition, those who have lost their work income due to the coronavirus crisis will have the opportunity to take up an extra loan of NOK26,000 under the favourable conditions set by the Norwegian State Educational Loan Fund.

“These measures will give the students extra money quickly. As with other citizens the student economy will be hit by the pandemic. They have the student support but, as I understand, for many this is not sufficient to cover the basic expenses. This has created insecurity for many, and I am glad that we now had found a solution that will help students who have lost an important side income,” Asheim said.

But the National Union of Students in Norway together with Universities Norway (UHR), the Association of Norwegian Students Abroad (ANSA) and seven youth political party organisations sent an open letter on 25 March to the Ministry of Education and Research stating that support for Norwegian students losing income as a result of the pandemic must take the form of a grant and must be sufficient to cover the basic expenses that students incur.

In total the letter was supported by 23 organisations.

“In line with other workers who now are losing their income, we expect a support arrangement and not a loan arrangement for those who are now losing their income,” the letter said.

International students left out

In a statement from the International Students’ Union of Norway (ISU) on 27 March, ISU President Amine Fquihi and two other students who have been proposed as ISU international representatives, Fahad Said and Trym Nikolas Rimmen, said that it was “very positive that the government is providing assistance to students” as, due to the COVID-19 virus, international students in Norway face major financial challenges.

But the Ministry of Education and Research had failed to answer questions from international students seeking clarification as to whether the crisis packages apply to them as well, they said.

“No information has yet come about this, and we require that international students know what applies to them and how the current situation will affect them, instead of wondering what future they have in this country,” the trio said.

“It is difficult to defend this differential treatment of different student groups. The despair that international students in Norway feel today is strong enough to be almost tangible.”

Norwegian students have been granted a certain guarantee, with an extended deadline for applying for scholarships and loans with the state educational loan fund (Lånekassen) until 15 April. This was because students were not included in the crisis package for other workers adopted by parliament last week.

But international students have been “left without protection, regardless of whether they belong to an EEA [European Economic Area] country or not. Solutions for this group are also needed”, the trio said.

An additional problem is that the Student Welfare Organisation, which hires out student accommodation, also demands an up-front guarantee of rent from international students, and with no money in their account it is difficult for them to find a place to live. Students these days receive reminders to pay rent, electricity and other bills.

“This situation leads to a high level of stress among international students, as they are uncertain about whether they will be able to support all this, and at the same time concentrate on [their] studies… when studies are now taking place at home due to schools being closed.

“As the prime minister mentioned when the coronavirus crisis began, it is important that we take care of each other. International students who have part-time jobs pay taxes to the state and contribute to society in the same way as Norwegian students, and thus must also be taken care of,” Fquihi, Said and Rimmen said.

Parliament to decide

Marte Øien, president of the National Union of Students in Norway, told Universitas, the student newspaper: “It is chilling that the government is proposing to treat students in another way than other workers in our society. This is not durable.” She told University World News that 36 organisations are now supporting the open letter, including the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO), with almost one million members.

Christen Andreas Wroldsen, head of the student parliament at the University of Oslo, told Universitas: “I am disappointed over this ‘crisis package’. More loan [debt] is the last thing students need.”

However, Minister Asheim said that an extra loan at NOK26,000 is not a great problem. “This loan will mean NOK145 [US$14] more to pay back per month later. Paying the rent, covering the basic costs and to have the examinations arranged in the spring are the major priorities for the government now,” he said.

The package was due to be examined by the parliamentary committee for education on 31 March and in parliament on 1 April. Torstein Tvedt Solberg, representing the Labour Party on the education committee, said that the questions about support for Norwegian students abroad and international students in Norway in need have to be addressed in the crisis package.

Nina Sandberg, Labour Party spokesperson for higher education on the parliamentary education committee, told University World News that she cannot comment on the ongoing negotiations but that they are in dialogue with the sector and that they appreciate all input in this process.

Hanna Flood, president of the Association of Norwegian Students Abroad, told University World News: “For Norwegian students abroad the coronavirus crisis has hit hard. The Norwegian krone has been heavily depreciated, which comes in addition to having had a weak position over the last months. This has led to many students having much higher expenses compared to before, which makes the future uncertain for those who now cannot afford the rent, electricity, food, etc.

“In addition, the unemployment level is at a record high due to lay-offs, which also is affecting the students.”

Students abroad do not have the same option to work alongside their studies, since if they did that they would lose their right to claim Norwegian National Insurance, covering illness, Flood said.

“Many of them are now being hit hard in the situation we are facing, and we therefore are hoping for a crisis package from the government that can help out. Without such assistance, we fear that students will have to terminate their studies and go home.”

* Meanwhile, the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) and the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO) have written a letter to the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Torbjørn Røe Isaksen demanding that laid-off workers are given the right to study at universities and other higher education institutions in order to improve their competence while they are receiving welfare support. Today this is not possible since, if they register as a student, they have to transfer to the Norwegian State Educational Loan Fund for funding.