MPs endorse target of 50% of students studying abroad

Members of parliament have endorsed the strategic goal of ensuring that 50% of Norwegians have had a stay abroad upon graduation and that student exchanges are worked into all courses, with students having to opt out if they do not want to participate.

But they have asked the government to come back to parliament on proposals for improving study abroad opportunities for students with special needs, following a parliamentary debate on how to increase internationalisation of higher education.

They have also asked the government to amend the bill to ensure Norwegian students abroad can take part-time jobs abroad without disqualifying them from receiving Norwegian governmental welfare insurance, which is a problem they face currently.

In the debate, held on 26 February, it was decided to ask the government to secure good funding mechanisms for study abroad periods to allow for equal opportunity for students, not dependent on socio-economic background, to attend highly ranked universities.

Parliament asked the government to work out easy, quick and more predictable recognition procedures for higher education and skills taken abroad.

Great challenges

Educational spokesperson for the Labour Party, Nina Sandberg, who was chair of the committee preparing the recommended amendments to the white paper presented by the Conservative-led Coalition government to parliament, said that the challenges for student exchanges are great and that they have become larger during the coronavirus crisis.

Too few Norwegian students go abroad and the proportion, 16%, is far below the target of 20% that Norway has committed itself to in the Bologna Process.

The pandemic has created problems for international students, and it is a wide expectation that it will reduce student mobility in the years ahead.

“The Labour Party has over and over asked for more effective efforts by the government. This white paper has good intentions, but it is far from sufficient in meeting the challenges,” Sandberg said.

“Also, we find it problematic that the government is placing the responsibility so one-sidedly on the higher education institutions for the cultural change that is needed by the students; the institutions cannot be the sole answer to this.”

She said practical problems, little support and assistance, and high costs have prevented students from going abroad even before the pandemic.

“Now Norwegian universities and university colleges are facing huge change processes with a reduced action space as a consequence of several yearly budget cuts. We will need a common national effort and more potent instruments if we are to reach the national goals,” she said.

The Labour Party opposed the proposal by the Conservative Party to scrap the principle of free education with no tuition fees for international students.

Progress Party opposes goal

Roy Steffensen from the Progress Party, who is also chairman of the education committee, said that his party was standing alone in not wanting to set the fixed target of 50% of students studying abroad.

“And we stand alone for not wanting to endorse the goal of balancing the number of students going out with those coming in. It is not correct that we are standing together with the Conservative Party in wanting to introduce tuition fees for international students.

“We also are in the minority with regard to our proposal of not wanting to give foreign students advantages in access to student housing and we stand alone in demanding a closer collaboration and more formalised collaboration between the security police PST and academia,” Steffensen said.

He said Norway is currently spending NOK3.3 billion (US$388 million) on international students and the increase from 16% to 50% studying abroad will lead to huge extra costs on Norwegian taxpayers.

He argued that if you take into account factors such as the unfavourable climate, a language that can only be understood in Scandinavia and the fact that only a few Norwegian universities score highly in international rankings and then look at the source countries with most degree students in Norway today – China, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Syria, Nepal, India and Iran – it is clear that the “greatest bait” Norway has for drawing international students is the free tuition.

“We think that this is wrong. International students ought to come to Norway because of the quality of the education, not because it is free. It is fair that foreign students should have to pay when Norwegian students have to pay in their countries,” Steffensen said.

He also warned against recommendations for stronger collaboration with some countries where Norway does not have a security policy collaboration and PST has warned of a security threat, for instance, China and Russia.

Integrate internationalisation

But Minister of Research and Higher Education Henrik Asheim (Conservative Party) said that with Norway, as a small economy, being dependent on trade with the rest of the world, with the European Union as its main trading partner, but also China and the United States being important, it is a “paradox” that Norwegian students do not look to the wider world when they seek higher education.

He said the objective of the white paper was to become “more international”.

“We are going to think more strategically on where our student go to study and which countries we attract students from.

“First, we are going to have clear expectations of our universities and university colleges. They have to integrate internationalisation in all their work.

“Second, we have to make it easier to go abroad. Higher education institutions have to organise their courses in a way that makes it easy for the student to see when it fits to go abroad. And we want to make exchanges standard in all education so that you have to opt out instead of applying for a place.

“Third, we want to change the students’ financial support so that more students travel to prioritised countries.”

He said currently the choice of which countries Norwegian students go to is too random and it does not reflect Norwegian priorities either in terms of skills needed or business interests. “And too few go to non-English speaking countries.”

He said the fourth aim was also to provide financial rewards for shorter duration study periods abroad, which are particularly important for professional degrees, where today there are too few exchanges.

And fifth, the country must be more strategic in deciding from which countries to attract international students.

Asheim said: “Today it is too randomly decided where international students are coming to Norway from. Other countries are attracting skilled personnel from abroad and we will now establish a working group that shall work out recommendations on how Norway should profile itself as a knowledge nation and which international students we want to attract.”

“Through the Bologna Process we have committed to having had 20% of our students on study exchanges. We want to set a higher goal – which is very ambitious – that 50% go abroad,” Asheim said.